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Chapter 19: How to Handle the Media Like a Pro


Consider the press. Treat it with tact and courtesy. It will accept much from you if you are clever enough to win it to your side.... Coax it, charm it, interest it, stimulate it, shock it now and then if you must, make it laugh, make it cry, but above all...never, never bore the living hell out of it.

- Noel Coward

Although a question-and-answer session with an audience inspires a fair share of fear, that fear pales when compared with the anxiety caused by facing the media. Yet business speakers are increasingly faced with - and increasingly surprised by - press interest in what they have to say. It's quite possible that the media may want to interview you after you have delivered an important speech. Take these interviews with the press or television reporters seriously. To make a good impression in an interview, you must prepare as carefully as you did when writing your speech.

Unless you're a celebrity, your personality is likely to have little to do with the media's interest. They're after a news story, and if you want to satisfy them and give a good impression, you have to give them that story. Because they are going to write or create a story no matter what you say, you should make it one you want told. And that's where the preparation comes in.

Know Your Objectives Ahead of Time

Before you meet the media, you must decide what your objectives are. What are the main points you want to get across to your interviewers? When you wake up in the morning and read the newspaper, exactly what kind of story about your topic or your company do you want to see?

No matter how well prepared you are, the story is not going to be told entirely from your perspective. And even if your wishes are granted, your story may be presented in a way that alters the public's perception of you in ways you had not planned. Here's an example: A visiting bishop came to a large city to deliver a speech at a banquet. Because he wanted to use some of the same stories at a meeting he was attending the next day, he asked reporters present at the banquet not to print the stories in their accounts of his talk. One newspaper reporter, commenting on the speech, concluded his article by writing: "and the bishop told a lot of stories that cannot be published."

What lesson can you learn from the bishop? If you're talking to the press, make sure you pick out the main points you want to get across and that the interviewer picks them up and isn't sidetracked by a colorful aspect of your talk that you are trying to downplay. For example, if you're being interviewed about a new product, decide ahead of time what product benefits you want to get across. Make those benefits crystal clear in your mind and focus on them throughout your interview. Don't allow yourself to be sidetracked from your objectives, no matter how dogged the interviewer is.

Make sure your points will be of interest to the public at large. Newspapers, television, and radio are public forums, and reporters know their news stories must relate to current public interests.

Pre-interview Essentials

Preparation is even more important when facing an interview than it is when you have to give a speech. Although it's possible to toss off an impromptu speech that isn't half bad, it's extremely difficult to go into an interview unprepared and avoid saying something you will regret later. Here are some of the basics to which professional spokespeople always attend before going "live":

Fine Points

Certain people make great guests and others just seem to fizzle. The successful ones tend to have learned well the following rules of interviewing:

  1. Be enthusiastic. Bring some passion for your subject to the interview; you're there for a reason, and it's to communicate. Without some passion and conviction on your part, you'll bore the interviewer and the audience as well.

  2. Don't give yes or no answers. This is one time when you should not be succinct. Answers need to be amplified for the sake of the interviewer, who is trying to create an interesting show or article. Also, you won't even begin to get your objective across if you depend on the interviewer to ask the perfect question; sometimes you have to lead him or her to that question by amplifying a point from a previous one.

  3. Personalize your language; pretend you are speaking to a friend, and avoid technical words or other jargon. Make the interview an extended conversation, not a stiff recitation of facts.

  4. Don't bring facts about your competitors or other extraneous information into the conversation. Most interviews are brief, and you should stick to your own story as best you can.

  5. Use you. You are there because presumably you have information deemed to be of interest to the general public. Let them know it. Involve them by using the word you as often as possible.

  6. If the interviewer makes an error or says something you feel is incorrect or not true, correct it right away so misconceptions don't linger. If you don't correct a misstatement or charge that you feel is untrue, it is tantamount to agreement, so state your disagreement pleasantly and immediately.

  7. Always say something, no matter how tough the question. The infamous "No comment" is equivalent to a guilty plea.

  8. Write a thank-you note afterward. It is a gracious touch most guests ignore and can pave the way to a return visit.

Three types of media interviews prevail today: television, radio, and print (newspapers and magazines). Each has fine points that go beyond the basics given above.

Techniques for Different Media


Do's and Don'ts for Communicating With Confidence on Television

  1. Get to the studio early to familiarize yourself and get comfortable.

  2. You will usually be brought first to make-up (find out in advance if make-up will be supplied).

  3. From make-up you will be escorted either to the "green room" (waiting room) or escorted directly onto the set.

  4. During this period, drink room temperature water - not coffee - and do deep breathing.

  5. When seated on the set, let the crew place your microphone on you.

  6. Make any requests you have through the floor director who will relay questions or requests to the control room.

  7. Ask the floor director where you should look. If you are the guest, you will probably focus solely on the interviewer.

  8. Ask the floor director which is your close-up camera and what the other cameras are for.

  9. Try to project warmth and animation in your face and in your tone.

  10. Don't psyche yourself out by thinking of all those viewers.

  11. Think of the studio interview as an engaging dialogue shared by one viewer at home.

  12. You could be on camera at all times so watch what you do.

  13. Try not to look at yourself in the monitor. It can destroy your concentration. Ask the floor director if the monitor can be turned away - out of your range of vision.

    When the communication is at one location and you are at another location speaking to the television camera:

  14. Look directly into the camera lens, not at the TV monitor or around the room.

  15. Imagine that the camera lens is the eyes of the interviewer. Adopt a low-key, personable tone.

  16. Keep looking into the lens even when other guests are speaking.

  17. If there are other guests on the air, speak directly to them - not through the interviewer.

  18. Speak as if you were both talking to each other in the same room - don't yell.

  19. Animate your face to project a personable manner.

  20. Try to project a relaxed informal "dialogue" tone.

  21. Make sure the earpiece is snugly fitted. If it falls out, put it back in smoothly and continue.

  22. Don't look away from the camera while the question is asked or another guest is commenting.

  23. If you can't hear the question, politely ask that it be repeated.

Verbal and Non-verbal Communication for Television

Verbal communication:

Focus on projecting that you are:

Stay away from sounding:


Smug, arrogant

Reasonable, open

Hostile, defensive

Relaxed, friendly





Trying too hard to please

Non-verbal communication:


Dress and appearance for men:

Dress and appearance for women:

Dress and appearance for everyone:

Camera Smarts

Here are some tips and techniques to follow if you find yourself reading from a TelePrompTer:

  1. The text scrolls down as you read. Remember that you are in control of the speed. If you slow down, the TelePrompTer operator will slow down to match your pace, and if you speed up, he or she will do the same. Newer models are voice activated (as opposed to hand operated) and are programmed to stay ahead of the speaker, but even these models vary the speed according to your voice.

  2. Picture someone you know standing behind the prompter. That way, even though you'll be looking directly into the camera, you can still "connect" with your audience.

  3. Concentrate on the message, not the words. Pause normally, stop at periods, and practice vocal variation.

  4. Take advantage of the fact that you have your script in front of you. Ask for the words you want to emphasize to be italicized or capitalized. If you are including foreign names or words that are difficult to pronounce, ask to have them spelled out phonetically. Stage directions (such as "pause" or "smile") can also be inserted into a TelePrompTer script.

  5. It's okay to ad-lib - a bit. You can change words and short phrases with no problems. But don't go so far off the script that the TelePrompTer operator gets lost.

  6. Practice, practice, practice. Read your presentation aloud over and over before you have to do it on camera. Ask the director for rehearsal time using the actual studio TelePrompTer (especially if you've never done it before). Practice gesturing and changing your facial expressions as you read. Don't be afraid to pause or move your eyes, head, shoulders, and hands. You want to look as natural as possible - as if you were telling a story, not reading a script.

We've all seen newscasts where the anchor stops talking in the middle of a sentence; it's easy to figure out that the TelePrompTer has stalled or stopped working. Always remember that you're dealing with technology - which means that it's wise to be prepared for any possibility. In 1999, President Clinton began to give his annual State of the Union address to Congress and to millions of television viewers by reading it off the TelePrompTer. As soon as he began, he realized that it was his 1998 State of the Union address that appeared before him.

Luckily, Clinton, quick-thinking and thoroughly prepared, kept right on talking. He ad-libbed the beginning of his address until a technician realized what was going on and corrected the situation. No one watching could tell that anything had gone wrong.

You, too, must be prepared for any technical difficulties that might arise - that means knowing your speech well enough that you could keep going no matter what might happen to the TelePrompTer.


Newspapers and Magazines

How to Stay Cool Under Fire

In most situations, the press is satisfied to get the story you want to tell. Sometimes, however, speakers are controversial, and a press conference becomes an opportunity for reporters to open fire. Here are some proven ways to stand your ground if attacked by those in search of a lively story:

  1. If your credibility is challenged, don't get shaky or defensive. Stick up for yourself and reiterate or reinforce your expertise and authority.

  2. If an interviewer asks you potentially lethal questions, answer in a positive manner and defuse the situation. Recently the president of a new race track was challenged because he was presenting a race with a mul-timillion-dollar purse on the same day as the Preakness. The media were on him like flies, accusing him of using his wealth to ruin the gentlemanly tradition of the sport. The president was a clever and experienced media person. Instead of responding to the notion that he was destroying racing tradition, he talked about all the wonderful things his track was doing for racing and for the public.

    As any politician will tell you, reporters' questions aren't always traps; you can turn them into opportunities. You don't necessarily have to answer the question that was asked; you can turn the question around. You can even ignore it completely and talk about something else, though you should be prepared for attempts to get you back on track. Whatever you do, don't allow yourself to be baited by the questioner, and don't react by losing your temper: Displays of anger never look good the next day in the morning newspaper.

    Listen to the media pros being interviewed on "Nightline" or other "Meet the Press"-type shows. They respond momentarily to the question, then immediately go forward and talk about what they want to talk about.

  3. If your interviewer says something that you don't agree with, don't let it go. Correct the impression right away, because silence signals your agreement.

For most people, a media interview is not treacherous. If you are clear about the points you want to get across, and make sure you have a direct way to say them, you'll be home free.

Professional Projects: Handle the Media like a Pro
  1. You are the spokesperson for a food company that is in the news because it has been accused of adding unhealthy preservatives to its products. You are asked: "When will your company show more concern for the public and stop tampering with our food?" How will you answer this question?

  2. Watch programs such as Meet the Press, Nightline, and Crossfire. Note two excellent examples of handling questions and two answers that could have been improved. Be sure to write out how you would have answered them.

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