Giving Great Media Interviews: Advanced techniques

Beware of potential interview pitfalls

Journalists are looking for the “real” story.  They know people come prepared with talking points.  Even if they are not hostile, they want to do their job and get to the truth of a story. To help find the “real” story, journalists may:

  • Stay silent between questions, hoping you will make unguarded comments;
  • Be overly informal, hoping that you’ll slip them insider information;
  • Attempt to get the real story by telling you you’re “off the record” (though some reporters do respect this, be wary of this and be cautious of what information you give out);
  • Introduce outrageous arguments against you to provoke a strong reaction (even ally journalists may do this);
  • Ask increasingly provocative questions to fluster you and get you to speak more dramatically, out of anger, or in a more combative manner than might be your goal (“how do you know climate change is real?”… “isn’t the science unclear?”).

The answer to these most common pitfalls: stay on message and be relaxed.  Here is some advice to help you do that, including strategies we can use to advance our message.

How to stay on message with tricky questions

Here are some examples from an interview with Canadian activist Brigette DePape. Two protesters had taken the stage from the Prime Minister, armed with signs. On live TV they decried his support of tar sands pipelines and were forcibly escorted off-stage. 

The follow-up TV interview had a clear angle. Over the faces of the reporter asking questions, the television programme flashed: “Is Security around the PM too lax, too stringent, just right?”  The reporter asks a set-up question: “Are you surprised that people disguised as wait staff got this close to the PM?”

How to respond?

First, don’t repeat the premise of the question and make it about security and disguises.  Don’t answer within the box they just set for you. They have “framed” the issue — and you don’t want to reinforce unhelpful frames. You want to be in a different frame.

This includes not feeling obligated to accept unfamiliar facts or figures. Use your time to set the record straight or present facts. It’s almost always a danger to answer hypothetical questions—avoid them by stating your general position and then offering your own example.

One strategy is to pivot away from these questions — trying to move past the question to shift back to your message.  A technique to help you think through these moments is the ABC’s:

  1. Acknowledge the question
  2. Bridge
  3. Content (the message)

The interview proceeds, and here’s how Brigette gets back on message:

Brigette: Yeah, I’m extremely inspired by these amazing young people who took this bold action. They wore the necessary garb to get into the hotel (Acknowledge) in order to protest Harper being here and the Conservative’s [government] complete inaction on Climate change. (Bridge)  Hundreds of thousands of people are dying and being displaced because of climate change.  Especially in developing countries and indigenous communities, and yet they are the least responsible for climate change (Content)

Interviewer: (interrupts) Sorry, and I want to get to that. And I will. And I’m going to ask you to clarify this quickly.  When you say hundreds and thousands of people are dying from climate change, what do you mean by that?

Brigette: That’s because of extreme weather events, like the typhoon in the Philippines. Tens of thousands of people died in the flooding. We are also seeing about how these extreme weather events are becoming more and more common, this is because of human-induced climate change. So when Harper is promoting this pipeline, it is very irresponsible because we know that it would be transporting tar sands oil which is emitting greenhouse gas emissions that is contributing to climate change.

This whole interview shows the “battle of story.” Brigette keeps pivoting away from the framing of “security” and gets the reporter, at least for one question, into the frame of “climate change.”  During the interview, the reporter repeatedly tries to reassert the “security” frame, but the ABC techniques keep you on your own message.

Other examples of bridge language:

  • “That is an issue but what the public are most concerned about is …”
  • “Some say that but what our research shows is…”
  • “Yes, that debate will run and run, and today we are focussed on”
  • “I agree that needs answering and I will in a moment, but first I would just like to say …”
  • “That is an issue but the important thing to focus on …”
  • “Well I think the three main things to focus on are…”
  • “That’s a possibility but what we’re calling for is …”
  • “That’s one view but we need to look at how this fits into the bigger picture…”

This technique needs to be practiced.  It’s not a normal way to talk — but interviews are nothing like normal conversations. While rude in the course of a normal conversation, the ABC technique can sound normal in a media interview.

This technique isn’t only for tough questions.  Rarely will journalists ask you the question you want to answer.  As one media trainer explains: “If you are asked nine questions and only one naturally leads to your points, and you answer them directly, the other eight answers will dominate and the audience won’t remember your points at all. If you manage to repeat them nine times, they probably will get at least one of them. Bridges are verbal invitations to yourself to make your points.”

After getting on message, make it strong

Once you pivot, you get to deliver your message. Some groups make lists of “Talking points” to help them think about messaging. However, “Talking points” too often become a list of facts, or arguments. This is not a message.

Our message is an answer to a problem — it’s a call for new behaviors (from regular people, government agencies, or businesses).  A list of arguments isn’t enough.

It isn’t enough to just explain what we are doing. Often in creative actions interviewers want to focus on the exciting thing we did, as opposed to why we took that action. But what moves the audience isn’t knowing the details of how we carried out a risky action (even if it’s interesting to us and our friends!), but rather what motivated us to do — and why should they care.

Our goal is to mobilise people to action.  A helpful way to structure that message is by thinking of it as a story, where people can be part of fixing the problem.

Structure your story:

  1. Problem
  2. Solution
  3. Action

Here are examples of that structure from 350 Communications Director Jamie Henn, from a recent report showing the speed of climate change:

This report takes the carbon math into the hot, dangerous present (Problem).  [It] arms activists with a clear set of facts that they can use to oppose new fossil fuel projects across the board (Solution). Any new pipeline, any new gas plant, all of these projects have become a frontline in the climate fight. (Action)

Or calling out Exxon for ignoring its own data showing that it was contributing to climate change:

Back in the 1990s, politicians on both sides of the aisle swore off campaign contributions from big tobacco because the industry lied to the American people about the damage it was causing to public health.  [Oil, coal, and gas companies] have consistently misled the public about the dangers associated with their product (Problem), and this time it’s the whole planet that’s at stake. You can’t be serious about addressing climate change (Solution) and still accept checks from ExxonMobil (Action).

Put together in tight, dynamic sentences, the message is not a recitation of facts, but the moving of an argument, and creates motion towards change.

Staying relaxed

Finally, every person has their own style and rhythm when giving interviews. You need to develop your own voice.  

Some reminders from 350 organisers to help you find your own voice:

  • If you make a mistake or hesitate, take a deep breath and regain control. One 350 organiser explains: “Sometimes I’ll start a sentence and realise I don’t know how to finish it. If I’m not live on TV, I’ll just stop the sentence — and then go back to my core message. No reporter wants to quote a half-sentence, so if I don’t finish it, I get another chance!”
  • Save your best lines to make them sound natural.  “I was on live TV debating our opponent. We had prepared an honest line that we knew would provoke them.  But I didn’t want it to sound unnatural, so I waited until I found a time so it sounded like it came out naturally. I find that’s important with reporters, too. They won’t quote me if it sounds like a soundbite — they want it if it sounds like my authentic voice, too.”
  • Personalise your message. Where appropriate, relate personal experiences or illustrations of your work to support statements. Use analogies to simplify and dramatize your main points. “Leave the wonky lingo for the halls of Congress; emotions win supporters and volunteers over facts every time. Use a personal touch as a part of every quote and quip.” Some examples: As a mother of a child with asthma, clean air is hugely important to my family. OR As a nature-lover, the ability to enjoy the outdoors is important to me—that’s why I want to see laws in place to protect our environment against climate change.
  • Name your opponents and targets. Don’t be afraid to call people out. “As a mother of a child with asthma, clean air is hugely important to my family. The government’s decision to endorse the coal plant was unacceptable, and it put their rich friends before the health of my family.”
  • If you have a legitimate reason for withholding certain information then politely say it’s confidential or proprietary. Never say “no comment.”
  • They’re interviewing you — so stay honest. “For a while I felt like I’m speaking on behalf of the campaign, and I am. But it’s also just my own voice. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll admit it freely, even if I know others in the campaign do. I don’t need to guess. If I’m talking to a print journalist, I’ll offer to get back to them when I have the information they need.”
  • Slow down. Especially on live interviews, the tendency can be to speed up. Slow yourself down. Breathe.
  • And practice, practice, practice.  “When I’m preparing for an interview, I develop a short list of key talking points I want to make sure to get across. Then I develop a list of questions I may be asked (including basics, friendly, unfriendly), think about the best way to answer them that keeps hitting on those key talking points, but also identifying any key phrases, pivots, facts I want to impart, tone. Then I ask my partner to ask me those questions (and any he comes up with on his own, or follow up questions) over and over again until I can answer them comfortably and naturally, but ensuring I’m hitting the talking points, using the best arguments I can and the best tone.”

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