Rob Swystun, Pristine Advisers
At some point, every successful CEO is going to have to give an interview. And while some of them are going to think interview = just answering questions, they’re endearingly incorrect. Interviews are the cat-and-mouse game of trying to extract as much news-worthy information as possible (with a focus on the negative) for one person, and accentuating positive news as much as possible while downplaying negative news as much as possible for the other person.
The point is, a lot of CEOs, CFOs and other corporate spokespeople don’t think they need media training, as Sharon Merrill’s Executive Vice President & Partner David Calusdian says. Trying to convince them they do need it can be the most gruelling part of the process. But, once you’ve managed to convince them that media training will do them good, Calusdian says, there are three basic steps to help prepare senior management for a successful media showdown, uh, I mean interview.
Establish and convey important messages succinctly
How do you know someone is ill-prepared to give an interview? They’ll usually do the following:
- give rambling responses,
- overshare information, and
- fail to take advantage of opportunities to get the company’s message across.
To avoid any of these gaffs, prepare a handful of important messages (three to five, say) for the spokesperson to focus on, plus supporting points to back them up. When thinking of these messages, imagine the audience the interview is meant for and tailor them accordingly. An interview aimed at investors will have different messages than an interview for the general public, for example.
Calusdian suggests imagining that you’re writing the article that is to come out of the interview (assuming it’s a print medium) and basing the messages on what you’d like to see in the article.
Whenever possible, the spokesperson should try to incorporate these messages into the answers to the reporter’s questions. However, they should also avoid the politician routine of ignoring the questions and repeating the messages ad nauseam. (This will just make them sound evasive and silly.)
Prepare a list of anticipated questions and practice them
Think of all the questions the reporter is likely to ask and put them in a list. Start with the most difficult ones, meaning the ones you don’t want asked. For each question, think of at least three different ways that it could be asked. The more manipulative, the better.
Work out basic answers to these questions, but don’t have the spokesperson memorize them verbatim. The answers should be straightforward and credible and should incorporate one of the important messages that you’ve developed.
And don’t forget to come up with some answers for the softball questions, too. This will help eliminate rambling.
Be cognizant of the medium
If the interview is a live broadcast, practice your Q&A with the spokesperson giving them only one shot to get the answer right. Make sure they are aware of what their body language is saying. Record it and play it back to them so they can see for themselves. A live broadcast cannot afford a person an overly long pause to collect their thoughts (although a short pause is okay and actually shows the audience that the person is carefully considering their answer). In an audio only broadcast, body language is less important, but tone of voice should be considered.
The interview is a balancing act. On the one hand, you don’t want your spokesperson to sound scripted, but you also don’t want them to go into it thinking they’re just having a casual conversation. This is critical, because any interviewer with a shred of competence is going to try and make it into a casual conversation to get those relaxed, unscripted answers (until the moment they can pounce on a slip-up).
Even before the recording equipment is rolling or the interview has officially begun, the spokesperson needs to be on and considering what they’re saying before saying it.
And, as a closing thought, remember this: there is no such thing as “off the record.”