Behind the scenes, I’ve previously coached countless individuals in media training from all walks of life and sectors, including government, health and education officials, and community leaders. From those experiences, I’ve seen the power of highly interactive training workshops to transform people’s communication skills.
Since 2004, when I first had the opportunity as one of four media trainers to coach fully qualified public health doctors in designated medical officers of health roles, I’ve kept my work in this area under wraps. Because, until now, I’ve never felt comfortable talking publicly about media training. One reason was that some in the public viewed media training negatively. Like it was some sort of dark arts public relations tool.
But the COVID-19 pandemic helped me see that I’ve only ever used my media and communication skills for good, to help people who are helping people. And that’s what I hope to do here. Post-COVID public health emergency, many professionals and organisations do not have access to an experienced media adviser or trainer. I write this with you in mind.
Different response settings
Effective media training is not a one-workshop wonder. There are different aspects of media training, depending on your needs. For example, a media interview during peacetime is a very different set of conditions to interview in, compared to doing media interviews during a national emergency response after an earthquake, flooding, or dare I say another global pandemic.
Good media training includes a strategic understanding of communications and how it can help you to influence, persuade and achieve your goals. It combines communication studies and human psychology, alongside real-world experience and lessons learned from the trenches in different response settings.
Broadcast audio & video/TV interviews
Interviewing for radio and television requires access to more effective communication skills than interviewing for a print or digital print media publication, that doesn’t use video or audio. So that’s why I’m focused here on broadcast television and radio media interviews.
So I’m going to share the basics here. This post gives you foundational information to learn the basic starting blocks and understand what you need to bring to the table.
Time-poor and deadline-driven
If you have never worked in a radio or television newsroom, the first thing you need to appreciate is that time is of the essence in broadcast newsrooms. There is never enough time in a daily news cycle.
The news industry, particularly daily news, is a very fast-paced beast. Doing a radio or television interview is very different from doing an interview for print media like a newspaper or magazine. Time in the broadcast newsroom is measured down to seconds. It is a deadline-driven working environment. There’s a sense of urgency. The priority is meeting the relentless demands of the daily news cycle.
Back in 2001, on September 12 in the Southern Hemisphere, I was on the foreign news desk shift when the September 11 attacks happened in the USA. It was a relentless news day with no breaks, not even a toilet break, from morning until I left the newsroom in the evening.
It’s a race against time to get everything ready to broadcast at the scheduled broadcast time. The clock doesn’t stop until the show has been broadcast and aired.
Media training begins with prep
Media training is about preparation. Learn how to communicate effectively in a radio or television news interview from day one. The earlier you prepare, the better. The moment you begin in a role that requires you to be the organisation’s spokesperson. Preparation precedes power. It really does
One of the realities you will face is that by the time you receive a media interview request from radio or television channel, it will usually be short notice. You’ll have very limited time to prepare because deadlines are critical in broadcast radio and television news schedules. And that’s for normal daily news cycle. And that time will often be very stressful and pressurised.
Now consider breaking news, on top of the daily news cycle. In that scenario, it’s highly likely you will be asked to do an interview with a deadline within an hour, or within the 20 or 30 mins, at worst. These are incredibly short deadlines. And that’s the reality of radio and television daily news. Whether you bust yourself to meet short deadlines is a topic for another post.
What is the media’s role?
There’s often a lot of misunderstanding about the role of the media. That’s understandable. That’s also why media training is invaluable. Because, unless you’ve worked as a journalist or studied journalism, it’s easy to misinterpret the media’s role through your own perspective based on assumptions.
I have seen this misunderstanding and mistaken assumptions often play out among professionals, including during the COVID-19 public health emergency. For example, in multidisciplinarian groups with people of diverse professional disciplines, who had come together at short notice without any prior experience working together.
So let’s be clear. The media’s role is to report the news and issues according to their mission and how they interpreted it. Their role is not to follow your dictates or cover your story or issue the way you want them to. They’re at liberty to report it within the confines of accuracy, fairness, balance, and decency, of course.
Media training: what questions should I ask?
When you receive a request to do a radio or television news interview, you want to make sure you have all the information you need about the request.
- Ask which show, program is the news interview for?
- What time and day ?
- Who will be interviewing you? And their role, are they host, producer etc.
- If it’s in person or via remote on Zoom or Teams or another platform
- How long will the interview be?
- Will it be a pre-recorded interview or a live broadcast?
- Who else will be on the show for the same topic alongside you?
- What do you want to learn about or ask questions about?
Treat journalists with respect and courtesy. Respect their time.
You won’t necessarily be able to ask journalists for a copy of their questions. Well, you could ask them, but I don’t recommend it. Journalists typically don’t answer those questions because it’s drummed into them at journalism school not to do so. Well. that was my experience. It’s called editorial independence.
So when journalists refuse to give you their questions in advance of an interview, they’re not being difficult. They’re simply following the standards of their profession, that’s all. Bottom line, the news media are not there to do your job, and you’re not there to do theirs.
What’s your purpose?
So you’ve agreed to be interviewed and you’ve got an interview time. The assumption I am making here is that the news interview request is with a media outlet that you’re happy to be interviewed with. We won’t dive into the reasons why you have decided to be interviewed.
First things first. Think about your purpose or intent. Ask yourself, why I am doing this?
Be very clear about your intent and your purpose. What’s your communication goal for the news interview?
To find out the answer to that, I recommend the following:
- Identify the problem you’re trying to solve.
- Clearly state that to yourself by writing it as a sentence.
Give it context by linking its relevance to your audience and your messaging.
Who’s your target audience?
Know your audience. Your audience is the people your work or project is designed to benefit or prioritise. It’s often your communities or particular groups of people.
Audience is a term that is often used in broadcast news and television, rather than saying populations or communities. But those words refer to the same thing.
How do you prepare to speak to your audience?
- The best preparation is knowing your audience. Their demographic makeup, know them well enough that you can speak with confidence.
- Review what you know and fill in any gaps of knowledge
- Focus on what is relevant and specific to your topic for the news interview
Note that journalists/media outlets are not your audience. They’re your conduit to reach your audience. Obviously, social media and the online world now make it possible for people to reach audiences directly, without going through the media. But if you are a government-funded entity, government, or the private sector, you will find that traditional media like radio and television will still form an important part of your communications strategy. Because it’s media that your partners and stakeholders, the decision-makers, will often be consuming and drawing conclusions from.
In communications and marketing speak, we further break down the audience. You may hear the term target audience around communications and marketing people, particularly when doing communications planning, for instance. It refers specifically to the audience you want to ‘target’ your messages to. The people who matter most in terms of who you want to reach, influence, and speak to. So don’t waste precious time on judgments about the use of the word ‘target audience’.
The way your target audience interprets your message matters. You are seeking to persuade, influence or simply inform them. It could be the communities you serve, your partners and stakeholders, or your employees and their families.
What’s messaging? It’s what you want to say to people. Your statements. Your sentences. Responses may include facts, opinion, and analysis. They constitute messaging.
Messaging for a broadcast radio and television media interview is not academic writing. Your message should not read or sound like an academic paper or thesis. Nor should you sound like you’re reading formally from a piece of paper.
Instead focus on less formal writing, conversational writing, messages for the spoken word, for the ear. That is quite different from writing for academia or print media.
Preparing your message is important preparation before you do your interview. There are a number of different techniques to use. Ask yourself:
- If I only have 30 secs to get my message across, what do I want to say?
- Write three key statements or messages you want to make sure that you convey.
- Write it in a conversational spoken way for the ear .
Put down words that are in your head and write it out. So you can see the words on paper. There’s something powerful about writing words on paper and being able to see them laid out on paper. It gives you a kind of helicopter view that you can’t see when the words are just spinning around in your head.
Messaging also includes knowing your content. Your responsibility as a spokesperson is to make it your business to stay informed and well-read on the issues and the positions of the organisation you represent.
If you’re representing an organisation, corporate company, or government, then you’re likely to be provided with a briefing paper or a backgrounder. If you’re doing this as a not-for-profit or community project, you can do it yourself by compiling a simple one-page fact sheet and reviewing that before you interview. That’s if you think you need that level of prep.
Some people can find these documents quite stressful to do or read, right before an interview. So I recommend that these kinds of documents are prepared well in advance before an interview request ever comes your way. That way you have time to process information and ponder it, and ask yourself questions and so forth.
The power of reading out loud
Practice reading your words and messages out aloud as part of your preparation for a radio or television broadcast news interview. This is an invaluable technique I learned in the newsroom to help with writing for the ear (for radio and television).
As you read your words out loud, you’ll hear how it flows, your tone, and what you sound like. You’ll also identify typos and you might be able to see missing words faster that way too. And whether the words and sentences sound too clunky.
Final tips for practice and preparation
- Radio and television news is often in soundbites, in grabs of seconds.
- Practice speaking clearly and concisely
- Use active language
- If possible, record yourself doing simulated practice on video
- Check your tone is appropriate
- Be very careful with introducing humor into your message.
- Unless you’re interviewing about a comedy show act, avoid humour.
- Stay away from acronyms.
I can’t stress this enough:
Please avoid acronyms when doing radio and television news interviews, regardless of whether your profession speaks almost entirely in acronyms. Think about the audience’s needs, instead. Use the full name or words so that your audience is given every chance of understanding your message. Using jargon and acronyms diminishes opportunities for your audience to understand what you’re saying.
If your communication goal is to be heard and understood and raise awareness, avoid acronyms when talking about an important issue. For example, instead of using an acronym and medical jargon like ARF or RHD, say the full terms….acute rheumatic fever or rheumatic heart disease. Why? First, acronyms are often like jargon and they do little to assist with communication. Second, the world you reach through the news media is a largely lay audience. Despite the widespread use of the acronyms ARF and RHD in the medical sector, those are not everyday terms that people in everyday life are familiar with. Nor do people go around automatically knowing what they mean.
You’ll find your audience will appreciate hearing you speak using full proper names, rather than acronyms and jargon.