The Critical Path is a six-step process for determining what to say – and how to say it – in media interviews. The six steps are:
1. Identify the specific organizational objectives you want the interview to advance.
2. Identify and analyze the key publics to be reached through the interview and the messages you want to convey.
3. Identify the topics the reporter may raise.
4. Create several speaking points (key points) on each topic.
5. Prepare a detailed Q&A.
6. Practice in mock interviews.
(The following is an excerpt from Ed Shiller's In the Spotlight: The Essential Guide to Giving Great Media Interviews. The book can be purchased online from Yorkland Publishing .)
Step 5: Write a Q&A
The Q&A is not a script that you will follow word-for-word in an interview; rather, it is an interview preparation tool that will better enable you to think on your feet while responding appropriately to any question the reporter might ask.
The Q&A will help you do many things. Among them to:
• Answer all questions in the proper format; namely, first address the specifics raised in the question and then, if appropriate, include a relevant key point that will put those specifics into a meaningful context.
• Identify jargon or pejorative phrases you would not like to use in an actual interview.
• Keep each answer to within 5 to 20 seconds, which is the usual length of a sound bite in a broadcast story and a direct quote in a print story.
• Develop additional key points.
In preparing the Q&A, it is essential that you write each question and answer word-for-word. Using short-cut phrases, such as “talk about the benefits of the new medication” or “explain the new cost-cutting measures,” will defeat the purpose of the Q&A, because it will be these phrases, not the actual words you want to speak, that will come to mind during the interview.
Write the initial questions in a “stream of consciousness,” as follows:
• Think of a question – any question – and write it down as soon as it pops into your head, without reflection.
• Read the question quickly and write down the first words that come to mind, without reflecting on this answer.
• Read the answer and write down, without reflection or hesitation, whatever question is immediately suggested by the answer to the previous question.
• Repeat this process until you run dry. This may be after a handful of questions and answers, or after a dozen questions and answers. It does not matter.
There are two primary reasons for writing the first batch of questions in stream of consciousness:
• You will identify in the Q&A words or phrases you would not want to say during the interview.
• And you will develop key points you had not thought of before.
The next step is to analyze the first batch of questions and answers in the Q&A.
Read each question and answer with a critical eye as follows:
• If the first words in the answer do not address what the reporter specifically asked, rewrite the answer so that it conforms to this format.
• Most people use jargon on the job because jargon can be an effective tool for communicating quickly and precisely. But you will alienate the reporter and the people the reporter is writing or broadcasting for, if they do not understand your jargon. So if you detect jargon in your answer, either explain it or use another word or phrase and rewrite the answer accordingly.
• You and your co-workers may use words or phrases among yourselves that will make you appear callous or insensitive if spoken publicly. For example, you may think of the workforce reduction as “getting rid of the deadwood,” because this helps you remain emotionally detached and, thereby, better equipped to do your job. But you would not want to utter this phrase in the interview. Rewrite the answer replacing the derogatory word or phrase with an acceptable alternative.
• Time how long it takes to read an answer in your normal speaking voice. If it is longer than 20 seconds, your answer may be ignored, distorted or taken out of context, so rework the answer to bring it down to the prescribed length. The most common reason for overly long answers is the inclusion of too many key points. The rule of thumb is to use only a single key point for each answer. Some answers containing a single key point may also exceed 20 seconds. In such instances, edit the key point. Even though you may not set out to memorize your key points, initially writing out and, if necessary editing, your key points will train you to express your thoughts in the desired way, just as repetitive motion exercises – such as batting practice prior to a baseball game – sharpens eye-hand coordination and similar skills.
• It is most likely you will have created new key points in your written answers in the Q&A. These are highly useful, so note them and refine them as needed.