THE ART OF BREAKING DOWN MESSAGES
- Decide ahead of time what your messages are
- Emphasize them
- Repeat them
- Own the interview
Making the media work for you
What is your immediate reaction when you get a request for a media interview? If you’re like most people – professionals or otherwise -- there is an immediate sense of dread or anxiety.
What do they want from me? What’s their angle? Will I make a fool out of myself? Will they sensationalize and misquote me?
These are common reactions. And notice they are all defensive responses. The fact of the matter is that most of the time, it’s to your advantage that they’ve contacted you.
It’s your chance to tell your story, promote your work, and the let the world know what you’re up to. In the current media universe, what you say – whether it is print, radio, or TV – will likely be picked up online. And as we all know, the potential audience for any news organization website is huge.
Defense vs. preparation
Much of the anxiety that comes when you get the interview request comes from the great unknown: wondering what you’ll be asked and how you should handle the questions.
What’s wrong with this picture? You’re on the defensive here, waiting passively to see what gets thrown at you, giving the media control over your destiny (or at least the interview). But it doesn’t have to be this way. You can take charge!
In any interview situation with the media or even a public talk, you should always understand that you’ve been given a special opportunity to relay your message(s).
Your job is not to merely answer the questions posed to you, but to stress the messages that you feel are important. In other words, don’t be on the defensive in allowing the interviewer to take charge of the interview. Go on the OFFENSIVE with your messages.
Own the interview!
Every politician worth his or her salt knows this. To them, it really doesn’t matter what questions are asked of them (unless of course, there’s a scandal at hand). They’re going to say what they WANT to say, whether it’s an answer to a question or not.
So the first step to a successful interview is to know what your messages are, so you can articulate them readily, clearly, and in a relaxed and compelling manner.
How do you determine your messages for a given interview?
Whatever the subject of the interview – whether it’s your own work, or comments on some national news item – you have one or more central points to get across to the audience. Deciding ahead of time what they are will put you in the driver’s seat and help you know how to handle any question that comes at you.
What are your messages? Start by thinking about the audience you’re addressing.
Analyzing your audience
Successful communication involves two parties: the sender and the receiver. An effective message achieves a meeting of the minds between these two parties. For this to happen, the sender has to put the message in a language the receiver understands.
This leads to one commandment, common to all effective communication: KNOW THY AUDIENCE.
In the lab, we’re surrounded by others who speak scientific jargon. Most of us can get through the workday without talking with anyone who isn’t at least close to having a Ph.D. Guess what? The media (and their audiences) usually aren’t scientists.
This means that when you get ready for an interview, you can’t talk about your work in the same way you’d talk to a colleague, or even a first-year graduate student. Instead, imagine talking with your grandmother...assuming your grandmother isn’t a neuroscientist! If your grandmother wouldn’t know a term or concept, chances are your media audience won’t either.
All good writers and speakers think about their audiences. Before the interview, it is crucial that you find out who will be reading, hearing or seeing the story:
- Is your interview going to be included in a daily general-circulation newspaper? A local or national TV program? A website?
- What is the age and educational level of your audience?
- What is the audience’s relationship with your research and science in general? Does your research affect them, their families, their medical treatment?
- What kinds of messages are likely to resonate with your audience? Are they most interested in health care, economics, public safety, etc.?
These are questions you should try to answer beforehand so you can formulate your answers accordingly.
What do you want them to know?
If you’re talking to the mass media, chances are you’ll be addressing a general public audience as opposed to your scientific peers.
So, though your research might be highly specific and structured, in a media interview you’ll want to look for the aspects of your work that relate to the general public. How do the issues you’re discussing in the interview affects people, help people understand more abou themselves and those around them, better peoples’ lives, etc.? What are the basic, bottom-line messages you want the public to hear about your work?
All too often, interviewees tend to forget about “the big picture.” What is the larger purpose of your research? It’s important to explain what it involves and what you’re trying to learn. But why are THOSE aspects important? That’s what should drive your answers! Think short sentences, condensing ideas, and making it compelling.
Here are some examples of basic messages:
- We are discovering that some people's genes make them more at risk for drug addiction than others.
- Knowing more about the genes involved in drug addiction will help us treat addicts more effectively.
- We’re learning more about how this drug affects the brain, and this will help us design medications to reverse its damage.
- If we can treat recovering addicts more effectively, they’ll go back to being functioning members of their communities faster.
Soundbites are your friends. Many of us look askance on soundbites, since they are sometimes used to reduce complex thoughts to overly simplistic snippets. A well-thought-out soundbite, however, can instantly help the audience understand what you’re saying. And, a short, to-the-point sentence is more likely to get used.
One of the most common complaints we hear from those who have been interviewed for a newspaper article of a TV news story is “Why did they use THAT quote?” My response is it may have been the most succinct, pithy quote you gave. The media likes succinct and pithy, not to mention concise. Remember: If you think through and plan your messages carefully beforehand, everything you say will be something you’ll want quoted.
Practice makes perfect… or at least more relaxed
Once you’ve developed your messages, spend some time thinking about them before the interview. A longtime sports broadcaster once said that 90% of his success could be attributed to preparation. That’s true any time you’re giving a lecture or being interviewed by the media. The good news is it needn’t be hours of prep – most likely mere minutes.
If it’s going to be a phone interview, you can jot your messages down beforehand and have them handy to refer to as the interview proceeds. Go over in your mind (or better yet out loud) what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it.
Preparation? More like rehearsing. It’s all about focusing on what you’re going to say. Focusing on your messaging is important before and during the interview. But if you don’t do it beforehand, there’s a really good chance you won’t express yourself as well when you’re answering questions.
Questions you can always expect
No matter what your research consists of, or why exactly a reporter is contacting you, there are some very general questions you are likely to get. Sometimes they are so general that you really don’t have good, crisp answers ready to go. Practice some of these basics ahead of time, thinking of big-picture answers, and you can relax and feel prepared. If reporters want more specifics, they’ll ask for them!
- What is the purpose of your research?
- In terms of human health and public welfare, why is your research important?
- What is it exactly you hope to find? What have you discovered so far?
- How will your research play a part in the prevention and treatment of x disease?
- Are we making progress in solving this problem?
You should be ready to go with rehearsed answers to all of these questions before any interview. If nothing else, they’ll help you think through the rest of your messages!
Translating scientific terminology
If your audience is a general one, stay away from scientific or technical jargon. A reporter’s rule of thumb is to use words that an 8th grader would understand. You’re not trying to impress anyone here -- you’re trying to insure that they understand what you’re saying. “Neuron” may be a no-brainer (excuse the pun) to you, but it certainly isn’t to most people.
Below is a list of terms that are part of the everyday neuroscience lexicon. Pause for a moment to think about some 8th graders you’ve met (who aren’t your own offspring). Are they going to be familiar with these?
|cerebral||cortex||cerebrospinal fluid||corpus callosum|
|limbic region||lobes||medulla oblongata||nerve fiber|
|olfactory bulb||dopamine||peptides||peripheral nervous system|
So how can you talk about your work if it involves concepts or terms like these? You have several strategies.
- Define or explain the term in easy-to-understand language the first time you use it. “Our research is about a neurotransmitter called dopamine. A ‘neurotransmitter’ is a chemical in the brain that helps one part of the brain talk with another part. We think this neurotransmitter is affected by methamphetamine in a way that changes normal communication patterns in the brain.”
- Use analogies to familiar concepts or processes. “We used 'selective breeding' to create mice that had certain special traits. This is similar to what dog breeders do when they want to get puppies with, for example, a certain coat color.”
Whether you’re a researcher or an economist, if you can explain technical information in every day terms, your audience will not only appreciate the effort, but become more engaged with you and what you have to say. It is always impressive to hear top experts in technical fields translate something complicated into terms that make sense to the rest of us. Remember, you are trying to make science human and conversational!
- As soon as a reporter calls, spend a few minutes deciding the messages you want to convey.
- Think about your audience and tailor your messages appropriately.
- Jot down ideas and practice beforehand. Think about small bites and how you’ll translate technical issues into everyday terms.
- Relax and get ready to enjoy your interview!