The number one rule for doing a media interview is, “Never be surprised by anything you say.”

You are the head of your organization, you know your stuff inside out, but you still always need to be prepared before attempting any interview.  Even if it’s about the most basic topic.

The biggest mistake many make is taking an interview for granted.  “I do this every day, this is my life’s work, let’s go.” Then under the glare of the lights, the reporter asks you a question you had not thought about, and suddenly you say something you wish you could take back. Too late, it’s out there, and today that means everywhere.  If you want to ensure a successful interview, you have to prepare.

First, ask yourself: “What do I want the audience to remember most?” Here is a simple process you can use to help you determine your most important take-a-way and make sure your get your key points across effectively.

Create a Message Box: a tool to organize your thoughts, prioritize your messages, and create a colorful line or sound bite that will reinforce and illustrate your most important thought or goal.

On a piece of paper draw four boxes leaving the center portion blank for now.  In each box create a one-line message, or important fact or thought that you wish to say during the interview.  Then under each message add a quick list of bullet points of facts to support each message.

You can’t get everything into one short interview.  Sometimes you just want to try to share everything you know, but if you try to to this then your most important message will get lost.  It’s the old cliché “what gets left on the editing room floor.” Instead, best to focus on one track and keep asking, “What do I want the audience to take away?”

The Message Box forces you to think about what you want to say, and to prioritize what is most important. This process helps you whittle your topic down to what is critical.  As you organize the boxes, perhaps put them into categories, defining your issue, offering solutions to a problem, or advocating a position your organization is taking.  You might offer actionable points viewers and listeners can take.

Once you have the three boxes filled, then think about the most important message you wish to say.  Create a one sentence phrase or thought that summarizes your mission and place it in the blank section of the paper.

Once you go through the exercise of writing these messages down, you’re absorbing them and putting them at the top of your mind. Then during the interview, you can go back your messages and communicate only what is most important in the short time you have.

Reporters love colorful phrases, or analogies that illustrate the message because it makes it easier for viewers or readers to understand and relate to the issue. If possible, come up with a very short phrase or analogy that you know will be an inviting quote, write it down at the bottom of the page, knowing at some point during the interview you will repeat it.  If it’s good enough, there is a good chance it will become a quote in the story, you have gone a long way toward reinforcing your key message, thanks to the Message Box.

The Message Box can be used for other circumstances, such as giving a short talk, or testifying without writing formal remarks.  Place the Message Box on the podium and refer to it while you are speaking.

The whole process is quick and easy, and no matter what happens during an interview, you have thought through information and messages that you can turn to and use in your answers, and nothing that you say will surprise you.

*Dan Cohen is an award-winning television journalist. His Executive Media coaching sessions have been conducted around the country.  Contact Dan Cohen.

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