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Making a good impression

How would you respond to an interview request from the BBC Radio Four flagship breakfast programme Today –  especially if it concerned a potentially contentious issue?

The idea of being in a media controversy may alarm you, but controversy is usually more of an opportunity than a threat for the well prepared interviewee. Sidestepping controversy could also mean your voice would go unheard, giving undue prominence to opposing views.

How should you prepare?

One of the first lessons in formal media training is to start with the end in mind. What do you want the audience to do? Successful communication promotes change by achieving one or more of the following: informing, teaching, motivating, persuading, inspiring, promoting, entertaining. (If I had to define news in just one word it would be change.)

Effective messages drive change. Unfortunately messages are often characterised by imprecise thinking, long sentences, abstractions platitudes, euphemisms and dreadful clichés. For example, “People are our best resource.”

Try to meet the Einstein challenge. The Nobel prize-winner reportedly advised “making things as simple as possible, but no simpler”. The best messages are short and snappy, easy to say and remember. Twitter (140 characters) set a new gold standard.

Good messages surprise.

Alas, many core healthcare messages need repeating time and time again and include nothing new or exciting. For example, the benefits of vaccination still need emphasising, ironically because vaccination has been so successful. How can we inject the power of surprise into vaccination appeals? Author Roald Dahl, whose seven-year-old daughter died from measles, succeeded with: “Not to vaccinate your child really is almost a crime.” Twinning disparate words – such as vaccination and crime – is an old poetic and titling trick. For example, the title alone helped to make Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape, a best seller. Calling it Human Biology would have severely restricted its commercial appeal.  Film titles such as Eyes Wide Shut, True Lies and A Hard Day’s Night also feature word twinning.

Messages don’t work in isolation. They need well-balanced stories to make them relevant. Analogies, third party endorsements, personal experience and easy to understand images inject life into stories.  A severely handicapped patient who spoke about “living with the handbrake on” resonated with me. There is a dangerous myth that evidence based medicine will speak for itself to consumer audiences. It won’t. It needs the nudge of a good story.

Restrict yourself to no more than three main messages or points. Why three? People are good at conceptualising things in threes – as in breakfast, lunch, dinner; left, right centre; win, lose, draw. There is also a limit to how much people remember.

Anticipate the journalist’s questions and develop answers – which should include your messages. Novice interviewees just answer the questions. Skilled interviewees build messages into their answers. Bridging from answer to message is a skill that comes with practice. It will become easier if you imagine your message(s) literally sticking out of the front of your head – in what I call the mental eye line. Lose sight of this and you may forget your messages in the face of a barrage of questions that may take the interview far away from where you want to be.

Extracted from Handling the media: communication and presentation skills for healthcare professionals by John Illman. Available here.


John Ilman
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