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How to come across well in a media interview

With the right kind of preparation, being interviewed for TV or radio need not be daunting. Journalist and author John Illman offers advice for health professionals on how to get the most out of a media interview

The idea of being on TV or radio may seem alarming when one ill-advised comment can go viral and reach millions of people in an instant. But the right kind of preparation can mimimise the risks of it going wrong.

Media interview
Picture: Paul Stuart

Start by asking what you want to achieve. A good interview will convey a message that will do one or more of the following:

  • Inform
  • Teach
  • Motivate
  • Persuade
  • Inspire
  • Promote
  • Entertain
Messages

The best are simple, short and snappy – statements of fact or advice. They incorporate:   

Surprise

We are more responsive to the new and unexpected, but many core messages include nothing surprising or new. For example, the benefits of vaccination still need emphasising – ironically because vaccination has been so successful. Most young parents have never seen a case of measles.

How can we inject surprise into vaccination appeals? Children’s author Roald Dahl succeeded with: ‘It really is almost a crime to allow your child to go unimmunised.’  ‘Twinning’ disparate words – such as ‘unimmunised and ‘crime’ – is an old titling trick. The title alone helped to make Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape an overnight bestseller. Twinning is also evident in film titles such as Eyes Wide Shut and True Lies.

Dahl’s 1988 suggestion that some parents were akin to criminal made headlines. This kind of juxtaposition cannot be written into all messages, and not all messages have to surprise. Some even work by being predictable. Former prime minister Margaret Thatcher‘s most famous soundbite – ‘You turn if you want to; the lady’s not for turning’ defined her as the the Iron Lady of politics, catching the mood of the moment among her Tory supporters.

Include the words ‘you’ and ‘your’

These address us directly, reaching out to our emotions. Many healthcare messages lack these critical ‘Y’ words because scientifically orientated spokespeople deliberately veer away from the emotional, only to sound cold and detached.

Most of your audience will not want to know about the technical side of your job. Their interest will be in how it can help them.   

Stories

Key messages do not work in isolation. They need well-balanced stories to make them relevant for the audience. Analogies, third-party endorsements, personal experiences, statistics and easy-to-understand images inject life into stories.

A patient describing a handicap as ‘living with the handbrake on’ resonated with me. Talking about something being as high as the Eiffel Tower is better than talking about a structure that is more than 300m high.

You could convey up to 10 points in an interview, only for them to be quickly forgotten. Restrict yourself to a maximum of 3 – human beings are very good at conceptualising and remembering things in 3s, such as breakfast, lunch, dinner; beginning, middle, end; and left, right, centre.

Try to think like a journalist to anticipate interview questions. Rudyard Kipling’s brilliant summary of the basis of scientific and journalistic enquiry will help:

‘I keep six honest serving-men,

 [They taught me all I knew]

Their names are What, and Why, and When

And How and Where and Who.’  

Don’t just anticipate ‘easy’ questions. Identify the most challenging. There is no such thing as a hard question if you have an answer ready.

Extracted from Handling the media: communication and presentation skills for healthcare professionals. JIC Books. £14.99. www.jicmedia.org

John Illman
​John Illman

John Illman is a communications trainer, former editor of GP and former health editor on The Guardian

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