We’ve all watched those interviews on TV with politicians who constantly repeat themselves and never actually answer any of the questions. As a viewer, it can be incredibly frustrating, and it seems many interviewees don’t know (or don’t care) about the difference between ‘staying on message’ and ‘STAYING ON MESSAGE’. The latter may actually be an important tactic in a particular situation, but it can make both the journalist and the audience think they’ve got something to hide.
There’s no doubt that before any kind of interview with any type of media, you need to develop some key messages to help you stay on track. Writing down up to five succinct bullet points helps you to focus on what you want to say, and how you want to say it. Key messages should be short and sharp, easily understood by an audience, not contain too many figures or statistics and be devoid of jargon (you might be accustomed to using certain acronyms, but it doesn’t mean the audience is familiar with them, and they’ll switch off if they don’t know what you’re talking about).
Once you have your key messages, it’s worthwhile practising them out loud (in an interview, you won’t be reading them to yourself inside your head). It’s also a good idea to think about the kinds of questions you could get asked in an interview, and how you can weave your key messages into the answers. If you’re doing an interview over the phone, it’s advisable to have your key messages written down in front of you, but don’t be tempted to recite them; they’re only there as a backup if you lose your way during the interview. They can also be a good reminder if you’re getting to the end of the interview and have forgotten to make an important point.
But while key messages are essential in getting across the point you’re trying to make, sticking to them absolutely, and not offering any additional comment does not make for a good interview. Many interviewees go into an interview knowing that it’s likely to be edited down to a 20 second (or less) soundbite, and so the tendency can be to simply repeat the same key message over and over to ensure it’s included in the final story. And while that may be the final outcome, the equally likely outcome is that you’ll alienate both the journalist and potentially the audience by avoiding the questions. This is where the art form of bridging comes in.
Bridging is about answering the question being put to you, and then (hopefully seamlessly) moving from that answer back to your key messages. It’s an art form worth cultivating, and will ensure that you’re not only engaging talent, but the audience and the journalist feel you’re being authentic and answering the questions, while you will feel like you’ve got your point across. And that is the biggest difference between ‘staying on message’ and ‘STAYING ON MESSAGE’.
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