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Jane Praeger (far right) leads an exercise on message control during her Media Training session.
The Program Experience: Media Training
Explaining your job to a 10-year-old and selling coal power to a room of skeptics.
Participants in the Strategic Communication: International Perspectives program learn from seasoned corporate communication professionals through interaction and role playing. For her Media Training session in 2013, Jane Praeger instructed the group on how to prepare and manage their clients for interviews, banking on her expertise in media preparation for major U.S. clients including AT&T, MTV, and Microsoft as well as the global nonprofit Open Society Institute. She emphasized the importance of truthfulness (“It’s much better not to know than it is to take a guess at an answer or to make a statement that will come back to haunt you. Don’t say anything you don’t 100% know to be true.”), the trap of “off the record” (you can be quoted on anything you say), and perhaps most importantly, preparedness. “The attitude should not be, ‘Let me just get through this.’ It should be how to further an agenda,” she said.
Praeger presented an exercise on message control to demonstrate techniques for clients who ramble, veer off-message, or use too much technical language or statistics. She called four volunteers to the front of the room where they sat and faced the rest of the group, then asked each to describe his or her organization, their role, and the biggest challenge they faced that year.
The responses tended to wander, contain jargon, and even turn unintentionally negative. Praeger then asked the volunteers to re-answer the questions as if speaking to a 10-year-old with a short attention span, or to one of their grandparents.
Their speech slowed as they concentrated. The audience members laughed as the volunteers reduced complex industries such as nuclear power and world banking to their essential elements and translated corporate-speak to a child’s vocabulary. Ultimately, the simple statements were judged more interesting and memorable than the initial answers. Each word was chosen with care, sentences were shortened and simplified, and abstractions turned concrete. Next, Praeger instructed the volunteers to answer the same questions in just one sentence. This showed that such answers sound more confident, keep the speaker focused and on-point, and increase the likelihood an interviewer or reporter will select that statement to quote in their piece.
To further illustrate what gets quoted and why, as well as effective ways to manage difficult or hostile questions, she brought one new volunteer to the front of the room and instructed the remainder of the session’s participants to act as a journalist from a media outlet of their choice. Representing a firm planning to develop coal-fired power plants in Turkey, the interview subject faced an onslaught of questions from the room of “journalists.” Following the Q&A, the group dissected the interaction and judged the participant to be measured, calm, and non-defensive, managing to deliver the positive takeaway that his firm was entering Turkey to invest there long-term and create jobs.
By the session’s conclusion, it was clear to all participants that, when dealing with the media, language is most effective that’s truthful, simple, and straightforward.