Our lead trainer Guy was at a session yesterday in which there was a lot of focus on messaging. Yes, he was there to deliver input on delivery but understandably the client wanted to talk about what they were saying as well as the way they were saying it.
One notable area under discussion was the extent to which you believe you should tailor your message according to the medium. To paraphrase the client, he basically said:
If I’m talking to someone for broadcast then I keep it brief and factual. If it’s for a written piece then I take it as read that I can go on for longer.
Those weren’t his exact words. You get the idea though; he wanted to change his tone according to who he was speaking to.
This can be a good idea or it can be a disaster. It’s worth taking a look at some of the reasoning.
They have more space in written media
It’s often true that someone researching something to go and write about it will have more space. If they don’t have more space then they are likely to have more bandwidth in their heads to edit down your long(ish) statements into digestible chunks. So it’s OK to go on at some length, some might think.
Well, yes and no (we know that’s unhelpful). Depending on the broadcast you may well be right. If it’s news then they will indeed want to get the facts pretty quickly but that’s what they want.
What you want or need may be quite different.
Make sure you don’t sound shifty
You’re likely to have some messaging you want to get into an interview and the first thing you need to ask if you’re going to keep it factual is: how much of a message can you get into a one-word answer? Have a quick look at this interview if you have the time. If you don’t, it’s the then-chief executive of the British Dental Association answering the BBC’s queries about mercury in fillings. His first and third answers are the ones you’re looking for: he says “yes” and “mmhmm”.
Consider how much more value he could have added to that. He could have added “yes but” or my favourite, “yes and the reason for that is…” and continued into something that would have shared a lot more of his expertise. Later on in the interview, when they let him do his retake, he gets it right but the damage is done.
In his first take, he ignores the opportunity to put some messaging in place. His organisation gets no benefit and equally seriously in my independent view, the audience misses out as well. Those earlier monosyllabic answers sound more like evasions than anything else.
Transferring the messaging power
The flip side of the client’s view is his belief that you can speak at some length to the written media because they have more space or at least mental bandwidth. They can translate what you’re saying into journalese so why not let them?
In principle that’s fine as long as you have a completely trustworthy journalist who is not only on your side but also understands the exact point you want to make. Except it’s unlikely to be like that.
The first point to make is that a journalist should never be on your side, they should be independent. We always assure clients that if they make thirty-three trillion dollars in a week they will be reported accurately. They will be reported just the same if they lose the same amount. The journalist’s job is to report the facts.
Another issue is that if you offer the journalist a 100-word quote and they only need ten for their article, you’re handing them the power to choose whichever parts of your quote they want. It won’t be inaccurate but let’s say you wanted them to write about your new international expansion and you mention the investment you secured to make it happen. The journalist then goes away and writes about the investment while your priority was to make new markets aware of your presence.
Essentially if you want the press to focus on something then focus on it yourself while you’re speaking. They can only write what you’ve given them and if you give them a lot they’ll do their best to prioritise.
Messaging prep takes time
There are two more basic reasons to be consistent in messaging across the media, however:
- Timing. Let’s be perfectly honest, if you’re managing a business that’s attracting media attention there’s a very good chance you’re quite busy. You have to ask yourself just how granular you want to go: short sentences for TV? Long ones for print? And if you’re doing an interview for a profile piece on TV or radio, then you’ll have to vary those rules anyway. Just how much time can you allocate to tailoring the length of your messages to every individual outlet, even if you had the aptitude to do it?
- Consistency. Journalists and other media professionals do check each other’s work, it’s how they stay up to date. It’s therefore worth prioritising a consistent message and making sure you don’t trip over yourself trying to cater for different media the whole time.
This doesn’t mean you should never prepare for different media and different audiences. We always advise, however, that people should think about the audience rather than the medium. If you’re in business and you’re speaking to one of the financial press (the sort of thing we might have Pádraig help you with) then you might well be able to talk about EBITDA, P&L, all sorts of stuff like that. If you were speaking to the technical press, Guy or Chris might comment that the technologists who write it will know their bytes from their blockchain so you should be fine with a bit of jargon. If you were speaking to the Nationals or even mainstream international press you’d need to assume a bit less knowledge
Our client from yesterday is happy tailoring his message to the medium he’s addressing and we’re really fine with that. If you’re new to communicating with the media, though, we’d suggest your time is better spent thinking of who you need to talk to and what messaging they will take away from your words.