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Media Training for Institute Scientists

By Eddy Ball
October 2007

Executive Communication Coach Tom Hoagwood gave several examples of how to prepare clear messages for a good media interview.
Executive Communication Coach Tom Hoagwood gave several examples of how to prepare clear messages for a good media interview. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

According to Coach Nan Tolbert, planning ahead is just as essential for telephone interviews as it is for a filmed or recorded interview.
According to Coach Nan Tolbert, planning ahead is just as essential for telephone interviews as it is for a filmed or recorded interview. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

The Friday afternoon audience took away sound advice for more effectively getting across what they want to say the next time they talk to the media.
The Friday afternoon audience took away sound advice for more effectively getting across what they want to say the next time they talk to the media. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

NIEHS News Director Robin Mackar spent most of two days working with the coaches, who are representatives of The Communications Center, a Washington, D.C. The firm's clients include major government agencies, universities, non-profits, national media and corporations.
NIEHS News Director Robin Mackar spent most of two days working with the coaches, who are representatives of The Communications Center in Washington, D.C. The firm's clients include major government agencies, universities, non-profits, national media and corporations. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

On August 24, Executive Communication Coaches Nan Tolbert and Tom Hoagwood from the Washington, D.C.-based company, The Communication Center, offered NIEHS employees strategies for managing the challenges of effectively communicating science. Their presentation, titled "Media Matters," took place in Rodbell Auditorium and covered the opportunities and pitfalls of media interviews.

The Friday session wrapped up the coaches' two-day visit to NIEHS. While at the Institute, the two provided personalized media training to small groups of scientists and executives who are often involved in media interviews. The training was coordinated and supported through the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.

As part of their visit, Tolbert and Hoagwood conducted three 3.5-hour sessions of mock interviews with NIEHS scientists to mimic the experience and potential pressures of encounters with the media as they try to get the story out about what researchers are doing. During their presentation in Rodbell Auditorium, Tolbert and Hoagwood recapped the messages they had given the small groups about audience connection, message development, delivery skills and taking more control of the communication process.

Hoagwood opened the program with a reference to that "deer in the headlights" moment when unprepared interviewees receive questions that make them realize the interview has become something they didn't expect. Effective communicators are those people, he explained, who can work with the reporter as a "conduit" for the one or two quotes that will appear in a short article or the typical eight-second sound bites that are part of a radio or TV segment that lasts an average of one minute or less.

Noting that most reporters are grateful for anything that makes their jobs easier, Tolbert encouraged scientists to take a "rolodex" approach to preparing for interviews by creating bullets of interesting examples to back up their talking points and "put a face on the facts." She said, "A media interview is the last place for original thought."

To help maintain control over a media interview, the coaches cautioned, scientists should deliver the most important points up front and use verbal flagging to focus the interviewer with such phrases as "the most important point is" and "here are the three critical issues." According to Tolbert, flagging helps to guide reporters back to the points a scientist wants to make sure get included in the report.

In addition to focusing - and re-focusing when necessary by finding two or three ways to say the same thing- scientists can also maintain control by steering clear of what the coaches described as "media traps," such as repeating in the answer the negative language in a reporter's question. "It's your job to refocus and get them back onto what you want to talk about."

"Once we've got our message down, what do we do about delivering that message?" Tolbert asked. Referring to a UCLA communications study, she pointed to the power of voice tone and body language, which together make up 93% of what is important in keeping an audience engaged. During a television or radio interview, "be natural... be in the moment," Hoagwood added. Showing confidence is valuable, but, he cautioned, "If you're not the type who gestures, this isn't the time to start."


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