How to Talk to the Media

By Jan Matthew Tamanini

Before law school, I worked as a journalist, both print and broadcast. This background provides at least marginal credibility for me to offer advice on dealing with the Fourth Estate. The main mantra for lawyers who have to deal with the media should be simplicity.

We lawyers tend to enjoy peppering our conversations about legal issues with the somewhat obscure Latin terminology drummed into us in law school. We also flaunt our specialized knowledge to impress our audience. The problem with these practices is that listeners are often confused by, unimpressed with, and uninterested in these quaint aspects of our world.

Hard as it may be to admit, we get better results when we avoid legal jargon and make our conversation listener friendly. Nowhere is this truer than when representatives of the media ask us to comment on legal issues.

Although print and broadcast media are very different, with the Internet offering a hybrid of the two, there are commonalities that can make your discussions with interviewers better both for them and for you. After all, your primary objective should be having your remarks reported correctly. Using terms that your interviewers don’t understand (or worse, think they understand when their understanding doesn’t match your point) invites trouble.

Get Ready
One thing your media interactions should have in common with your client and courtroom presentations is preparation. Unless you absolutely can’t avoid it (in other words, only under the most exceptional of circumstances, such as when an interviewer accosts you in a public place), don’t ever go into an interview cold.You should be well versed in your subject matter, and you should also know something about both the interviewer and the media outlet that interviewer represents.

Before you meet with any interviewer for the first time, and sometimes even before agreeing to meet, do a little homework. If you know someone who has dealt with the interviewer or that person’s place of employment, you may want to speak with that person to see how well the end product of the interview matched the actual conversation. Just as there are some attorneys who play fast and loose with the facts, there are interviewers and media outlets that do the same. If someone has a reputation for inaccuracy, avoidance may be the best strategy. Fortunately, because most interviewers (like most attorneys) really want to get things right, politely refusing an interview should be a rare occurrence.

Your next step in preparation should be to review your material, preferably in a relaxed setting with ample time. Even if you think you know your subject matter cold, making a few notes and reviewing them ahead of time—and perhaps doing a practice interview with a colleague—can immeasurably improve your results.

Think you don’t need the practice? Consider that the relatively few minutes you may spend in preparation may prevent your looking or sounding like a fool in the interviewer’s product. As the interviewer’s ultimate audience includes current and potential clients, your performance may affect your bottom line for a long time afterward.

Regardless of the interviewer’s medium, make a conscious effort to monitor and control your rate of speech. Not only do you want the interviewer to understand what you’re saying, you also want the reader or listener to be able to digest the reported information. Consider recording a practice interview and listening to the playback. You might be surprised at what you hear.

Practice reducing your answers to ten-second sound bites, regardless of whether you’ll be speaking to a print or broadcast interviewer. That’s right: no more than ten seconds to make your point. You’ve probably heard of the 30-second sound bite? Uh-uh. It’s been 30 years since my stint in TV news, and even then, most stories lasted less than a minute; many lasted only 25 or 30 seconds. So keep your comments brief and pithy—doing so will also make your interviewer more likely to use your most important points rather than latching onto something you say in passing as the story.

Get Set
Whether you’re meeting your interviewer in person or by phone, and whether it’s print or broadcast, settle on your appearance in advance. Choose interview attire that fits well and makes you feel comfortable. Knowing you look your best contributes to your comfort level. If you’ll be on camera, there are a few extra rules. Avoid wearing white, small patterns, and too-bright colors; high-intensity lights used for TV cameras (both on the set and on location) will make everything look brighter than usual. Whites and small patterns can cause “frying”—the annoying appearance that tiny insects are crawling around in a frenzy.

It’s a good idea to practice sitting or standing still while you speak. Many of us have no idea how much we move when we talk. You’ll often see people without a lot of interview experience swinging their legs, tapping their fingers, wringing their hands, turning on their seat, or shifting from side to side.

There’s no magic difference between your appearance in professional video and your appearance in jumpy vacation videos that you thought were lovely, slow, panoramic views. You’ll want to stay in frame and avoid bouncing around. Even in audio recordings for print, radio, or podcast, motion and background noise can be very distracting.

The appointed time has arrived. You’ve prepared, and you’re ready to respond. What else can you do to get the best result possible?

First, even if you don’t feel relaxed, try to look at ease. Taking a few deep breaths and stretching for a minute before you meet your interviewer can do wonders for your demeanor. Even if it’s a phone interview, not feeling rushed is important, and sounding out of breath is never a good thing. If you’re running late and need a moment to collect yourself, don’t be afraid to ask for it.

If your interviewer gives you a clip-on microphone, make sure it’s positioned where it won’t be brushing up against your clothing if you move. And if your interviewer holds out a hand mike, please don’t grab it. Let the interviewer keep control.

Listen to your interviewer’s questions . Wait until he or she stops talking, then take a moment to consider your response before answering. Anticipating the end of a question and mentally composing an answer before the question is finished could result in your responding to something totally different from what the interviewer is asking.

Allow for some “dead space” between questions. Understand that a pause between the end of your answer and the next question doesn’t necessarily mean the interviewer is waiting for you to say more; your interviewer could merely need time to type your answers on the computer or write them in a notebook. You’d advise a client not to volunteer information beyond the question asked; take your own advice.

If you’re blindsided by an unanticipated question, don’t feel compelled to respond immediately. Even with cameras rolling, there’s nothing wrong with telling an interviewer that you’re not familiar with certain information, but you’ll check into the question and get back later with more information if appropriate.

Feel free to tell your interviewer if you think something needs further explanation beyond the interviewer’s questions. This alerts your interviewer that the information to come is something you consider important. It’s easy to forget that not everyone appreciates and understands some of the law’s arcane aspects. Things that are commonplace to us may make little sense to someone who isn’t involved in the day-to-day world of legal practice.

Remember the ten-second rule. Being as concise as possiblewillearn your interviewer’s gratitude because he or she won’t have to plow through your remarks to find something he or she wants to use. Even more important, your point should come through loud and clear in the final product. Most interviewers may be working on several stories at once, and there’s nearly always a deadline looming. Odds are that your interviewer was noting during the interview , either mentally or on paper, the direct quotes that will end up in the story.

Some interviewers may come with an agenda. You generally can tell when your interviewer is looking for a specific answer, like a litigator in a cross-examination. Leading questions abound. If the place to which a question leads isn’t where you want to go, don’t be afraid to guide the reporter back to your point.

Being what media types consider “a good interview” could mean you’ll be asked for assistance the next time your interviewer, or someone else in the market who’s seen you, needs a legal expert. So, when an interview opportunity comes your way, don’t hide. Embrace it! Getting your name and face out there in front of potential clients, with the only cost to you being your time, can result in real cash dividends.


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