By Jenna Cason
When it comes to media training senior executives, I haven’t encountered many who struggle with confidence, intelligence, or passion for their particular product. I have, however, dealt with an excess of executives who battle with brevity. They have a difficult time answering questions concisely, getting to the point, and/or giving a succinct response in less than five minutes.
Add to this plight a low-on-patience reporter who is on deadline (aren’t they always?), and you could find yourself in the middle of a tug-of-war between unanswered questions and long-winded responses. A high-stakes media interview is no place to discover your executive’s knack to deliver a sermon. This is something that can and should be uncovered beforehand through media training and mock interviews.
Once you’ve pinpointed the issue, here are a few tips you can incorporate when media training a chatty exec:
Ditch the Briefing Book; Bring a One-Pager
An executive who rambles doesn’t need a stack of documents to prep for a meeting with the media. Instead, bring one piece of paper with a bulleted list to reference during the interview. The list can include quick company facts and brief responses to questions you anticipate the interviewer asking. Use this document to help your executive focus his or her thoughts on a few topics and messages. The one-pager can be used as a reference during a phone interview or as a quick refresher ahead of an in-person interview.
Work on the Three S’s: Stories, Stats, and Sound Bites
Stories and anecdotes are great to use during media interviews because they’re memorable and help create a narrative, but they also are the Achilles’ heel of many a rambler. Instead of discouraging your long-winded exec from sharing stories, advise him or her to practice telling a few stories, and work together to cut unnecessary details.
Discuss some statistics your exec can reference in the interview, and encourage him or her to make them more memorable by adding a tangible or visual element. For example, instead of saying something is X miles long, your exec might say it’s long enough to wrap around the world X times.
Finally, work with your exec to pull out a few quotable sound bites before the interview. When working with chatty chief officers, encourage them to respond in sound bites rather than unstructured thoughts, because this will help them be more succinct—and, as an added bonus, it usually ends up giving the reporter more quotable material to work with.
Get Out Your Stopwatch—Seriously
I once worked with an executive of a technology startup who was brilliant, had an impressive pedigree at one of the world’s largest online retailers, and offered expert insight on his respective industry. Though he was fairly easy to pitch to reporters, the man talked and talked, then circled around his point a couple of times, which would lead him to a story he remembered, then … what was the question again? Once, I timed his response to a simple question and asked him how long he thought it took to respond. He guessed around one minute. In reality, it had been 5½.
During media prep, have your spokesperson answer a few questions as they typically would. Time them, then ask them to guess the length of their responses. Now, ask them to answer the same questions again in 30 seconds. In general, your exec should aim to respond to questions in 30-45 seconds. This will take constant training and reminding. You can do this with gentle reminders, or, as I did in the case of the long-winded exec referenced above, you can purchase an oversized hourglass and place it on the desk as a constant reminder to be brief and to the point.
If you have a chatty exec on your hands, chances are, he or she is pretty comfortable when it comes to speaking. This is a beautiful thing! Don’t ruin it by overcoaching. Avoid telling your spokespeople exactly how to respond to a question. You can encourage them to be brief and to the point without taking away elements that make them unique and natural.
Most of all, you want your executive to understand that an interview is a conversation between two people. The reporter should have ample time to ask questions, make comments, and request more information if needed. The good news is, if you do happen to have a long-winded spokesperson on your hands, the problem can usually be quickly combated with a little bit of focusing and coaching … and, in extreme cases, an oversized hourglass.