Conquer nerves in media interviews with an A-Z of advice for being in the spotlight

Anticipate: There is no such thing as a difficult question if you anticipate it and prepare an answer. Fail to anticipate and even the 'simplest' question may torpedo you.

Bridging: Novice interviewees just answer questions, skilled interviewees build messages into their answers. Moving or 'bridging' from answer to message is a skill that comes with practice. Try answering the question then adding: "Can I just say that…"

Controversy: A media controversy may seem alarming but it is more opportunity than threat for a well-prepared interviewee. But sidestepping controversy may give undue prominence to opposing views and make you look furtive.

Data: Even the best data will not speak for itself; it needs a nudge. The facelessness of statistics, a major strength in science, can be an abject weakness in public relations. Research shows that those who read a short emotional appeal about an African child gave twice as much money as those who read raw statistics about a threat to millions. Statistics, it seems, encourage analytical thinking but turn people off; this why charities invite donors to sponsor an individual child and the media focus on individual case histories.

Examples: General statements are weak and specific statements are strong. Good interviews combine the best of storytelling, including case histories, with evidence.

Forgetting: Commit to memory what you most want to say to stop you later saying: "I forgot to mention…"

Gee whiz: Marketing often masquerades as news so is your story genuinely new? Will it make a reporter exclaim "Gee whiz"? If it lacks gee whiz, is it a media story at all? Perhaps not.

Hidden agenda: Don't get paranoid if you feel the reporter is not on your side and has a hidden agenda. The media's agenda in most cases will (quite properly) be different from yours, yet they are not generally out to get big pharma. However, there are times when they should do and do, times when they should do but don't, and times when they shouldn't but do. There are many more good than bad pharma stories.

Interaction: Good interviewees interact with reporters. One definition of interaction is a 'transfer of energy between elementary particles' and energy is the key. The more energetic and you are, the better.

Jargon: Jargon is useful if the audience understands it, underlining the importance of knowing your audience. Inappropriate use of jargon is common and people use it without realising. Rehearsing answers to possible questions may reveal if you are in this big club.

Knowledge: Never underestimate how little reporters really know. I have worked as a specialist medical journalist for more than 30 years and my ignorance never ceases to amaze me. But how could it not? I might have been writing about immunology on Monday, geriatrics on Tuesday, cardiology on Wednesday and a row in the NHS on Thursday. So, how did I differ from a general reporter? My contacts and easy access to specialist knowledge. Contacts are more important than knowledge in a fast-moving field like the media, where individual knowledge may quickly fall out
of date.

Listening: Far too many pharma interviewees look and sound as if they are on autopilot. Listening carefully to what is said is good manners and may help to establish a good relationship with a journalist as well as endowing you with critical bits of information you may otherwise miss.

Message: Effective messages are catalysts of change but, alas, many messages are laid low by imprecise thinking, long sentences, abstractions, platitudes, euphemisms and clichés. Heart-sink examples include 'People are our best resource' and 'Positive personal change can enhance our health'.

Novelty: Novelty is the most important constituent of news and too many press releases lack novelty value. As a national newspaper medical correspondent, I collected every single press release sent to me over ten days, 269 in total. I rejected 267, mostly because they lacked novelty value.

Outcome: The most critical element of any interview. Communication is about achieving change and every interview should do one or more of the following: inform, teach, motivate, persuade, inspire, promote or entertain. If I had to define news in just one word, it would be change.

Pride: No other industry, I believe, has been more innovative and dynamic than pharma. By most measures, it is Britain's most successful research-based industry and you should be proud of working in it. This should be reflected in media interviews. Alas, often it isn't.

Questions: It is relatively easy to deliver messages from a script, not so easy in the cut and thrust of an interview. Anticipating the questions makes it easier. Rudyard Kipling's brilliant summary of the basis of inquiry provides the definitive checklist:

I keep six honest serving men,
They taught me all I knew

 Their names are What, and Why, and When
 And How and Where and Who.

Rehearsal: You cannot rehearse an entire media interview without advance knowledge of the questions but you can anticipate and rehearse. Speak your answers out loud and make them as brief as possible. Try this exercise: Create an interview scenario and sum up your response in 300, then 200, then 100 words. Alternatively, try the elevator pitch and imagine you have 10-20 seconds before the other person gets out on the next floor.

Simplicity: Try the Einstein challenge to make things as simple as possible but no simpler, and check that you can articulate your message(s) and answers without notes. Recite them to a friend or colleague and ask them to repeat them back. If their version is better, use it.

Telephone: Familiarity leads many people to treat a phone interview like a routine conversation; they talk too fast, forgetting that the reporter is taking notes. Check that they are keeping up even if you think you are a slow speaker. Talking too fast may also encourage you to say too much. Recapping and pausing briefly after key points will hold your speed in check and emphasise key points. The better prepared you are with brief summary notes the easier this will be.

Body language may seem irrelevant but it underpins successful telephone communication, and smiling into the phone can generate warmth in
your voice, while standing up will project it.

Upbeat: Visible commitment and enthusiasm are infectious. Probably the most important factors in communication, they are frequently missing in healthcare comms because spokespeople try to be detached and objective in the interests of neutrality. Try to be objective without being detached and seemingly cold and unfeeling.

Video: Film yourself as you rehearse. It's a great teaching aid.

Workshops: Many clinicians and scientists give successful interviews with little if any formal preparation, but most large companies and governments regard training workshops as essential.

The X factor: X marks the change you are seeking to achieve.

You: A tutor on a BBC radio journalism course told me: When you are working for the BBC, you are the BBC in the eyes of the people you meet. Similarly, you are your company in a media interview. Acknowledge it by talking about 'we' not 'I' and referring to your company by name, but don't overdo it.

Zen: Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds has good advice for media interviewees – aim for restraint, simplicity, clarity and brevity.

The Author
John Illman is former editor of GP and medical correspondent on the Daily Mail. He is the author of Handling the media: Communication and presentation skills for healthcare professionals, available at