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It's easy to slip into the cynicism of the siege mentality. The media are out to get me, they're waiting for me to slip up, they just want a sensational headline, they only want to sell papers and raise their ratings.

That mentality can damage you because you come across as reluctant to be in people's homes talking to them. But - incredibly - some media trainers are actively teaching siege mentality tactics.

Beware two tactics in particular.

Siege mentality tactic #1: never begin your answer to a yes or no question with 'yes' or 'no'

This nonsense comes from the idea that journalists will take the first word you utter as the complete answer. And yes, they could. But if you avoid the direct answer, you will lose much more than you gain.

An example. I heard this on national radio:

Interviewer: ‘Minister, did you or did you not promise to announce the schedule in March?'
Minister: 'Well, when you consider that it was a highly complex situation which had to go to two different select committees, then we had to consult every second council in the South Island... and of course each response had to be collated in-'
Interviewer: (now irritated): 'Minister, it was a simple question. Yes, or no?'

Classic, obvious, ducking and weaving. Sure, political backside is covered (just barely), but the cost is huge - credibility and trust shrivels and dies on the spot. We simply don't trust people who won't look us in the eye and give a straight answer to a straight question. All the minister had to do was say, 'Yes I did. I couldn't deliver because the situation was more complex than I anticipated.... etc.'

Start with yes or no, (or a very short phrase which might be "It's not a yes or no answer"), then qualify. We forgive mistakes. We don't quickly forgive dodging and deception.

Siege mentality tactic #2: use the interviewer's first name often

'Well, Mark, it's like this...' More nonsense. The theory is that when you use someone's name you have power over them. It leads to the fantasy that an interview is a battle with the media, rather than a chance to communicate with the public.) Most people we talk to say they are irritated by the tactic. Why? Because they feel excluded.

Again, the cost is too great.

What if the journalist really is out to get me?

As the saying goes, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you. Seriously, on some topics, it does happen. I can remember a television current affairs show that set out to punish one of my clients - with shouted, emotionally loaded accusations - because his organisation didn't cooperate with their schedule.

Even so, the cost of the siege mentality is still too great. It's certainly understandable that you might want tactics to keep your head above water, but if you look and sound defensive, you might as well give up and drown. Choose your tactics (and your trainer) with great care.

A better way to approach a media interview

Want a really effective alternative? Here it is: no matter how difficult or loaded the question, treat it as an understandable point of view and an opportunity to explain. Look and sound keen to be there to clarify.

Ditch the siege mentality. It might win you a battle, but it will lose you the war.

I'm hanging out for politicians to get that message.

Michael

About Michael Brown

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Michael is a senior trainer with Skillset, based in Christchurch.

He is a leading authority on training in presentation and news media skills in New Zealand. He has special expertise in how to present emotionally charged topics to challenging audiences. Michael has trained thousands of New Zealanders and worked with people who speak on behalf of some of the country's largest organisations.

Michael is a prolific author and his books on speaking and working with the media are in their fourth editions.

Speaking Easy: how to speak to your audiences with confidence and authority

Media Easy: how to handle the news media with confidence and authority

One of Michael's books is about his family's adventures sailing in the Pacific.

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