Give me the headline, dammit!

As a media skills trainer, I find the most common fault in the people I work with is an inability to get straight to the point.

Asked a simple question in mock interviews, like ‘What’s special about your company?’ or ‘What are your plans for next year?’ they either:

  • meander around the main point and eventually hit it almost accidentally so that I don’t know when the big moment has arrived;
  • build up to the point so gradually from deep background that I have lost the plot completely by the time they’ve got there;
  • produce such a long list of key points that I have no way of knowing which matters most.

A brief, simple and memorable response

Often when I have a go at answering the question for them, they are amazed by my ability to hit the elusive nail right on the head and provide a brief, simple and memorable response.

Is it because I am more intelligent than them? Almost certainly not.

Is it because I know more than them about their subject. Absolutely not – and that is surely the point.

The more you know about a given topic, the more data you have at your disposal, the more detail swilling around in your brain, the harder it is for you to know where to start – and where to stop – when someone asks you a question about it.

These problems are compounded for the doctors and scientists I tend to work with by the fact that their training primes them to work carefully towards never-quite-definite conclusions via history, background and research.

Journalists want the conclusion first

With journalists you have to work the other way round and present your firm conclusion – let’s call it the headline – first. If you start with history and background the journalist will either:

  • get bored, stop concentrating and miss the point;
  • get impatient, interrupt and take you off track
  • seize on one of the less important points you raised while exploring the background and run with that.

Always start with the headline

The solution is always to start with the headline – your most important point, ideally couched in the form of a vivid and punchy ‘soundbite’ that is likely to get you quoted.

You should then follow up with just enough evidence to prove that key point. If the journalist wants to delve further – which may be the case with a specialist writer – you can go on to provide increasing levels of detail. But always come back to the key point at the end so there is no danger of them failing to get it.

You can then do the same with the next point…and the next. If you are wise you won’t go into an interview with too many key points, three being the magic number. If you want the journalist to report you faithfully and accurately, it is far better to have three points, each repeated three times in the course of the interview, than to mention nine points once apiece.

If you are a visual type of learner, as I am, it might help to visualise this process as a triangle. I am indebted for this way of looking at it to an advocacy training company I worked with last week, and I am going to namecheck them here: Midas Training Solutions

Start with your headline at the top of the triangle and then work down with supporting points in descending order of importance. It then doesn’t matter when the journalist stops listening or when you are interrupted. Wherever you cut the story, it’s still a triangle with the key information at the top!

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