The gold nugget that reporters want from you 

by | Jul 25, 2019 | Analysis, Public Relations

Imagine you’re a reporter. You need a quote from an expert related to the news story you’re putting together about, say, minimizing your risk of becoming a crime victim.

You’re fortunate enough to get a really smart crime expert on the phone, and lucky for you, he’s experienced enough with media interviews to know he has to keep his answers short, certainly no longer than one minute each.

Here’s one exchange from the interview:

QUESTION: “Are there certain people who are more likely to become a victim of a mugging? What advice do you have for people to avoid becoming a mugging victim?”

ANSWER: “Well, these are crimes of opportunity. I mean, the stereotypical thing we all think about is old ladies getting mugged or having their purses snatched—and certainly that happens occasionally. And it’s obviously horrible when we see that, because they’re among the most vulnerable people in our society and it often shatters their sense of safety. I’ve even seen victims who essentially become shut-ins because they’re so scared. But I’ve also seen really big men mugged by smaller criminals with a weapon. Catch those big guys off guard, and they’re susceptible too. So I’d say to everyone to be aware of their environment and, like I said before, remember that anyone can be a victim.”

Now, in your role as the reporter, look at that answer and decide what you think the quote should be. While selecting the quote, keep in mind that for most edited interviews—print, online, radio, and television— the average quote is short. For print or online, it might run a couple of sentences. For television, it might last up to 15 seconds.

What did you select as the gold nugget—the quote you could plug into your story?

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I couldn’t find anything great. The closing sentence might have been okay, but for the phrase “like I said before,” which wouldn’t make sense in middle of a quote. And the example about the old lady was both too lengthy and too in the weeds to make sense as a standalone thought.

That lengthy quote isn’t unusual for media spokespersons. In fact, I’d say it’s the norm.

But there is a lot of potential in that answer—and with some finessing, it’s easy to see how it could become more media friendly. Here’s take two:

QUESTION: “Are there certain people who are more likely to become a victim of a mugging? What advice do you have for people to avoid becoming a mugging victim?”

ANSWER: “Criminals are looking to commit crimes of opportunity, and anyone—from the older women who didn’t see the purse snatching coming to the bigger man who thought he was immune from street crime—could be a victim. We tell everyone to be aware of your surroundings, park in lighted and well-populated areas, and call your local police department if anything looks off.”

Both sentences in that answer have a self-contained thought. As a reporter, I could run either of those sentences or both.

For a sound bites-style format—as opposed to longer-format interviews or in-person presentations—the “gold” the reporter is hoping to mine is a standalone quote that can be plugged seamlessly into their story.

That’s not to say that every sentence you utter during the interview has to be perfectly crafted—few people speak that way naturally—but it is to say that you should think out in advance what your standalone quotes might be.

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Years ago, one of my trainees shared an exercise with me that helped him along the way. A previous trainer taught him to speak in a “short answer / long answer” format, in which every response began with a tight one- or two-sentence answer, followed by additional context, as needed.

The second version above was my short answer. I could have added additional examples or statistics during a “long answer” that followed.

The benefit of that approach is that the short answer often contains the headline—the standalone thought—and by leading with that, you’ve quickly helped the reporter sift through the sand to find something of value.

Different media formats have different needs—so before your next interview, ask yourself what the reporter needs from you. If they primarily need a compelling quote that encapsulates an entire thought in just a few lines, think in advance about what that quote might be—and make sure it’s as easy for the reporter to spot as a bar of gold.

This article originally appeared on the Throughline Group blog; reprinted with permission.

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Brad Phillips
Brad Phillips is president of Throughline Group, a communications training firm based in NYC and DC which offers public speaking classes and media training classes.

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