The art and science of communications: From strategic to personal

Tag Archives: media interviews

Heuristics – we’re all doing it every day – basing our responses to information or stimuli on experience as opposed to cold, hard logic.  It’s the brain’s way of taking a short cut to save processing time.  Cognitive heuristics rely on several aspects, not least, representativeness and availability, and can play a huge part in our, or an audience’s, processing of information.  And that can be pretty important in a media interview.

Representativeness is the mechanism by which the brain makes inferences about the probability of statements being true based upon how it fits with the receiver’s existing data, often responsible for stereotyping.  As an expert in their field, a spokesperson will have much more available data and may assume that a message or statement is rationally understandable.  But the audience may not have such access.  As such, in message construction it is crucial that the audience’s available data, and thereby possible opinion, be accounted for. Equally important is considering how that data is informing that opinion.

It's actually cheap and nasty but strangely tastes like an '82 Claret

The simplest example of this is the wine test.  Even the most experienced oenologists (that’s wine experts to you and me) can be fooled by transferring good, expensive wine into the bottles of cheap, average wine and vice versa (even easier over a large group, but that’s another story).  That’s because the all the available data, not just the taste, is influencing the outcome.

Availability can also change rapidly.  For example, after a major aircraft accident, general public perception of the safety or risks of flying changes significantly, despite cool logic and probability calculations indicating otherwise.   That’s because the availability of date ‘suggesting’ heightened risk is increased and the heuristic process short cuts logic, contributing to the cerebral outcome.

So, two lessons here.  One: don’t assume that just because you’ve got all the correct data, the audience has access to that data – this is one of the cardinal sins of ego-centric communication.  They may have access to different, even incorrect, data.  Your message has to account for that (and remember, whereas good old-fashioned facts and figures are great for print interviews, they probably won’t survive the broadcast editing process unless you can sell them as vital and interesting).  Two: try to access this data, understand what data networks are operating (not just what’s in the papers or on TV – the audience is getting much more sophisticated than that), so that your message can fit, support or subtly rebut this data.

All media interview preparation must focus on the audience.  But it’s not just knowing about who they are, but also how they think (i.e. heuristically*) and where they get their information from.

*  But even then, segments of the audience will be more rational than others, more emotions- or morality-based than others – men from Mars, women from Venus and all that.


There is a conventional wisdom when in media interview that the interviewee always address the journalist – and rightly so.  At that moment, one is in a dialogical process with the journalist which is then transferred to the public.  Journalists as media trainers, as well as professional media trainers, teach this.

However, CB3 has always thought that occasionally a direct appeal to the audience, by addressing the camera, does have some utility.  Take for instance the recent prime ministerial debates in the UK.  It is widely considered that the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, won the debate and much has be said and written on how he did it.  Now, none of the candidates are great orators, and Clegg may have had the advantage of being an unknown underdog, but some have reported that his use of the camera, specifically adrressing it directly, may have gone some way to him ‘connecting’ with the audience.

Nick Clegg - Used the camera to his advantage

Although this was in a debate, not a strict media interview, this is a lesson how addressing the camera directly may be beneficial.  In interview it is not a recommended tactic but if a heartfelt appeal is to be made to an audience it may be worthwhile considering this direct approach, only briefly, for certain phrases or messages.  Journalists may not like it but, from a public affairs or media relations perspective, there is a certain power of connection that can be derived by doing so.  It is unconventional and must not be overdone – the context must be right and it is risky – but as they say ‘ do what you’ve always done and you get what you always get’.  Think creatively in the conduct of an interview – live on the wild side!

And a little update after the second debate: Lo and behold, David Cameron is now doing it too – if a little more awkwardly!