Regardless, there are two things you know: first, that there are so many uncontrollable variables that you never really know what you may be asked; second, once it starts, there is good potential that word-of-mouth, social media and possibly professional reporters in the audience will amplify and extend the life of your words.
With this in mind, the best way to eliminate or minimize the impact of factors beyond your control is to prepare. The following are eight critical success factors for powerful spokespersons:
- Media/audience analysis – Good preparation is always the starting point. Prepare an analysis that includes a profile of the reporter, publication or group of reporters that may be covering you. If it’s a public meeting, generate as best as possible, a profile of the audience and people who will be in attendance, what they care about, why they may be interested in listening to you, and most importantly, what they may want to tell you once they get there. This can be the basis for the other planning you will do.
- Anticipate the questions – Once you have a sense of what people in the room care about most, you can begin to anticipate the kinds of questions they may ask. Start by listing the questions you’d rather not have to answer, and then develop responses. Be thorough, plan for the worst and work toward the best. You may find that the reporter or audience may only ask a fraction of your questions, and they may ask a question or two that you didn’t consider, but this kind of preparation will go a long way towards giving you the confidence and comfort level you need.
- Develop key messages – The major difference between anticipating Q&A and your key messages is mostly one of size and focus. Your key messages must be more focused and condensed than a long list of all the questions you could receive. These key messages are the core themes and points you want to make in order to pre-emptively address the things your audience cares about. They should follow your larger communications strategy, helping you to achieve your communications objectives.
- Dress for success – Think about the venue, the time of day, the location, the audience’s culture, and the non-verbal message you want to send with your appearance. If you’re going to a county fair, don’t wear a suit, try jeans instead. But even in jeans, look sharp. If you will be at a Downtown club for a luncheon event, think about what the audience will be wearing. By working to blend you are eliminating a non-verbal barrier to communication. Of course, there are exceptions. Sometimes it’s necessary to make a statement that calls for a different appearance. I remember a few analyst meetings I attended where the Harley Davidson senior management team wore leather jackets and some rather upscale casual clothes as they addressed a group of Wall Street execs in suits. Imagine a hotel ballroom filled with analysts in suits, sitting behind tables set-up classroom style. Then the speakers ride onto the platform in full chrome-plated volume on their Harleys. They made their point even before they began to speak.
- Don’t forget your voice – Too many average spokespersons don’t pay enough attention to how they sound when speaking to reporters or in the public. By “voice” in this larger context, we also mean your words. Speak loud enough to be heard. If you have a microphone, use it and don’t turn away from it while you look to the side at your presentation screen and continue to speak. And avoid jargon and excessive use of acronyms in your comments. Keep it simple, relatable, and look at the people to whom you are speaking when you speak.
- Keep it short – While your larger remarks or interview may take some time, avoid rambling on specific points or topics. Broadcasters would characterize this as speaking in sound bites. These are 30- to 40-second comments or responses that have a clear beginning, middle and end, structured to deliver a key message and then stop. The best sound bites do not include qualifier words or long words. Simple words and memorable messages that get to the point.
- Be compassionate – This does not mean to fake it. Just the opposite. It means not to leave your human compassion and your own emotional investment in the topic at the doorstep. Incorporate your genuine interest in the issue, the audience and the subjects that are raised by reminding the reporter or your audience that everything you are discussing is very important to you on a personal and professional level.
- Rehearse – Never think you will be that effective if your plan is to “wing it.” I’ve seen some spokespersons say things like, “I’m always better if I improvise.” Or, “I sound fresher, more genuine and more spontaneous if I don’t rehearse.” They’re wrong. The rehearsal process is not a memorization process. The goal of rehearsal is not to create a robotic spokesperson who never strays from script. The goal of rehearsing is to allow the spokesperson to truly master the subject matter, to internalize it, so that when the speaker gets in front of the media or the public, he or she can be more comfortable, flexible and spontaneous. A rehearsed speaker can better stay on message, not be surprised by certain questions that come up, and stay in the moment.
These critical success factors for powerful spokespersons, which represent a good deal of planning and preparation, can serve as a model for you to make sure you provide your audience with content that effectively addresses their most important issues and concerns.