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Nov 30, 2009

Media advice for CEOs and CFOs

Advice from media trainers on improving presentation skills for conferences and interviews

Fail to prepare, prepare to…

1. Do your research. ‘The best way to ace a media interview? Prepare thoroughly,’ says Crystal Quast, director of media relations at Toronto IR firm Equicom. ‘Before agreeing to speak with a reporter, ask why he or she is writing the story, what the angle is and who else might be interviewed. Once you know that, you can develop a list of questions you might be asked. Jot down appropriate answers so you know what you want to say.’

2. Be mindful of the day’s news. ‘If you are on CNBC or talking to the Wall Street Journal, make sure you know what is happening in the business world that day because you may be asked to give your opinion on a recent move in the market, an announcement from a competitor or some other news development,’ says Michael Fox, president of corporate communications at Integrated Corporate Relations.

3. Practice bridging to key points. ‘Have a clear idea of the four or five key points management should make when being interviewed,’ states Colin Languedoc, senior consultant at financial PR firm BarnesMcInerney. ‘In fact, never agree to an interview unless these are clear in your own mind. Write them out and learn to work them into the conversation in rehearsal. Stay on message by learning to bridge to them in conversation.’

Looking the part

4. Check posture. ‘Your posture reveals the level of engagement and comfort you have,’ says Brad Wilks, managing director of Sard Verbinnen & Co. ‘Sit up, lean slightly forward and place your arms squarely on the desk or arm rests in front of you. If standing, stand square, place your arms comfortably at your sides and lean slightly toward the interviewer. These simple steps will simultaneously communicate engagement with your interviewer and confidence in the subject matter. Avoid negative body language such as slouching, rocking or leaning back in response to difficult questions.’ For some free video tips on media presentation, check out Stuart McNish, the host of DVD series On Message, at

5. Try to smile. ‘Smile, smile, smile – CEOs need to be tough and serious, but viewers and reporters are influenced by the positive energy of the person being interviewed,’ explains Fox. ‘Regardless of the circumstances, ensure you come across as energized and passionate about your business and as a likeable person. If people like you, they’ll be more receptive to your message.’

6. Dress to impress. ‘Dressing for an interview depends very much on the surroundings in which the interview will take place,’ advises Wilks. ‘A good rule of thumb in any situation is to go one step above the interviewer. For example, if the interviewer is dressed in a shirt and casual trousers, do the same – but wear a blazer. Unless you are a 23-year-old tech-sector wunderkind, most investors prefer CEOs who look the part of a business executive. In broadcast situations, choose simple patterns or solids for your tie, to avoid it creating distortion and distracting viewers.’

Write the press release

7. Turn negatives into positives. ‘Bad news makes for the best reading, so it’s not surprising that reporters often ask negative questions,’ notes Quast. ‘One way to turn a negative question into a positive comment is to use bridging sentences that help you redirect the question. For example, if a reporter asks you about staff cuts, one way to answer might be to say, What’s really important here is what we’re doing to keep as many staff as we can.’

8. Stay in control. ‘It’s only natural to want to strike back or defend yourself when attacked, so teach people to stay in control,’ says Jana Sanchez, CEO of corporate communications consultancy CitySavvy in London. ‘We remind people they need to win over the audience by bridging back to key messages. If a journalist attacks but you remain calm, responsive and focused, it only strengthens your impact, especially on TV or radio.’

9. Don’t say ‘no comment’, advises Roger Pondel, CEO of PondelWilkinson in Los Angeles. ‘Saying ‘no comment’ to a reporter is highly frustrating when a piece of information is needed. It has become a dreaded cliché and is akin to telling the reporter, I am not going to allow you to do your job. There are other ways of saying ‘no comment’, including, I would really like to help you with the answer to that question, but it is my company’s policy not to disclose that information, or, Until complete information is available, I am not in a position to answer that question.’

10. Be in the right frame of mind. ‘The psychological element is very important,’ says Warwick Partington, managing director at UK-based Media Training Masterclasses. ‘Alongside good coaching and practice, it helps interviewees to view every question as an opportunity. Tough questions give you the chance to demonstrate confidence, resilience and empathy with the issues faced by the audience. For example, over the last 12 months in the energy sector, Andy Duff of RWE npower and Alistair Buchanan, the CEO of Ofgem, have both performed well while under intense scrutiny on retail energy prices in the UK.’

11. Avoid jargon. ‘You’ll come across as more expert if you’re able to explain things in language the interview’s target audience will understand,’ says Elly Williamson, consultant at M:Communications. ‘Knowing who the audience is and anticipating what terms you’ll need to explain will obviously help you. Not only will you avoid being misunderstood, but you will also come across more sympathetically, as the audience will assume there are fewer differences between you and it.’

12. Make it personal. ‘People want transparency and honesty,’ comments Lord Alan Watson, chairman of CTN Communications. ‘As a result, corporate communication is becoming more personal, which is a good thing.’

Handling journalists

13. Remember that journalists are egocentric, notes Kim Fletcher, managing director of Trinity Management Communications, the presentation training arm of Brunswick. ‘Praise the
incisive nature of their last article, tell them how much you like their show, remark on their command of detail about your industry,’ she suggests. ‘Watch as their heads swell with pride. You, they think, are a fine judge of journalism. Suddenly their hearts are softer and they feel less inclined to ask the really tough questions.’

14. If you’re working Stateside, don’t send thank-you notes. ‘Outside the US, the press and corporates tend to be friendlier and it’s not uncommon for CEOs to send a thank-you note to a journalist saying, Thanks for a great interview,’ says Monique Skruzny, partner at MBS Value, an IR and PR firm based in New York but around half of whose clients are based outside of the US. ‘That’s not done in the US, however, and we advise clients not to thank interviewers, who want to be seen as objective.’