The success of media trainings depends as much on their design as on the content of the course material.
There are some rules that are best applied to designing media trainings if you want the training to succeed in passing on skills to trainees that will last them a lifetime.
In what follows, I will discuss a handful of design practices that I have applied, tuned and perfected over the last 12 years of training executives in the Brussels and Austin markets.
Building blocks of the media training
A media training as I use the term in every article on the subject on this site, is a training session where a limited group of people, ideally not more than four, receive:
- Insights from their trainer in best practices for preparing for, giving and following up on media interviews (transfer of knowledge)
- An opportunity to rehearse essential message delivery skills through simulated interviews (acquisition of skills)
A typical media training takes 3 to 3.5 hours. The “academic” part, which in the trainings that I conduct does not take up more than 25 percent of the time, covers three types of content. First, the trainees learn about communication best practices pertaining to message design (“message houses”, “message maps”, Q&As etc.) and message delivery (bridging, flagging, headlining for example). We could call this content communication technical.
Second, the trainees learn about how the media works and what customs and rules, written and unwritten, govern the relationship between interviewers and interviewees. Here trainees pick up for example what journalists understand under sharing information “off the record.” The training content on following up on media interviews is mostly of this nature. “Can I ask a journalist to proofread an article?” is one other topic that is addressed during this part of the training.
And third, trainees discover (or are reminded of) the company guidelines for communicating to the press. Is there a press policy? What do you do when you receive a call from a journalist? (hint: informing the Corporate Communications / PR department will often be part of the process to follow).
As I explained here, in the part of the training that is communication technical, all the training material is evidence-based. You should not negate frames because doing so will make you trigger those frames. Apart from that, talking in negatives is not a cardinal sin as such since people do process negatives. And no, you do not need to repeat a message three times in an interview, or at any rate not for reasons that have to do with the attention span of your audience. These are all insights culled from academic research that I share with my trainees during a training workshop.
Composition of the group
Just as much as seating is a crucial factor in determining the success of a diner, when it comes to media trainings, the exact composition of the group of three to four trainees should be given some good thought if the training is to be a success.
Two rules are worth implementing:
- Make sure that the trainees are not in too different of leagues when it comes to their knowledge and skills
- Be cautious in mixing bosses with their direct reports
It is not easy for any trainer to instruct trainees that vary greatly in knowledge and skills. The experienced trainee will at many moments of the training shrug his or her shoulders and wish things would move along faster, while the novice will be unhappy having to run hard to keep up.
Bosses and subordinates will sometimes mix well, but I have seen instances where things go awry very quickly. As I mentioned in this article on training CEOs it is unlikely that the CEO is over conscious about performing in front of other executives. Rather, it is the lower ranked executives, especially when they are direct reports of other trainees in the group, who will potentially find themselves in a place where mistakes lead to embarrassment and subpar performance. It is recommended for the organizer of the media training (most of the times the PR or Corporate Communications manager, see also later) and the trainer of the workshop to talk this through thoroughly before any decision is made on the composition of the group(s). They do well to err on the side of caution.
Flow of the media training
Before I talk about the order in which the different building blocks of the training need to be presented, it is vital to mention the importance of a good start. As previously mentioned, trainees should be made to feel comfortable about making mistakes during the training. It is also necessary that all trainees have bought in to the importance of the training. A theoretical exposé on the merits of media trainings will be less efficient in having trainees lean in than a moment of self-reflection where trainees are asked to think back to a moment where they gave an interview and reflect on the challenges they faced at that time.
Also, not only a reflection on the past but also the anticipation of future high-stakes events will have trainees pay attention. This is the reason why it is more recommendable to organize media trainings on the eve of big announcements where trainees will have to perform, than at random moments of the year where there is no perceived urgency.
Let’s now take a look at how events will unfold once the training really kicks off. A first simulated interview takes place and is then followed by a chunk of theory. Another interview follows now, it is a bit more challenging, since it applies a layer of complexity. Now more theory follows. The challenges become more sophisticated still. Another simulation ensues to rehearse the new theory… OK, I think you got my point..
The complexity of the course material increases, and it does so gradually, and this process is facilitated by alternating theory and practice. There is no other way to move through a training. Starting aggressively in an attempt to underscore the need for a training is a point that any trainer will make at a steep price. Trainees who crash and burn are left embarrassed, and negative emotions will make them shut down and be less receptive to anything that follows.
Just as it is important to build up gradually the challenges that trainees are confronted with in the simulated interviews, it matters to put variation in the media that is used as course material. People stay engaged not only through the way that content appeals to them, but also through the choice of channels that are used to communicate that content. Luckily, there is no lack of resources available to organize this.
Trainers have at their disposal, next to their voice and body language, slides, a flip-chart, or a white board, audio recordings from radio or podcast interviews from famous or less famous people, video recordings from the trainee’s performance (see later) and video footage of how other spokespersons have performed in the past. Experienced trainers know that often they could also make their points without the use of their audiovisual library, but that the mere use of these “rich” media has helped keep the trainees engaged.
Simulated media interviews
What trainees remember most of media trainings are the simulated interviews. Having a media trainer run you through a series of critical questions during a 10-15 minute window is no small potatoes, even if you have already had experience giving media interviews.
On many occasions these interviews might turn animated and make for chuckles with the trainee and peers afterwards. But this is not a game, it is a serious matter. The interviews are meant to have trainee make mistakes, practice techniques and learn as much as possible from the experience so their performance gets a “bottom” under it that is as high as possible.
Because there are many learning points to be made on verbal and non-verbal delivery, I will always suggest to clients to make every simulated interview an on-camera interview. In real life, most interviews that spokespeople give are not recorded on camera, but since on-camera interviews are the most demanding, I am of the opinion that it makes most sense to teach people how to jump over a 2 meter high bar knowing that often they will not have to reach higher than 1.5 meter. Of course I will also discuss specific attention points for audio and print interviews with the trainees during the workshop.
Trainees will have received a few days before the media training a few questions from the fictitious journalist who is planning to take the interview. Also this sharing of questions is of course part of the realistic preparation for a media interview since in a real life setting a spokesperson will often have at least some information on where an interview is going. And did the journalist actually provide an exhaustive list of questions? Well, figuring that out is part of the exercise of course.
Once the moment has passed in the media training where trainees have learned about the need to prepare key messages and pivot to key messages whenever that is useful (through the famous “bridging” techniques), I give trainees who have not done so yet, room to jot down their key messages before their interview starts. Again, any and all parts of this experience, including the lavalier microphone that takes a second try to sit still, the intimidating lens of the camera, and the journalist (trainer) who interrupts at moments where it is not convenient, are meant to make the exercise as realistic as possible.
When trainees have finished their simulated interview, I will always take a step back and make sure to not jump into my “hot debrief” right away. The trainees are first asked to reflect on their own performance and share with their peers who have observed the interview and myself how they evaluate their performance. After the self-evaluation of the performer, I will ask the other trainees to share their thoughts on what they saw and heard. This peer-assisted learning moment where trainees are tasked to reflect on their performance, share their self-appraisal with others and often also address questions and remarks from others, deepens the understanding and assimilation of the course material considerably.
Only when everyone in the group has spoken out do I come in to synthesize, add some important observations and possibly redirect some of the (self)-appraisals that I just heard. Since every interview has been recorded on video, time is now made to take a look back together at certain key parts of the interview where I will expand on the feedback I gave earlier where that is useful.
Enter Corporate Communications
Finally, a word on the casting of the training staff. In all that has been said before, the impression could have been raised that the media training is a gathering limited to a trainer, a video crew and his trainees. But more often than not, this is not the case.
In most trainings, a Corporate Communications or PR manager will be present during the entire duration of the session and take on – in agreement with the trainer – well defined roles. A first role in which this manager can provide considerable value is giving input and feedback on what needs to be the “right” message. Even having been briefed beforehand extensively on the ins and outs of the dossiers on which simulated interviews will be based, the trainer will never be able to give the same granularity of feedback on trainee answers to questions (“those are statements that have backfired in the past because…”) as what they will receive from the Corporate Communications or PR manager.
Also, the communication manager knows not only the ins and outs of the dossiers, but also, and this brings me to the second role he or she will often fulfill, knows the policies in place for talking to the media and has an excellent view on the resources that trainees have available to prepare themselves for interviews. Do we give numbers when asked about turnover numbers for our subsidiaries? And if I am asked about a recent press release, where can I find the Q&A that accompanied it? I mentioned before that this is part of the academic part of the training. Often the trainer will give here briefly the floor to the Corporate Communications or PR manager so they can answer any specific questions that are raised and make sure everyone gets the message.
Media trainings can help executives increase their quality of message delivery in media interviews fast and significantly. I do not believe that anybody is a “born communicator.” None of the delivery techniques taught during a media training demand an inborn talent for well… anything. However, for the media training to fulfill its important role, it is of crucial importance that a professional and (thus) efficient design be applied.
This contribution received valuable input from Dries De Schutter, advisor at Belgian HR consultancy firm Knowledge on the Spot, who helps Detavernier Strategic Communication conduct media trainings of which not only the content, but also the design are evidence-based.
Did you enjoy reading this article on how to design a media training?
You might also like my article on evidence-based media trainings where I talk about the need to make media trainings firmly grounded in science.