Responding to media questions: Establish your response rhythm

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“Yah, so…”

I’ve heard this unfortunate phrase many times recently in radio interviews. An interviewer asks a subject matter expert a question; the SME begins to answer. “Yah, so…”

Now that I’ve pointed it out, you’re going to hear this phrase every time you listen to a radio interview.

What purpose does the “yah” serve? Obviously, it’s simple acknowledgement of a question. And “so”? A transition to the real answer listeners were expecting in the first place. And a subtle acknowledgement that the first word wasn’t needed.

Why waste their breath and my time? Why create a distraction from the knowledgeable answer they’re about to provide?

And the question you need to answer: If they’re doing it, are you? When you’re answering media questions on behalf of your client or organization, how do you begin your responses?

Dear Lord, please don’t let it be “Yah, so.”

We utter filler words and phrases when we’re not fully engaged in the conversation; when we’re trying to remember a pre-written, half-memorized script we’re about to recite; when the interviewer doesn’t ask us a question in quite the way we expected.

We fill, because our brains are momentarily disengaged from the actual conversation that’s supposed to be taking place. We’re letting our vocal chords hum aloud while we switch into conversation gear from oration gear.

We are too busy preparing to talk.

“Yah, so,” “uh,” “er” and other mindless mutterings pop out while we switch gears.

It’s easy to break this bad habit. A conversational response to a question comes in three rhythmic parts: Listen; pause; answer.

The first part is often the hardest. Gauge yourself in a normal conversation with a friend: You’re sometimes not really listening to their statements or questions; you’re waiting to answer. In effect, you’re waiting for them to stop so you can speak. That’s not a two-way conversation; it’s a duel of orators. A polite debate.

So when you’re asked a question, LISTEN to the question. Make sure you’ve heard what was actually asked. You don’t have to be in a hurry to answer. Show the questioner the same respect you expect when you’re asking the question. Let them finish.

That act of listening creates a natural pause while you make sure the questioner is done, that you understand the question, and while you quickly consider your response. It often lasts one or two seconds. During the pause, you simply KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT.

Then you answer.

Now you’re engaged in a two-way, listen-pause-respond conversation.

Now you’re nimble when the question isn’t exactly as you expected. And if all of a sudden the interviewer throws you a real hardball question, that pause in the middle gives you time to formulate a reasonable response without any noticeable delay beyond what you’ve already been employing while answering every other question.

Luckily for all of us, answering questions competently, credibly and conversationally is a learned skill, not an innate ability. You can do it, if you practice. As you practice, you’ll naturally find your own rhythm: Listen; pause; answer.

Dave will provide more tips and techniques for conducting media interviews in a PRSA-Oregon professional development seminar “Interviewing 101: Imagine your headline” Friday, March 26, 2021 at noon Pacific time.

Dave Thompson, APR questioned newsmakers for 20 years as a reporter, and has answered reporters’ questions for another 22 years as a public relations professional. Today he provides media training and crisis counseling to organizations across the United States.

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