Good Media Interview Example: A Physician On Robin Williams

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on November 23, 2014 – 8:24 am

In their wonderful book Made to Stick, Dan and Chip Heath offer two ways to describe a pomelo to a person who hasn’t heard of it. 

The first way is to infuse the definition with detail:

“A pomelo is the largest citrus fruit. The rind is very thick but soft and easy to peel away. The resulting fruit has a light yellow to coral pink flesh and can vary from juicy to slightly dry and from seductively spicy-sweet to tangy and tart.”

The second way is to draw an accessible analogy instead:

“A pomelo is basically a supersized grapefruit with a very thick and soft rind.”

The second version works better, they write, because it succeeds in “tapping the existing memory terrain of your audience. You use what’s already there.” Since the audience understands what a grapefruit is, you begin with that, creating a building block that allows you to add another detail that taps into something the learner already knows, then another, then another.

Pomelo via Wikimedia Commons

Too often, I find that physicians and scientists revert to using the first type of definition. They explain whatever they’re talking about in the type of unhelpful detail that leaves an audience confused. So I was delighted when I saw a physician named Devi Nampiaparampil on CNN last week to discuss a new pathology report which found that Robin Williams had been suffering from Lewy body dementia.

Fast forward to 4:54 to see the interview below; alternatively, you can click here to see the interview without having to fast forward.

Dr. Devi did a great job of explaining the science behind Lewy body dementia by drawing upon what viewers already knew. To explain how the brain rewards certain behaviors with the chemical dopamine, she drew an analogy to potty training a child or training a pet.

Whereas many physicians would have started by describing the pomelo—or Lewy body dementia—in great detail, Dr. Devi started with the more helpful version—the “supersized grapefruit” approach. She didn’t focus on her own concerns about coming across as “smart” or “credible” (although she accomplished both), but focused squarely on helping viewers understand the disease in terms that made sense to them.

If you deliver media interviews or speeches that contain similarly complex content, remember to look for an accessible analogy that makes your material immediately understandable to your audience. Once you put that building block in place, it will be easier for you to add complexity—slowly—until you get the audience to exactly where they need to be.

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Editor’s note: Due to the Thanksgiving break, this will be my only post this week. Enjoy your holiday, and see you next week!


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The 14-Year-Old Who Crushed An Arrogant Interviewer

Written by Christina Mozaffari (@PMRChristina) on August 9, 2013 – 6:02 am

If everybody performed in interviews like 14-year-old Rachel Parent, Brad and I would be out of a job.

The young Canadian activist founded an organization called “The Kids Right To Know” that campaigns for mandatory labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). She has organized and spoken at rallies against GMOs and just happens to be one amazing spokesperson.

Here’s the proof: Ms. Parent challenged investor and TV host Kevin O’Leary to a debate after he called GMO protesters “just stupid” and suggested on his show that they “stop eating” as a way to “get rid of them.”

Mr. O’Leary accepted, and last week, Ms. Parent was a guest on the show he co-hosts, “The Lang & O’Leary Exchange,” from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).

Mr. O’Leary made it clear early in the interview he had no intention of taking it easy on Ms. Parent because of her age. That’s not unfair given Ms. Parent’s activism and visibility in her movement. Still, there’s a fine line between respectfully challenging and bullying. Mr. O’Leary managed to end the interview looking like a condescending bully due to Ms. Parent’s stellar performance.

One of the first questions he asked her, “You know what a lobbyist is, right?” set the tone for the 13 minutes that would follow.

So how did this 14-year-old succeed? She did some very big things right.

1. She didn’t let Mr. O’Leary change the debate.

More than once in the interview, O’Leary pushed to expose Ms. Parent as ignorant and anti-science. The savvy 14-year-old would have none of it. She was laser-focused on her issue of labeling GMO food and brought her answers back to that repeatedly.

2. She refused to engage in hypotheticals.

Mr. O’Leary used some hypothetical situations, including one in which nutrient-enriched rice, called “golden rice,” was being fed to starving communities around the world. When he asked what she would say to malnourished children about GMOs, Ms. Parent was ready. She used facts about the rice and why it wasn’t effective rather than play into Mr. O’Leary’s hypothetical example.

3. She ignored his insults.

Mr. O’Leary more than once alluded to Ms. Parent’s youth and even accused her of being disingenuous. A particularly low point for Mr. O’Leary was when he accused Ms. Parent of becoming a “shill” for groups that want to use her, saying, “You’re young, you’re articulate, you’re getting lots of media and I’m happy for you on that. But I’m trying to figure out whether you really deep down believe this.” Even with that, Ms. Parent never sank to Mr. O’Leary’s level in the debate.

4. She knew what she was walking into.

Ms. Parent was obviously familiar with Mr. O’Leary. But she did more than just come prepared for a spirited debate. She did her homework. At one point, Mr. O’Leary brought up a documentary his daughter produced about the GMO debate. Ms. Parent had already seen it and offered to clarify some of the points made in the film.

5. She brought on the challenge.

Ms. Parent smartly realized that her credibility would soar if she could effectively debate the hostile Mr. O’Leary. She was right.

Ms. Parent accomplished in that interview what most adult spokespeople dream of. She took on a tough challenger, managed to stay on message, and walked off the set knowing she likely brought some skeptical viewers to her cause. Plus, she scored a viral video in the process. Bravo!

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“That’s a Clown Question, Bro.”

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on June 14, 2012 – 6:04 am

Bryce Harper, the Washington Nationals’ 19-year-old rookie outfielder, hit a homerun on Tuesday night to help his team beat the Toronto Blue Jays.

He hit another homerun after the game.

During a post-game press availability, a reporter pointed out to Harper that people can drink legally at age 18 in Canada, so he wondered whether he might celebrate by drinking his favorite Canadian beer.

That was a silly question for at least a few of reasons. First, answering that question could create negative headlines, such as “Underage Nationals Star Names His Favorite Beer.” Second, as a Mormon, Harper isn’t supposed to drink at all. Third, what type of question is that, anyway?

Bryce Harper, Photo Credit: MissChatter

Harper reacted perfectly, refusing the question and telling the reporter, “That’s a clown question, bro.” Priceless. It’s worth watching the brief exchange.

That clip brings up another important media management question: when is it appropriate for a PR handler to jump in and interrupt an on-camera interview?

You may have noticed that just after the question was asked, a PR rep standing off-camera interjected and told the reporter to “ask something else.” In this case, the interruption was unnecessary – Harper’s initial reaction made it clear that he wasn’t going to answer the question. But the P.R. rep’s instinct to jump in was right.

That goes against the advice I typically dispense on this blog. Generally speaking, I advise PR pros to avoid jumping in during live interviews. Doing so at the wrong time can create a much larger story, as illustrated by this infamous 2004 Meet the Press clip:

Still, there are moments when jumping in is the better of two options. In Mr. Harper’s case, the PR rep felt he had two choices: to allow Harper to answer the question and potentially embarrass himself and his team, or cut off the line of questioning and potentially take some heat for doing so. Especially given the irrelevant nature of the question, I’d argue the PR pro made the right choice. (I’m not sure I’d feel the same way if the reporter was asking about a legitimate scandal, instead.)

Of course, there’s a third and better choice than the two mentioned above: Give all of your players media training and trust that they’re able to handle these situations without needing outside help (I’m guessing that did happen in this case). Mr. Harper looked to have the interview under full control, meaning he was able to deflect the question and move on with ease.

In this case, his PR rep had reason to be confident enough to allow his well-prepared player to handle the situation alone, using the same skill he regularly demonstrates on the field.

A grateful h/t to @FitzFiles.

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Six Things You Can Learn From This Great Media Guest

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on August 15, 2011 – 6:23 am

I don’t care about Davy Crockett. I’ve never been much into American folk heroes, and most of what I know about Crockett comes from the hit 1950s song

So why am I suddenly writing about Davy Crockett?

Last Thursday, historian Michael Wallis appeared on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart to discuss his new book, David Crockett: The Lion of the West. He managed to do the near-impossible – he captured my attention. And I wasn’t the only one to notice his terrific appearance: his book suddenly zoomed onto Amazon.com’s Top 50 list.

Here are six reasons Wallis was such an effective media guest – and what you can learn from his success.


1. He Loves Talking About His Topic: Wallis is clearly enchanted by his subject, and speaks about it with fascination. His contagious passion transferred from him to the audience, as evidenced by the studio audience’s enthusiastic reaction to his interview. 

2. He Is Authentic: Wallis knows who he is. He appears comfortable in his own skin, and looks like he knows he belongs on that set. Rock stars and artists aside, few male media guests can pull off a giant green finger ring. Wallis can, because it seems completely consistent with his personality.

3. He Tells Great Stories: Many people can tell good stories, but few can tell complex stories – with the full power of delivery – in 30 seconds or less. Mr. Wallis gets to the heart of each story quickly, placing a premium on each word and taking advantage of every moment. 

4. He Displays Humor: Wallis rolls with Jon Stewart’s questions and reacts with good humor when appropriate. He then quickly transitions into delivering a substantive answer. He also gets a couple of good one-liners off, including one about Congress that results in cheers from the live audience. 

5. He Uses His Full Vocal Range: I envy Wallis’s perfect baritone, but he doesn’t rely solely on his mesmerizing low rumble. He varies his pace, volume, and pitch throughout the interview – and even introduces short pauses before delivering a well-timed punch line.

6. He Gestures Naturally: Wallis uses large, sweeping gestures to help make his point. He uses his hands as tools to help supplement his words; they are an essential part of his storytelling prowess. Wallis demonstrates that the Holy Grail of any media appearance is when a speaker’s words, voice, and body language work together in perfect alignment.

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Related: Seven Ways to Rock Your Next Radio Interview

Related: How To Tell a Good Story: Make It Small

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  • About Mr. Media Training

    The Mr. Media Training Blog offers daily tips to help readers become better media spokespersons and public speakers. It also examines how well (or poorly) public figures are communicating through the media.

    Brad Phillips is the Founder and Managing Editor of the Mr. Media Training Blog. He is the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm with offices in NYC and DC.

    Brad Phillips

    Before founding Phillips Media Relations in 2004, Brad worked as a journalist with ABC's Nightline with Ted Koppel and CNN's Reliable Sources and The Capital Gang.

    Brad tweets at @MrMediaTraining.

    Christina Mozaffari is the Senior Writer for the Mr. Media Training Blog. She is the Washington, D.C. vice president for Phillips Media Relations.

    Brad Phillips

    Before joining Phillips Media Relations in 2011, Christina worked as a journalist with NBC News, where she produced stories for MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, NBC Nightly News, and The Today Show.

    Christina tweets at @PMRChristina.

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