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Media Mastery

In this month’s issue of InsuranceNewsNet, we are focusing on how you can become a media star to raise your local profile and elevate your business.

But what happens if you actually get reporters to call you? What if you get on camera and you fail in such a spectacular way that your meltdown becomes a YouTube hit? Not to worry. Brad Phillips, the author of The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview, says you can build confidence by crafting a bulletproof message and practicing that message before you leap.

Brad knows message creation and delivery. He started with a solid career in broadcast journalism at ABC’s Nightline with Ted Koppel and CNN.

Then, in 2004 he founded Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm with offices in Washington and New York City. He has trained thousands of media spokespeople and hundreds of top-level executives, including corporate executives and presidents of nonprofit organizations and trade associations. Brad is often quoted as an expert in the nation’s leading newspapers and websites, such as USA Today, The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, The Huffington Post and The Scientist.

Many successful advisors might think they have the inherent skills to stand up and be charming and informative in any venue. But the media world is its own environment with its own rules. In this interview with InsuranceNewsNet Publisher Paul Feldman, Brad provides the tools you need to thrive in this world.

FELDMAN: We have published many articles about agents and advisors reaching out to media to establish authority in a community. But we haven’t done anything on what to do once someone from media does call. Why does a successful insurance agent need media training?

PHILLIPS: It’s maximizing the opportunity. I think everybody fears the disastrous media interview. Certainly, those interviews happen. But they don’t happen nearly as often as what I call the “do-no-harmers.” Those are interviews that go fine but they don’t necessarily result in more business or reputation-building after they disappear into the ether, because nothing special happened during the moment that you had to speak with the journalist.

FELDMAN: How do those interviews go wrong?

PHILLIPS: One of the mistaken beliefs people have is that their job during a media interview is to share information. Educating the public is a critical part of their job. But the most important part of their job is trying to get the story told that they want to tell.

One of the most important things people can do through media training is learn how to focus what they say during an interview to make sure it does lead to that next step of their potential customer logging on to a website or picking up the phone.

FELDMAN: What should a person do after getting a call from media?

PHILLIPS: Don’t do the interview immediately. Schedule a time to talk to them, but during that initial contact, try to find out as much as you can about that news organization. Find out who will be doing the interview and what specifically they want to talk to you about. Some publications will share questions with you in advance.

Some journalists bristle at the request to share their questions. But even those journalists will usually tell you the themes they intend to talk about. You should ask, “Is there anything specific you want to ask me about that I should look up before we speak?”

Then do some of your own research about the publication. Read some stories the journalist has written in the past. Learn something about the outlet itself. For example, it’s really useful to know in advance whether the outlet has an edge to it. You’ll see if they’re likely to ask you very hard, devil’s advocate questions or if it’s a softer, more feature-type story that they’re after.

FELDMAN: How does someone construct effective messaging?

PHILLIPS: The most important thing about messaging is you cannot be comprehensive. The average television sound bite is just 7.3 seconds, according to the latest study on the topic. That results in the average quote being about 18 words. It’s about being willing to sacrifice detail in order to let the things that really matter stand out and shine.

We recommend that people come up with their three top line messages. These are three one-sentence messages that are the most important themes or ideas that they want to communicate during their interview. Those may also represent the gateway that will interest people enough to pick up the phone or log on to a website.

FELDMAN: That sets the stage for your acronym, CUBE A, for effective messaging. Would you tell us what that stands for?

PHILLIPS: The C in CUBE A is for “consistency.” Your message likely will not change very much over time. The more repetition of those messages, the more likely it is that those messages will eventually stick. If every time you do an interview with a reporter – or speak to the public or post content on your website or newsletter – your message changes, you haven’t repeated it enough to allow your message to sink in and really resonate.

I always think about the example of presidential candidates who do three or four stump speeches a day in the general election season. Their speeches remain the same for weeks and sometimes for months. They and the press following them are sick to death of those speeches because they’ve delivered it or heard it so many times. But the reason they do that is because they know that individual members of the audience have not heard it that many times. For them, it’s new; it’s fresh. Or if it’s not new and fresh, they don’t remember it so well that they’re bored by it.

The U in CUBE A is for “unburdened” and that is to simplify your message.  Avoid using these three things: wordiness, jargon and abstractions. The insurance and financial services industry is littered with terminology that doesn’t mean anything to most consumers. Even if you think your audience will understand more complicated terms as long as use them “in context,” don’t use them. If you feel like you have to use more complicated terms, make sure that you define them and make them concrete.

The first thing with messaging is the importance of developing the three overarching themes and sticking with them over time. Each theme should really represent one single thought.

One of the things I see constantly is that people want to cram four different ideas in each of the messages so they can get everything in. Don’t do that. The simpler the message you’re trying to communicate, the better. And by simple, I don’t mean dumbing it down.

The more unburdened that your message is, the more memorable it will become.

The B in CUBE A is the importance of “brief” messaging, which we’ve already discussed.

E is for “earworthy.” This is a problem when you have advisors in larger offices sitting together at a table saying, “OK, what are the three things that we want to talk about the most?” What you tend to see with that kind of groupthink is that everybody adds an idea, a thought, a word and as a result the message ends up sounding like it’s been developed by committee. It doesn’t sound like anything anybody actually would ever say.

The final part of CUBE A is “audience focused,” which is the really important check that you do at the end to make sure that everything you’ve developed is consistent with what your current and prospective customers want from you.

So this is the moment where you try to figure out what are the main things that your audience wants from you and whether your messages reflect that. If not, ask yourself how you can rework the messages to make sure that the things the public tells you they want are reflected in what you are saying publicly.

FELDMAN: I wanted to ask about unburdening and simplifying messages. This is a complex industry, and I think that people have a tendency to make messages more complicated than they need to be. How do you simplify the message for insurance or financial services?

PHILLIPS: What I’ve found has the greatest power is to ask people to think of their target. It’s a really interesting exercise because I’ll ask, “Who’s your audience?” And they’ll say, “Well, it’s customers and prospects.” That is so vague as to be completely unhelpful because that customer or that client could be a 29-year-old who’s just beginning a family or an 89-year-old who’s doing estate planning.

I really push them. And it becomes an uncomfortable exercise for them. But I’ll ask them to tell me, is it a man or a woman? They’ll say, “Well it could be either.” I’ll say, “I know it could be either. There are no right or wrong answers here. All I want to know is who popped into your mind when I asked you who is the target person.”

“It’s a man.” “OK, how old is he?” “He’s in his 60s.” “No, no. I want a number.” “He’s 67.” “OK, what does he do for a living?” “He’s a salesperson.” “Where does he work? Is he married? Does he have kids? Does he have grandkids? What gender are they?” And finally I’ll end with, “What’s his name?”

Sometimes I’ll even push a little further and say, “Can you visualize him? What does he look like? What’s he wearing?”

By this point, my clients are completely perplexed because they don’t understand why I’m going through this exercise. But when I ask them to come up with this guy’s name – let’s say they said his name is Kevin – then after I do the practice interview, we’ll play it back together and I’ll say, “That answer that you just gave, is that likely to reach Kevin? Is Kevin going to be motivated and influenced by that?”

That’s a great real-life test for them, because when they use jargon and industry terms and I have a specific tangible person who I can point to, they say, “Yeah, that terminology I’m using isn’t really going to work for Kevin.” So that’s a great real-life test, more than anything else, to reduce the jargon.

FELDMAN: We talked a little bit about sound bites earlier in our conversation. Would you describe the importance of sound bites and what should they say?

PHILLIPS: Sound bites are important because they give you influence over what the reporter ends up selecting to use in the story. And the reason is because reporters are looking for really interesting quotes. For example, one of the things I say a lot in media training is, “The more you say, the more you stray.” 

If you think of what those sound bites should be in advance, you increase the odds they will be used. But creating sound bites can be a very difficult exercise. It’s not easy to come up with a witty line when you sit down to brainstorm.

Instead, I encourage people to keep their antenna up at all times. When they’re having conversations with clients, they should listen carefully for really engaging phrases. The analogy I always think of here is it’s kind of like when you don’t know a word and you go to the dictionary and look up the word and then suddenly over the next week you hear that word used three more times. Well, it turns out that word has probably been used around you the entire time but you just weren’t listening for it.

FELDMAN: You also talk about creating a media message and having media support. What goes into that?

PHILLIPS: I recommend that for each of those three main messages, come up with three types of message supports: stories, statistics and sound bites.

The advisor’s value as a media spokesperson comes when they give meaning and context to those numbers. What’s the trend with those numbers? On the statistics portion of what we call the message support stool, they should think about context and meaning, and not just numbers.

Stories are really important, especially when dealing with the general public. The stories – more than numbers – will forge emotional connection.

FELDMAN: What is a good story in the insurance business?

PHILLIPS: We had a client who gave me permission to post a video from one of the practice sessions of an insurance advisor giving a presentation about that year’s new insurance offerings. I titled the video, “How to Speak About a Boring Topic.”

I say that tongue in cheek because what I typically hear from people in an industry like insurance is, “Well, I don’t really have a sexy topic to talk about. It’s not the most interesting thing.”

The point that he made so beautifully in that video is there’s an interesting way to talk about almost anything. He started the speech off with a story about a client he had dealt with several years earlier whose husband passed away from cancer.

The widow, a relatively young woman, came into the office to collect on what would be only a $4,000 life insurance payout. It was so low because her husband was ill for several years before he finally passed away. As the agent went through the paperwork, he discovered there was one item in it that suggested the $4,000 payout was actually much lower than what she was entitled to.

He did some research and three weeks later handed her a check for $100,000. He said, “When I think about what we do and the importance of what we do, those are the moments that make it so meaningful for me.”

Wow! I’m not in the business, I do not have a spouse dying of a terminal disease, but, man, that story hit me when he told it.

That created a much broader frame about insurance products than if he had simply gone in and listed, “Here are our 10 new insurance offerings for the year.” It’s not just about the “what you do,” it’s about the “why” of what you do.

FELDMAN: How do you steer an interview if it’s going off-kilter?

PHILLIPS: There are two categories of questions that go off-kilter: one is when the reporter really doesn’t know what to ask, and the other is when the reporter knows exactly what he’s asking and it’s something you don’t want to be spending a lot of time talking about.

The first category happens a lot in radio interviews. The average radio host may host a four-hour live show five days a week, with three guests an hour – that’s 12 guests a show, every day times five days a week. That’s 60 guests in a week.

That host cannot prepare for your interview as much as he or she would want to. So a lot of times the questions are not really relevant. One thing you can do is send a recommended question sheet to the interviewer in advance. You can’t send that to The New York Times. But many times, you can send it to a local radio host, who will appreciate it.

I have a system called the A.T.M.S. A is for Answer the question. T for Transition. M for get back to your Message, or story, statistics and sound bites. And the S stands for Sell, which is a synonym for a call to action: visit our website, call our phone number.

Even if you’re asked a question that you don’t want to answer, you should almost always answer the question directly. This is especially true in a live exchange. If the public or the reporter believes you are being evasive, you will lose credibility in the eyes of the public. So it’s not worth taking that chance. But the answer could be very short: “Yes ... no ... maybe ... perhaps ... that’s unclear.” Then use a transition line, “But what we’re really seeing here is...,” and you’re right back to your message. So that’s one way of getting back to the things that you want to talk about.

I want to be clear that this is not an excuse to be evasive. If a reporter is asking you a question about a topic that the public or customers or people in your industry are likely to be concerned about, your best strategy is to offer a direct and specific answer to that question.

FELDMAN: What if you don’t know the answer?

PHILLIPS: If it’s a print interview, you could simply say, “I don’t know,” find out and then get back to the reporter. That’s straightforward. Reporters don’t expect you to have a full encyclopedic knowledge of everything. So it’s absolutely fine to say, “I don’t know.”

If it’s a live exchange I like to use a different strategy – something called the “Peter Jennings rule.” The strategy there is to tell the reporter what you do know, not what you don’t know.

FELDMAN: Why is that called the Peter Jennings rule?

PHILLIPS: The late Peter Jennings was the host of ABC World News Tonight. One of the correspondents who used to work on that show told me a story that Peter Jennings would occasionally ask his correspondents a question on the air that he thought they might not know the answer to. Apparently the reason he did that was because he wanted his reporters to know the story inside and out and constantly be on their toes.

His correspondents learned over time to say something along the lines of, “Well, you know, Peter, that’s unclear at this hour. What we do know is …”

FELDMAN: How do you see an insurance or financial person doing that?

PHILLIPS: Say someone was asked, “What was the rate of return on investment from this insurance company’s plan in 2013?” That’s a pretty specific question, and during the live exchange the person might not know the answer. So that person should say, “I don’t know the specific number. What I do know is that the rate of return from this insurance company has been consistently higher than almost all of its competitors for the past decade.”

So you’ve offered something – context, meaning – instead of simply shutting down the exchange. Often, especially in radio, the host is just as happy with the more general answer.

Never bluff, but if there’s comfortable ground about something related to the topic that you can move to, that’s probably a good strategy.

FELDMAN: How can you avoid finding yourself in trouble with a media interview?

PHILLIPS: One of the things that really gets people into trouble is something I call “The seven-second stray.” If you’re doing an hour-long interview and for seven seconds you say something flip, sarcastic or otherwise in some way off your message, inevitably those seven seconds will be the thing the reporter includes in the story.

And the reason for that, I think, is that reporters are pretty sophisticated at hearing the difference between something that’s pre-thought-out or scripted and something that’s spontaneous. And that spontaneous comment tends to have more salience or be of more interest to the reporter than the planned comments.

What I usually find is that when people start talking to a reporter, their guard is up. After a period of time, maybe 15 or 20 minutes, they start thinking, “Oh, OK. This person is not out to get me. I can let my guard down or relax a little bit.” And that’s when they start saying things they shouldn’t.

FELDMAN: We’re far into this interview, and you’ve done a really good job of maintaining your energy level. What are some tips on doing that and keeping that level?

PHILLIPS: Some tips for phone interviews: First, I recommend that people stand. People tend to do better when they’re standing and able to pace back and forth. There’s something about having that outlet for their anxious energy that helps them literally to be quicker on their feet.

Second, I’d say give the interview complete and total focus, by which I mean shut down your email program and other audible distractions.

As far as energy level, I’d say 98 percent of people project too little energy when they are doing public speaking or interviews. We think we’re louder than we are because we hear our voices inside of our skull bones as well as through our ears.

I advise people to bring the most charismatic, warm and excited version of themselves to the interview. Think about when you are out to cocktail hour with some of your peers and you’re telling a story about something you’re totally passionate about: your favorite sports team, the book you read, your kid’s school play.

Whatever it is that you’re excited about, that’s the version of you that you should be bringing to interviews.

Find out more about Brad and read his blog at

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