Medical Expert Turned Media Spokesperson? 5 Tips to Ensure Flawless Message Clarity

By Susan Reilly

The average medical student is not likely to hold hopes of one day becoming a media spokesperson who must give an opinion or an explanation of data in front of crowds and cameras. Yet, as careers evolve, some may willingly or begrudgingly have their expertise tapped for such a role—especially if they are involved in clinical trials and stars in their specialty.

To their eventual chagrin, some medical experts make the mistake of thinking their degree is enough to guarantee smooth sailing as a media spokesperson. Unfortunately, not even medical degrees from the finest institutions can prepare the foremost authorities to navigate the nuances of media interviews.

Much like asking Katie Couric to perform surgery without training, facing the media without training doesn’t make sense and can carry lasting consequences. Becoming a good spokesperson takes an understanding of the interview process, key message development, extensive preparation of likely questions and accurate answers, and lots of practice .    

As expert media trainers with years of experience training scores of medical experts either one-on-one or part of Reilly Connect's media training workshops, here are 5 simple tips to improve the outcome of any media interview:

  1. Visual Terms: Attempt to translate complex information into simple, visual terms (e.g. Simply put, the way this cancer treatment works is much like turning a light switch off). 
  2. C=A+B: Provide the most essential answer first and then how it was derived (e.g.,What is most significant about this study is that women reported having 70% fewer hot flashes). This flip-flop in messaging is often the biggest hurdle for analytic people because it is contrary to their training and thought process. However, with limited time and an audience that may have little medical knowledge, it is important to convey the most important message first before moving to supporting data.    
  3. Keep It Simple: Aim for a 6th grade level vocabulary. Simple language will improve comprehension. 
  4. Personalize: All too often, medical spokespersons neglect to answer the most important question to their audiences: How does this medical announcement affect me or someone I know?   (e.g., The key endpoint showed life was extended X months which could mean attending a major life event like a grandson's graduation or a granddaughter's wedding.)
  5. Lead: Interviewees can waste valuable time waiting for the journalist to ask the next question. If you have your key messages down, don't hesitate to lead the interview and seize pathways to what you need to communicate. For example, if the first question is related to disease prevalence, briefly answer the question and then use a powerful media technique known as "bridging" to move to a key messages without pausing.  (e.g., Asthma has been steadily on the rise and that is why the results of this study are so important.)

Most importantly, if you have agreed to participate in an interview, remember that you are the expert on your subject. Know your key messages. Think like a journalist. Review your answers to likely questions and bridge whenever possible to your key messages.

Like any skill, practice is the key to becoming a master. Formal media training and interview simulation can be invaluable to message clarity and maintaining control of an interview.  

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