How To Use Talking Points for Interviews

Photo by  Nick Morrison .

Photo by Nick Morrison.

In today’s media saturated culture where everyone seems to have some level of knowledge about how the sausage is made, using talking points in an interview often draws negative connotations. There’s this idea that they’re used to deceive, misdirect or otherwise obscure the truth. In reality, talking points are fundamental and rather simple communications tools to build confidence ahead of an interview, focus a conversation and help ensure someone gets the message across they intend. To clarify their purpose and role communications, we’ll examine the basics of how to use talking points for interviews.

Talking Points Definition

First, depending on who you ask and the context of the discussion, you will encounter different understandings or definitions of talking points. They’re all correct. Depending on the situation, talking points are approached differently so it’s important to understand how different players understand and use talking points first to ensure you don’t make a major misstep. 

Talking Points for Live Television Interviews

If you’re preparing for a live television interview, a producer will ask for your talking points in advance. This is rarely an extensive document. Basically, they want to know the key points you are interested or comfortable discussing in advance to prepare the TV anchor or host for the interview. In some cases, they may even ask for proposed questions and/or a few sentences that summarize your thinking on a topic. They want to make sure both the interviewer and the interviewee know what you’re going to talk about ahead of time so the interview, especially a live interview, comes across as smooth and professional to the audience. That doesn’t mean a journalist won’t ask additional questions or that the person being interviewed can’t add new information. It’s more of a roadmap for an interview. This is why those three-to-five minute live television and radio interviews appear so organized and seamless even if the host only has two minutes during a commercial break to actually prepare.

Internal Talking Points for Interview Preparation

Public Relations professionals will often build a separate set of talking points to prepare someone for an interview. While any talking points they provide to a producer ahead of time will certainly inform this second document, these talking points will go much, much further and often include prompts on how to deal with specific difficult questions that may come up or other issues. No public relations professional would hand this set of talking points over to a journalist. These notes are for internal review only. The thing is, the term “talking points” is used interchangeably, so you need to understand the context.

Talking Points are Not a Script

In either scenario described above, it’s important to understand that talking points are never intended to be a script. They may provide a roadmap and they may provide specific language to help communicate key ideas, but they are never meant to be a script. Before an interview, an interviewee needs to get comfortable with their talking points to the point that they can easily draw on the key ideas to respond to a wide array of questions that may come up. Responses always need to remain conversational, though, and actually speak to the question that was just asked. Just like conversations are fluid experiences drawing on both sides, a good interview needs to remain as natural as possible. Not only does that appear more professional but it also helps to get your message across.

Prioritizing Key Messages

Just like a good conversation, an interview can potentially wander to lots of different places. If you only have three-to-five minutes to get your main message across, though, both the interviewer and interviewee need to work to keep things on track. That’s where both forms of talking points above come into play.

Within an interview, there’s only time to say so much. And needless to say, you’ll never be able to communicate everything you know about a topic. Talking points help you identify and prioritize the key messages you need to get across in an interview. Good talking points should prioritize no more than three-to-five key messages. There will certainly be other resources and information involved, but the process of developing talking points is an opportunity to sit down and determine what information is most important. It’s common to walk away from an interview and think “I should have said… .” You just don’t want to walk away thinking, “Oh no! I forgot to say the most important thing!”

Staying Focused and Concise

While talking points will occasionally include pre-crafted soundbites, the idea is really to find ways to keep those three-to-five key messages concise so a reporter can actually use them and the reader/viewer/listener can actually remember them. For example, if you can’t communicate a key idea in one or two sentences, you’ll never have time to get that idea across in a live interview. The development of talking points gives you an opportunity ahead of time to sit down and figure out how to convey that idea better and in less time. If some information isn’t absolutely necessary for the audience, maybe it’s best to leave it out so you can focus on what is important. 

Having a concise set of key talking points also helps an interviewee stay focused. These are the handful of ideas  you absolutely want to convey in an interview, no matter how short it may be. If you had 10-15 ideas, you would never be able to keep up with them once the interview begins. Three-to-five ideas are manageable and you can keep a mental checklist during the conversation. If the interview strays away from the main focus, the interviewee can reel things back in by steering the conversation back to one of their key points as well.

Confidence and Dealing with Difficult Questions

Some people feel completely natural sitting down for a conversation with a reporter. Most do not. Having clear talking points and an opportunity to rehearse them helps build confidence ahead of and during an interview. Confidence is a powerful non-verbal cue that helps get your message across.

Talking points can help build confidence in a few ways. For one, they’re the number one tool in the interviewee’s toolkit. Run into a question you don’t have an answer for? It’s OK to admit you don’t know something or will have to look into it, but don’t stop there. Turn the conversation to one of the key points you want to get across. For example: “Oh, that’s interesting. I’ll need to look into it, but something else important for everyone to know is… .”

Another way talking points help build confidence is by preparing someone with a response for specific difficult questions. In addition to key messages, a good set of talking points should include a list of potential questions and suggested responses. Maybe there’s another topic within the same organization getting media attention, but this person isn’t in a place to respond to it. How should they deal with the question when it comes up? Maybe they’re worried that a particular issue could come up in the conversation or maybe, like a lot of people, they worry about random “gotcha” questions from reporters. If you give them the tools to manage those when they do come up, they’re going to be that much more confident when the interview begins.

Conclusion and Practice

While talking points take a lot of different forms, their core purpose remains the same. They’re the number one tool public relations professionals have to help prepare someone for an interview and get their key messages across. Having them and reading them isn’t enough, though. Would you fly a plane for the first time after just reading the manual? Once you have talking points, it’s important to practice. The actual interview should not be the first time someone uses those talking points or speaks those words out loud. Exercise those talking points in a practice interview setting. If the topic is challenging, practice them a lot. That also gives everyone an opportunity to hone those key messages or stumble upon new questions that could come up ahead of time.