How doctors can prepare for media interviews

Many GPs have reservations about the media, but if medicine does not represent itself to the wider world, it risks being misrepresented. In an extract from a new book, John Illman explains how to prepare for a media interview.

Doctors are often called upon to answer questions by journalists from national or local newspapers and broadcast media. Preparation for a media interview is essential. Begin the process with the end in mind. A successful interview will convey a message(s) that will do one or more of the following:

  • Inform
  • Teach
  • Motivate
  • Persuade
  • Inspire
  • Promote
  • Entertain

The best messages are short and snappy – statements of fact or advice. They incorporate:

Simplicity. Try to meet the Einstein challenge by ‘making things as simple as possible, but no simpler’.

Surprise. We are more responsive to the unexpected, but many core messages include nothing surprising or new. For example, the benefits of vaccination still need emphasising – ironically because vaccination has been so successful. Most young parents have never seen a case of measles.

How can we inject surprise into vaccination appeals? Children’s author Roald Dahl succeeded with: ‘Not to vaccinate your child really is almost a crime’.  ‘Twinning’ disparate words – such as ‘vaccination’ and ‘crime’ – is an old titling trick. The title alone helped to make Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape an overnight bestseller.

Of course, this kind of juxtaposition cannot be written into all messages, and not all messages have to surprise. Some even work by being predictable. Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher‘s most famous soundbite [‘You turn if you want to; the lady’s not for turning’] defined her as the ‘The Iron Lady’ of politics. It was precisely what the Conservative Party wanted to hear at that moment.  

You and your. These words address us directly, reaching out to our emotions. Many healthcare messages lack these ‘Y’ words because scientifically-orientated spokespeople deliberately veer away from the emotional. Such detachment may be perceived as coldness. Evidence-based medicine will not speak for itself to consumer audiences. It needs a nudge.

Relevance. You may be enthralled by the science of medicine; most consumers are not. Their interest is restricted to everyday benefits and outcomes.

Stories. Key messages don’t work in isolation. They need well-balanced stories to make them relevant for the audience. Analogies, third-party endorsements, personal experiences, statistics and easy-to-understand images inject life into stories.  A patient describing a handicap as ‘living with the handbrake on’ resonated with me.

Anticipate questions

You could convey up to ten points in an interview, only for them to be quickly forgotten. Restrict yourself to three at most. (Human beings are very good at conceptualising and remembering things in threes. For example:  Breakfast, lunch, dinner; beginning, middle, end; left, right, centre.)

Try to think like a journalist to anticipate interview questions. Rudyard Kipling’s brilliant summary of the basis of scientific and journalistic enquiry will help:

'I keep six honest serving-men,
[They taught me all I knew]
Their names are What, and Why, and When
And How and Where and Who.’ 

Don’t just anticipate ‘easy’ questions. Identify the most challenging. There is no such thing as a hard question if you have an answer.

The interview

Make your key points and deliver your message(s) as quickly as possible, especially in broadcast interviews. Many medical interviewees put too much initial emphasis on background or methodology because this is the traditional scientific way of telling a story. The media will usually turn the science upside down and begin with the conclusion – the take home message.

Imagine your messages literally sticking out in front of your head. Locking them into this mental eye-line keeps them ‘in view’ and will help to keep the interview on track. Lose sight of them and and the interview may go off at a tangent of the reporter’s choosing.

It is not enough to know your subject and messages. Knowing how to navigate to them by using techniques such as the ABC of communication is critical. This involves acknowledging a question by taking a word or phrase from it, creating a verbal bridge to your message and then communicating it.

For example:
Acknowledgement: You say that…
Bridge: But we feel that…
Communicate: Point or message.

Imagine an interview about hypertension that coincides with the launch of a controversial report about animal research. The interviewer may begin by saying ‘before we talk about high blood pressure could I ask you as a doctor to comment on this report about animal research’.  This would detract attention from what you want to say and you could respond by saying:

Acknowledgement: I haven’t seen this report. Moreover, I don’t know about animal research beyond that animal testing is often a legal requirement.
Bridge: I want to talk about what I do know about – treating high blood pressure.
Communicate: Point or message.

Bridging needs practice. Try role-playing with colleagues. It really can make all the difference. It’s also a skill that can be used in other arenas. My wife is a highly skilled ‘bridger’.

Extracted from Handling the media: communication and presentation skills for healthcare professionals. JIC Books, £14.99. Available from

  • John Illman is a former editor of GP who also worked as health editor on The Guardian.

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