Walt Parker


Published 8/1/2015
Alan S. Hilibrand, MD

When to Stop Talking and Other Tips for a Successful Media Interview

The opportunity to speak to the media may come when you least expect it, and when you have little time to prepare, perhaps just a couple of hours to a day. A reporter is looking for information on an orthopaedic condition or treatment, perhaps related to a local patient, athlete, or a national sports trend or concern. You may feel confident about your orthopaedic knowledge, but how can you increase the odds of having a great interview that delivers compelling information and reflects well on you, your practice or institution, and the orthopaedic profession?

Each year, the AAOS public relations department hosts media training sessions during the AAOS Annual Meeting, the National Orthopaedic Leadership Conference (NOLC), and the AAOS Fall Meeting. In these free 4-hour sessions, you will learn the “rules of engagement” for a successful interview from top media trainers, including Walt Parker, a senior vice president at Weber Shandwick advertising agency and former medical reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

I recently had the opportunity to discuss common media interview concerns with Mr. Parker; here’s what he had to say:

Dr. Hilibrand: What’s the most common mistake people make in dealing with the media?

Mr. Parker: I would say “winging it,” just taking a call cold without thinking it through beforehand. If a reporter calls and wants to do an interview, say you need a little time and then ask what the deadline is. It might be in just an hour or even less. If so, say fine, I’ll call you back. But also ask exactly what the story is about, what questions the reporter wants to ask (even though he or she will never tell you all of them).

Even 10 minutes can absolutely make a difference in the outcome, because you can jot down your key messages, or talking points, and how you can support each of them with pertinent facts and examples. Think of it as “evidence-based

Dr. Hilibrand: How do you know when to stop talking? When is an answer too long?

Mr. Parker: That’s going to vary, of course, but I think you’re better off pausing a second or two before you start talking so you can frame the answer in such a way that you can finish within 40 seconds or so—or even less if the interview is televised.

That way, you don’t overwhelm the reporter and force him or her to choose from an ocean of material for the story. You maintain more control that way too. It’s not that reporters have bad intentions or “don’t get it,” but it is possible to have a disagreement over the key point. So make one point—not two or more—in each answer, and that will help ensure that point is reported.

Dr. Hilibrand: Should I insist on being able to edit the article before it’s published?

Mr. Parker: Very few publications do that, and the higher you go on the chain of influence, the less likely it is that you’ll get agreement to that. Some reporters will agree to “check” quotations or complicated parts, but they probably won’t surrender editorial control.

Make sure they know how to reach you in a hurry in case they have a question on deadline. That can raise the odds that the story will be accurate. It’s not at all unusual, by the way, for a good reporter to call back more than once in the course of reporting a story. Don’t be alarmed by that, or by the presence of a tape recorder.

Dr. Hilibrand: What other advice do you have to help people succeed in an interview?

Mr. Parker: Use comparisons and contrasts whenever possible. We all know reporters love conflict, right? That’s because the audience does. One way to appeal to that interest without challenging someone to a media fight is to highlight change and differentiation by spelling out the comparison or contrast, whether against current norms or past practices.

For example, you might say something like “Before the reverse shoulder replacement arrived here in 2004, we had to tell many patients, ‘Sorry, we can’t do anything to restore your function.’ Now it’s done every day for that same category of patient, with remarkable results.” That approach gives the audience an intriguing entrée into the topic, in a nutshell. It’s much more interesting than to just start by explaining the mechanics of the reverse shoulder technique. It tells a story, a before and after.

Dr. Hilibrand: Isn’t it frustrating how little many reporters know when they come to do interviews?

Mr. Parker: You can think of it that way but I don’t think it’s a healthy mindset. Think of it as an opportunity to engage them. Note that I didn’t say “educate.” The mission is not to give the reporter or audience a short course in knee replacement or anything else. Instead it’s to give them a taste and leave them wanting to know more.

That means homing in on just what the audience will care most about, which probably has to do with better outcomes, faster recovery, and maybe a little on the cool new technology or technique you have. Again, contrast it with the previous status quo, so the reader instantly can grasp what’s new.

Also, don’t assume that an open-ended, seemingly “dumb” question means the reporter is ignorant. Remember the television detective Lt. Colombo? He had the rustic routine down to a science and used it to put people behind bars. In my experience, it’s the smart journalist who knows what he/she doesn’t know and isn’t afraid to acknowledge that.

Dr. Hilibrand: How do I look and sound my best on TV? How about radio?

Mr. Parker: Check yourself in the mirror just before you go on. If you’re sitting, sit up straight and lean forward slightly. Watch your posture when you’re standing, too. Don’t move around or shift your feet a lot. Maintain as much eye contact as possible, and look at the interviewer, not the camera.

Don’t wear busy, patterned ties, scarves, or blouses. Pale blue is better than white in a shirt. No dangling earrings, loud bracelets, or ornate necklaces. Rule of thumb is that nothing should distract from you and your message. And finally, use your hands expressively but don’t put them in front of your face.

On radio, remember to keep your answers fairly short, so you have a good back and forth with the reporter instead of a monologue. Use concrete images and paint pictures so the listener can “see” what you’re talking about. The best way to do that is by telling stories from your practice or elsewhere in your career.

Don’t drink coffee, milk, or carbonated beverages before going on the air. Just water.

And if you’re looking for inspiration or material, go to or recommend the audience visit the AAOS website, anationinmotion.org, which features boatloads of great patient stories, articles on common orthopaedic conditions and treatments, and tips for bone and joint health.

Walt Parker leads media training at Weber Shandwick in Minneapolis. He can be reached at (952) 346-6220, or wparker@webershandwick.com

Alan S. Hilibrand, MD, chairs the AAOS Communications Cabinet.