Master the Art of the Sound Bite

Raise your profile by becoming a media maven. With these tips from the experts, you'll be the one reporters call for the scoop on real estate.

August 1, 2008

As she stepped into the glare of the news camera and turned to face the reporter, Simone Williams, chic in a black blazer, looked ready for her close-up. Only her constantly twining hands and nervous laugh betrayed the truth. “I was scared to death,” she admits.

That day, at least, Williams, a sales associate with RE/MAX Impact in Westerville, Ohio, had nothing to fear. Although the camera was real, the “reporter” was Bill Zucker, managing director of media practice for Burson-Marsteller in Chicago. 

He’d come to Columbus to train 14 members of the Columbus Board of REALTORS® on how to work more effectively with the media.

Media training is standard fare for most business executives today. And now many real estate practitioners are turning to public relations companies, media training companies, and even former reporters to acquire the skills needed to more effectively get their side of the story across when confronted with negative press about the real estate market.

Media Training Has Big Payoff

The primary goal for the Columbus program was to help the group become better ambassadors for the board’s new consumer education campaign, “The Grass Is Greener Here.”

Williams, who has been in the business just three years, had another, longer-term goal: to hone her presentation skills for both public and client presentations. “I think this training will help me promote my business. Bill taught us to stay focused on your subject and not to allow distractions to interfere with your message. That’s important in talking with clients, too,” she says.

While good media training can be pricey—$3,000 a day for a trainer and much more if you add in a camera crew—it’s a great way for sales associates to develop good presentation skills.

Using those skills to give media interviews is something few people relish. But with preparation and practice, it can get easier and yield better results.

How to Prepare for the Interview

“One of the most important parts of any interview is preparation,” says Zucker. Before you agree to an interview, ask the reporter what the focus will be. That way you can anticipate what you’ll be asked and research statistics that support your answers.

Preparation also involves deciding on a few concise key messages, or themes, you want to convey during the interview.

When asked about a real estate downturn, the Columbus students focused on the health and stability of the central Ohio market—rated as the third most stable in the country by Forbes—and on why low interest rates and a large inventory make it a great time to buy.

To come up with key messages about yourself or your company. Begin by deciding on the two or three most important ideas that describe your business and what makes it distinctive, writes Sally Stewart in Media Training 101 (Wiley, 2004).

“Keep your list of key message points short because the fewer points you have to make . . . the more likely the story will reflect what you want to communicate,” she says. The former USA Today reporter suggests no more than five and preferably fewer key messages.

Anecdotes Liven Up Your Message 

In her first session in front of the training camera, Williams’ voice shook a little, but she stuck tight to the key “it’s a great time to buy” message. Only with prompting follow-up questions from Zucker, however, did she provide the facts to support her statement—low interest rates and lots of selection made it a good buying opportunity. “I knew all the facts. I just got distracted by the camera,” she acknowledges.

And while Williams’ nervous laugh might mark her as less than a media pro, sounding “sincere and a bit spontaneous will enhance your credibility,” says Stewart, who now heads SA Stewart Communications.

Fellow ambassador Gary Parsons (above) of Cam Taylor Co., REALTORS®, in Worthington, Ohio, also homed in on the “great time to buy” message, then supported his statement by pointing out that historically lower interest rates and home prices are advantageous for buyers.

The 35-year industry veteran, who is the Columbus board’s 2008 president-elect, also made his statement more compelling by personalizing his response with an anecdote about three recent homes that had received multiple offers. “You’re there to bring examples as well as facts; sometimes, you are the example,” says Zucker.

Don’t make the mistake of waiting until the end of the interview to get your points across. You may run out of time. Instead, make your most important points early; then repeat them if you have the opportunity. In addition, look for ways to transition from a reporter’s question to one of your key messages, suggests Stewart.

Don't Repeat the Reporter's Question

Another training tip: Don’t get pulled in by negatives or repeat negative questions or statements made by the reporter, says Zucker. Tackling the tough question about “a foreclosure crisis,” Parsons quickly countered the negative with positive statistics showing that that 96 percent of homeowners in Central Ohio were meeting their mortgage payments regularly. “You have to focus on your message instead of going down the reporter’s path,” he says.

Do media interviews get easier with experience? “Yes, although you never get quite comfortable,” says Parsons. Williams isn’t sure she’ll ever enjoy doing media interviews, yet she’s already agreed to an on-camera interview with a local evening news show. “It’s really good for me,” she says resolutely.

Takeaway Tips for Working With the Media

If you're a reliable media source and you give a good interview, reporters will come back to you again and again for the scoop on real estate. The exposure helps to raise your profile in your community and build a reputation as a knowledgeable practitioner. Here are some tips to help you become a media favorite:

  • Don’t wait for reporters to come to you. If you have a story you think is newsworthy, take the initiative and call or e-mail the reporter.
  • Pitch to the right person. Review your local newspapers, business journals, and broadcast outlets to get the names of reporters who specifically cover real estate.
  • Know what’s news. Tie your suggested story ideas to facts, not just opinions. It’s much more effective to say that home prices have risen 2 percent in your area than to say, “The market is good.”
  • Tell a good story. Offer a compelling anecdote or quotable personal insight that will help the public connect to your story and hold their interest.
  • Keep in contact. Send regular press releases or e-mail messages suggesting story ideas and sharing interesting statistics. Follow up a few days after your initial contact.
  • Be sensitive to deadlines. If you do get a call from a reporter, respond immediately or risk being passed over.
  • Keep your answers simple. Too many complicated ideas make it more difficult for a reporter to pick out the key points.
  • Don’t argue. It’s OK to disagree, followed by a positive point supported by substantiated facts.
  • Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.” But be prepared to find out or suggest other sources.
  • Never say, “No comment.” It looks like you have something to hide.