In more than 20 years a journalist, I’ve picked up on a few things. One is that people are initially reticent when I try to talk to them. When I put a tape recorder in front of someone, he or she has a inclination to tense up, and their responses to my questions can sound wooden and unnatural.
Here’s another thing I’ve noticed. When I put the tape recorder away, and continue to ask questions, they become more relaxed and they speak more freely and naturally. That’s when they give the most quotable quotes, but they’re hard to capture if I’m trying to scribble notes as quickly as racers talk.
Things change when I talk to drivers with media experience and a fair amount of time spent in front of a microphone or a camera. They are demonstrably more polished and they get their points across quickly and comprehensively, including mentions of their sponsors in a way that sounds as natural as a conversation with a friend. What’s their secret?
As I mentioned, a lot of it — well, probably all of it — stems from experience. Pro series drivers enjoy media coverage from a number of different outlets, so they find themselves talking to the media often.
I’d like to share a little of what I’ve learned over the years in the hope of helping NASA drivers be more quotable and at ease when talking to media. Then, when you’re on the podium at the Championships or you find yourself racing in a professional series, and a reporter wants to ask you a few questions, you’ll handle it like a pro.
First, take Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ advice and “Relaaaaaxxxx.” Tell the story like you’re talking to a friend. Racing isn’t politics or government work, and odds are better than average you’re talking to the “enthusiast” media. We’re not putting a tape recorder in front of you to play “gotcha” journalism. We just want to quote you accurately and in context.
As any public speaking instructor will tell you, try to know who you’re speaking to. Know your audience. “Print” journalists like me are looking for something different from what a video journalist might want. For example, if you want to thank your sponsors in a print publication, do it first, do it succinctly and focus on those who matter most. If you deliver a comment about the race, and then rattle off a bunch of people you want to thank, odds are good they won’t make it into print because print publications often don’t have the space for laundry lists of sponsors and readers in general aren’t interested.
The best I’ve ever seen it done was when I covered Formula 1 tunnel boat racing. I asked a driver who had been mired in something of a slump what it felt like to finally get a win. I can hear his answer in my head to this day. He said, “Oh, man, I’m just happy for Australian Gold, to finally get this win for them.” He then went on to give me great details about the race, and I used every word.
That kind of glibness works well on video, too, but video reporters sometimes will ask a follow-up about whom you’d like to thank. At that point, rattling off a list is OK, but still not as polished as it could be. If you watch racing on television, pay attention to how the pro drivers handle media questions. There is a method to what they’re doing, and you can master it, too. Next time I put a tape recorder in front of you at the Championships or at the 25 Hours of Thunderhill, relaaaaaxxxx, and put your new skills to use.