The Barack Obama school of interviewing: How startups can nail their next interaction with the press

[Editor: Getting the attention of the press can be difficult. For anyone. When you’re a startup, it’s even more difficult. And bloggers? They’re nearly impossible. I mean, look at me? I’m a train wreck. But Sean Blanda can help. Here are some tips and tricks for getting your story out there.]

In my three years as a tech journalist I interviewed hundreds of startups. Some where highly polished, almost politician-like. They were snappy with a clever quote and helped me fill my article with the rich information I needed. Others were unprepared, apathetic, or nervous, convinced I was “the enemy” digging for dirt.

Getting a press interview is tough enough, so don’t sabotage your business by fumbling your media interactions. There’s a reason why charismatic entrepreneurs seem to pop up in every magazine and blog: be a friendly source and the media will be calling you much more often.

With a little bit of work, you’ll be able to come across as confident while controlling the overall direction of the interview. What separates the pros from the newbies is only a few key tweaks to preparation:

1. Determine Your Talking Points.

Before prepping for your interview, determine what you would like to be the reporter’s key takeaways of the interview. These takeaways are called “talking points.”

Your talking points may be focused on announcing a new product, establishing yourself as a subject matter expert, or setting your company apart from your competition.

Ask yourself: “What are the only two or three things I want the reader to remember after reading this article?” Examples of talking points:

  • Our new widget will be released Friday.
  • Our company is hiring.
  • We are building a company culture that encourages flexible work schedules.
  • Our product has been downloaded 20,000 times.

Once you establish these points they should be the foundation for your entire interaction with the reporter.

2. Know how to answer questions.

If you watch sports, you know how useless a bad interview is. Most athletes have never interacted with the media and have an interest in ducking any media coverage so they can remain focused on the game and skirt controversy.

Politicians, on the other hand, have an interest in getting a message out in a concise and memorable way. You want to be more Obama than Greg Popovich.

You should structure your answers in response to your talking points: Talking point → Possible anecdote.

“We value our customers” → The time you stayed on the phone for three hours with a customer to solve a tough problem.

“We’re a scrappy startup taking on the big guys” → The time your startup worked in a single room to save on heating bills.

“We have traction and are on a roll” → Your latest meeting with investors or the well-known customer you’ve signed on.

“We are passionate about this problem” → The incident in your personal life that lead to your “eureka” moment.

3 . Prepare (and practice) answers to common questions:

  • Tell me what [your product] does.
  • How did you meet your co-founders? Who are they and what do they do? How old are you all?
  • Where are you located? Why?
  • What problem are you trying to solve? How did this problem come up?
  • How many users do you have?
  • Who is your target customer? What has their feedback been so far?
  • What’s your plan for next six months? How do you plan on growing?
  • How are you different from [obvious competitor]?
  • Why are you bootstrapping?
  • What’s the coolest thing [your product] does?
  • What do you think of [trend in your industry]?
  • Is there anything else you’d like to tell me that I didn’t ask you?

Don’t just answer these questions in your head. Actually practice. Record yourself on your laptop if you have to. It sounds silly, but a few minutes of practice can help you find your tics, answers that are unclear, or help your brain surface additional things to say.

Example: “We want to make wallets obsolete. Ever since I worked Summers in my father’s deli and saw how the customers took tons of time fiddling with their wallets and credit cards, I knew there was a market for both small businesses and customers. That’s why we want to make wallets history and help both sides.”

4. Follow Up After The Interview.

When you return to your desk after an interview send the reporter an email containing:

  • Hi-res logos
  • Head shots/group shots of you/your team. Otherwise the reporter may take the photo of you at your Forth of July BBQ from Facebook.
  • Screenshots.
  • Spell out any product, team or location names you mentioned in your story.
  • Provide ages. It’s often required for reporters in traditional media to provide the age of any primary source.
  • Send links that you’d like included in the story that add value for the reader.
  • Include a discount code, if applicable. (Note: codes that expire in a short time frame tend to see more use)
  • Anything else you said you would send the reporter.

For more strategies on building a relationship with the press, pick up Sean’s new book Hacking PR: a guide for bootstrapped startups. Use the code PORTLAND for 20% off. [Editor: I’m quoted in the book. But don’t let that stop you.]

BONUS: See this recent piece by BusinessWire for more of Rick Turoczy’s thoughts on pitching bloggers.

Sean Blanda lives in Brooklyn, New York and is an editor at Behance where he helps empower creatives to make ideas happen. Before, he co-founded: Technically Philly, an online news site that covers startups, venture capital and city IT policy.

He enjoys poker, Cherry Coke and getting his heart broken by the Philadelphia Eagles. He can be easily bribed with Twizzlers, travels whenever he can, and sometimes eats Mexican food for breakfast.

You can contact him directly at scblanda@gmail.com or at @SeanBlanda.

(Image courtesy Shutterstock. Used with permission.)

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