Speaking Tips

STRATEGIC COMMUNICATION: Speaking Effectively with Journalists & Decisionmakers, our Allies & Community

We first came together to strengthen community voices in support of the larger social justice movement. To keep doing this work effectively, our own voices as individuals, need to be continually strengthened as well.

We want to be the ones to frame the discussion. But remember that you need not be an expert on everything, to deal with the media or speak to community groups.

FRAMING THE DISCUSSION: Can you answer these questions effectively?

Definitions: Do the people I am talking to understand the terms I am using? Do I understand them? Can I define them in a sentence?

Think of some terms and acronyms you use that could require explanation.

Context : How do I talk about the work I do in a way which clarifies the larger picture? How does the work I do actually fit into the larger social justice/injustice picture in this country, and what does it say about the movement as a whole?

Identity: How does my own identity impact my relationships in my community and my role in the larger movement? How might this impact my effectiveness as an advocate, both negatively and positively?

How can I leverage (but not exploit) my personal experiences when talking to the media/public (for instance, expressing a passion for fighting environmental injustice in the South Bronx, that comes out of years living in the community) and when do I want to keep it to myself (for instance, discussing personal squabbles between members or “factions” of the community)? How can I get this into balance an under control, for the sake of my allies and the larger movement I serve?


The press generally asks for “the leaders” of OWS, or for “day-oners”. If we give them what they ask for – if we exemplify less commitment to challenging the mainstream notion of leadership – a few individuals readily identified as “the leaders” can become de facto spokespeople for the movement. The composition of this pool of people consists disproportionately of white men. It is important to broaden the pool of people speaking about OWS, for two main reasons:

1. At the start, public perception of the composition of the OWS movement was somewhat skewed. The more the movement is perceived as young, white, male, the more it will be in reality – as people from less privileged and more marginalized backgrounds are less likely to feel that this movement represents their concerns, and less likely to get involved.

2. Every single member of the public can join this movement and take on a leadership role of some kind. As the same faces pop up all over the place, and the same voices convey the OWS message, we begin to look like a finite organization, rather than an expansive movement. The more this perception builds, the more we will actually contract, and resemble an organization defending its own interests, rather than a movement drawing more and more people in.

And so, when taking a speaking engagement or interview, think things through. If you are white and/or a man, consider: is there a person of color or a woman you know who could handle it really well? Give them a chance to step up before you accept an engagement.


Now, ready to dive in? Practice telling your story quickly (1 minute per each section):

  1. Story of Self: How you came to this work in general
  2. Story of Us: What the movement is doing and how that relates to the work you’re doing now
  3. Story of Now: Where is the movement is headed and why you’re here today


Dealing with the mainstream media is often a “game” that we can easily master if we recognize how it works. Get your message out – as close to how you intend it, as possible.

1. Be proactive and professional.

  • If they are calling you, be on time for the interview. If you cannot set an appointment days in advance, call them and offer them a few times slots in which you can speak that day – and don’t make them run after you too much. (Don’t give them any excuse to write a bad piece or drop the story!)
  • Make sure you have their contact information. Don’t use it to constantly ring/email/fax reporters, especially not near deadline time (for a morning newspaper, this is late afternoon/evening, for a nightly news bulletin, this is late afternoon).
  • Send or hand any relevant hard-copy background on the movement and your project, to the reporter. If you offer to send more follow-up information to them, if possible send it by fax (since this means they now have the information in hand and are more likely to use it).

2. Set a sincere tone from start to finish by listening with an open heart and mind, and speaking with feeling, passion and commitment.

  • Be honest and civil in your dealings with the media. Remember that they have a hard job just like everyone else, and are just as pressed for time as you are.
  • Relax and smile, ask a question or two of the audience/reporter at the start or end of the interview.

3. Make sure you know what question you are answering.

  • Be ready to explain the issue carefully and patiently. Do not assume that the reporter does, or does not, have good knowledge of the background. Respect the fact that they know a good story and are interested in what you do.
  • If you answer the questions they are posing effectively, and establish a rapport with the reporter, there is always the possibility they may come to you or your organization as a source in the future.
  • Assess the angle of the reporter – do not be afraid to ask, in advance, what topics they would like to cover.
  • If you can think of another effective interviewee that would add richness to the story, check to see if they are available. Tell the reporter they will be contacted by such and such person, and pass on the reporter’s contact information to the other interview subject.

4. Be clear.

  • Don’t assume that the journalist necessarily knows all about the work you are doing or the movement you are a part of, explain who you are and what you do clearly, or they may get it wrong.
  • Avoid terms, jargon or acronyms the journalist doesn’t understand or that s/he will define incorrectly. Be certain to define terms in your own language and to spell everything out with a sense of groundedness and humility, not assuming that the language you use is universal. Avoid spouting predictable rhetoric, etc.
  • Be careful never to provide false information or speak in generalities that can be proven false.
  • If you don’t know the answer to a question, explain to the journalist that you will get back to them promptly with the answer. It is much better to be honest than offer misleading information.
  • You do not have to answer every question, but on the other hand, if they push you, be sure not to patronize the reporter by transparently evading their questions or saying, “no comment”. If you can’t comment, explain why – otherwise they will probably use a request for “no comment” against you.

4. Be savvy: Stay calm and focused on your message. Frame the discussion as consciously as possible.

  • Don’t do anything that gives people an excuse to discredit you, such as: getting drawn into talking about internal “politics”, failing to call them back or schedule an appointment, to send them requested images or documents.
  • Nothing is ever off the record. Assume that as soon as the journalist introduces themselves that the interview has started. Be aware that it is not illegal to record what someone says on the telephone and that reporters are not obliged to tell you if they are recording you.
  • Return to your main points. Avoid getting intimidated or distracted from your main points, pushed into going a direction you know is unproductive. Occasionally, some types of reporters will try to discredit you (by pointing to weaknesses in the movement, throwing tons of intimidating facts that are actually not relevant, by trying to point out weaknesses in your experience, or the movement’s, etc.)

5. Keep things simple AND compelling.

  • For print, radio, and TV have some succinct soundbytes ready that are really articulate or catchy sentences. Keep it simple. Most journalists are looking for clear, simple quotes that can be understood by a wide audience.
  • For print media:Get to the point. Capture the essence of what you want to say in the first one or two sentences of your response, and add details later.
  • For radio: Speak in run-on sentences. Speak in sentences that get your whole message out there in one leap and that are difficult to edit and cut. This also can give dynamic momentum to the tone of a radio interview. But be gracious and avoid being domineering – don’t interrupt the interviewer if they try to cut in (unless it’s a debate show)!
  • Avoid yes/no answers, especially on the radio. Besides being incommunicative, you may sound defensive.