I can feel my hands quivering under the table as I attempt to steady them around my pen. There’s a lump in my throat and my mouth is parched. In my ears, I can hear the quickening thump of my heartbeat. And after my name is called, I make my way over, have a seat, nervously adjust my sleeves and turn to face my biggest fear.
No, this isn’t a sequence from some suspense novel. Rather, it’s how I -- and probably, many of you -- feel every time I’m asked to speak in front of a crowd, or in this case, on-camera to members of the media. Although I’m the media relations manager for the Connecticut office of the Northeast Charter Schools Network and have more than 10 years of experience as a journalist, you’d be surprised to know that just like many of you, I can get extremely nervous when I’m called upon to be the spokesperson for our organization. That’s why I’m so grateful for having had the chance to attend a media training sponsored by EdChoice and The Communication Center a few weeks ago in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Valuable lessons from Jeanne Meserve and Steve Piacente of The Communication Center
The two-day session allowed me to meet about 30 of my fellow school choice communications professionals from across the nation. Some of us had worked in the education reform space for years, while many - myself included - are newer to the field. Some had a journalism background like me, others came from advocacy, academia, teaching and some were former legislators themselves. But what united us all was a shared belief in the benefits of school choice and a collective desire to communicate those benefits to the world in an impactful way.
So what exactly did I learn at the training? It would be impossible to share it all, but here are a few of my favorite lessons.
Make It Simple Without Being Simplistic
So, you’re speaking with a reporter about your child’s charter school. They ask you why you feel your school isn’t fairly funded. You state your answer, and then there’s radio silence. You immediately become nervous about the dead space, so you dive head-first into a litany of information, try to drudge up every talking point you’ve ever remembered, and before you know it, you’re rambling about something completely unrelated to the question.
This, according to our trainers, is what we like to call a stop sign moment.
The fact is, we could go on and on about the unique challenges our schools face. But in order to get the point across in a way that is impactful, we must turn on that stop sign in our heads and think T.B.S., that is… tighter, better, stronger. According to The Communication Center, the average television soundbite is 7.4 seconds. That’s about how long it should take you to get your message across in a way that is succinct and to the point.
Keep your language simple and accessible, and if there’s dead space after you’ve given your answer, take control of the interview with a simple question such as… do you have any more questions?
Never Repeat, Simply Replace
As advocates within the charter school community, we’re all too familiar with the pervasive, negative myths and buzzwords surrounding our schools. Accusations of "cherry-picking" our students, that we’re actually "private schools" or that we "steal money from public schools."
We all know these are false. But when communicating this to others, we have to avoid repeating these harmful buzzwords because in repeating them -- even while denying them -- we’re owning those words.
Here are some effective tactics we learned to use when faced with these types of questions.
Q: Do charter schools cherry-pick their students?
Don’t say: No, we don’t cherry-pick our students.
Instead, say: All charter schools must enroll students through a blind lottery.
Q: Are charter schools actually private schools funded by public dollars?
Don’t say: Charter schools are not private schools.
Instead, say: Charter schools are public schools and as such, they do not charge tuition. Charter schools are independent public schools that operate under a contract or charter, and are funded by taxpayer dollars.
Q: Do charter schools steal money from public schools?
Don’t say: That’s not true, we do not steal money from public schools
Instead, say: Charter schools are public schools, and are funded through their own line item in the state budget which is separate from district schools. In fact, in Connecticut, the state funds districts based on how many students live in the district -- and when a child decides to enroll at a charter school, the district keeps the money it was allotted to educate that child.
5-Step Ambush Interview Survival
Perhaps the most valuable part of the training involved an on-camera interview for which we had absolutely no preparation, and faced some of the toughest questions imaginable. Those nerves I described at the top of this blog post? That’s exactly how I felt during this exercise, and it’s likely how many of you feel when faced with tough questions surrounding charter schools.
More than anything, what I learned is that every interview is 50 percent theirs and 50 percent yours, but you always want to make sure your 50 percent is 100 percent.
Effectively, this means that every interview is a two-way exchange. You don’t have to surrender any more information than you’re comfortable with or able to, and if you aren’t 100 percent on an answer, you don’t have to give one -- especially if the interview is unexpected. And for the information you do know, be sure to own it, practice it and be ready to deliver it at a moment’s notice.
And in the event that you’re caught off-guard by an interviewer and you opt to answer their questions, here are a few survival tips courtesy of The Communication Center:
Prepare: Always know your mission and your official stance, because you can never be caught off guard if you’re always prepared.
Ask: You aren’t obligated to answer a question just because it’s asked of you. You have every right to question the interviewer, ask what information they’re looking for and how it’s going to be used.
Restate: Remember the mission and official stance from tip 1? Go back to it and say it as many times as you need to, as it will keep the conversation from straying off topic.
Personalize: Your story is your power! Nobody can argue with the real stories of charter families and students, including your own. Always have several ready and fresh in your mind to share.
And most importantly… Relax: Take a deep breath and relax, be polite and be calm… you’ve got this!
Like all of you, I believe in the value of school choice and of the transformative power charter schools have in our communities. And in everything that I do and communicate on behalf of NECSN, I want to help elevate the voices of the charter school community so that everyone can see what we all see.
I look forward to applying everything I learned in order to better serve our schools and our communities!
To learn more about EdChoice, click here, and to learn more about The Communication Center, click here.