Media training for beginners
Insomniac's Ryan Schneider shares tips for devs to make the most of their press interviews, from proper preparation to spotting gotcha questions
You've worked months, possibly years for this moment.
You've lost sleep lately thinking about it, obsessively analyzing all the possible scenarios for success or failure. The questions swirl inside your head: "What will people think when they see this?" "What will they think of me?" "What if I get it wrong?"
Your hands get clammy and your mouth goes dry in the minutes leading up to it. You see a little light glow red, the recording device is on, your press interview has begun. There's no turning back now.
In my 20-plus years working in brand marketing, public relations and community development (most of them spent in videogames), this is the scenario I see play out in the widened eyes of many anxious developers when I've first asked them if they'd like to speak with the press.
Want to know a secret? I still feel the same way when I'm representing an entire studio as a spokesperson for Insomniac Games. And that's after dozens of press tours all over the world spanning multiple franchises, publishers and platforms.
I feel enormous (self-imposed) pressure to properly convey the passion poured into all our titles on behalf of everyone working so hard in our Burbank, Calif., or Durham, NC studios. The fear of missing a key point, or improperly describing a technical nuance can sometimes keep me awake before an event.
If I get nervous after all these years, how can I expect anyone else on my team to not to act similarly when the cameras' bright lights are shining hot on their faces for the first time?
Here's the thing: It's not whether we get nervous that matters. It's how do we channel that apprehension into a strong interview -- regardless of how we're feeling on the inside. I've learned several tips to do just that both from personal success and even more so from failure, helping dozens of teammates at Insomniac conduct successful press interviews after opportunities to learn from some of the most respected media training pros in the PR business.
I'm sharing some of those tips based on my experiences here, beyond our studio walls, for the first time.
Before the Interview...
The majority of the angst we may feel about conducting a press interview comes from fear of the unknown. Of course, it's easy to feel anxious when you don't know who's interviewing you, what they want to discuss, what they know about you or your game already, and who else they may be talking to.
The majority of the angst we may feel about conducting a press interview comes from fear of the unknown
But you can - and should - try to reasonably learn these basics before you agree to an interview. Remember, journalists rely on you for information as much as you may rely on them for exposure. The "power" is mutual. That said, reporters are not obligated to fully inform you of their specific story plan, but most are open to sharing their general angle. (Just don't ask a reporter for their questions in advance...that's taboo for most respected news-driven outlets.) If you contracted an outside PR agency, the account team should vet the story, along with presenting you a briefing book for advance study with this information.
Quick pro-tip: Make sure to specify if your interview is going to be transcribed verbatim. This is important to know because how we speak conversationally looks markedly different (often more disjointed) in writing than when we communicate verbally.
Practice Makes Perfect
The main reason I think so many Insomniacs have navigated press interviews smoothly over the years without incident -- and a reason we have such a deep roster of capable spokespeople -- is because we do our homework beforehand. (And because every Insomniac knows to contact someone on my team immediately if they're approached by a journalist.) We anticipate difficult questions and practice them in challenging mock sessions hosted by my teammate James Stevenson and myself. Our goal is to make these interviews more uncomfortable than the real thing. We try to think of every conceivable "trap" question - usually a sensitive industry topic not related directly to our game -- and bait our teammates accordingly.
Here's a hypothetical mock interview exchange to illustrate how we might teach our teammates to avoid potential trap questions:
Ryan/James: What role will loot crates play in your upcoming game?
Interviewee: We're not talking about anything like that right now.
Ryan/James: So are you confirming that loot crates may be in the final game?
Interviewee: No, I'm not saying that. It's highly unlikely we'll have loot crates in the final game, we just don't like to speculate on these things until the game is finished.
Ryan/James (after uncomfortably long silence): OK, fair enough. So what do you think of the loot crate controversy?
Interviewee: I actually don't mind loot crates, personally speaking. I get the fuss, but to me they serve a purpose in extending replayability.
I can see it now, the potential click-bait headline: "Insomniac Non-Committal on Loot Crates: 'They Serve a Purpose in Extending Replayability'"
The giant red flag here for the interviewee should be, "What do you think of the whole loot crate controversy?" Discussing this further would not be the strategic purpose of our interview and we would encourage the interviewee to head back to a safer topic by simply stating in their own style, "I'm speaking here as a member of Insomniac Games and am not going to get into personal opinions on this topic. I'm happy to talk about our core gameplay mechanics and how we're evolving the franchise. Do you have more questions about that?"
James and I also try to induce our interviewees to discuss the competition- it usually doesn't end well. It didn't for me 10 years ago in a press junket interview for Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction, and it only happened because I let my guard down for a few seconds with a seemingly innocent question. I paid the price in what was a frustrating but valuable learning experience.
Lesson learned: Google doesn't care what you meant to say versus what you said.
Applicable lesson learned: Focus on what makes YOUR game great, not speculating whether or how you're beating specific competitors.
Focus on what makes YOUR game great, not speculating whether or how you're beating specific competitors.
This is Media Training 101. As someone who media trained so many fellow developers over the years, how did I let this happen to myself then? The reality is that this particular interview was probably at least the 10th I conducted back-to-back. I'm sure I was relieved to be asked a different question, not to mention a little punchy after a full day of presentations.
That's a bad combination.
A misstep can happen that fast - it's that moment when impulse and fatigue can cloud your judgment and obscure your objective. If you find yourself participating in a long day of consecutive interviews, try to move about for a bit between each session, review your notes if you have them, reset yourself mentally, grab a snack and remind yourself that even though you may have said the same thing 10 times in a row, it's the first time that journalist may be hearing your story.
Fortunately, James and I leverage our experience as former journalists and spokespeople to coach our teammates so they avoid these pitfalls and others. We don't leave the conference room until we know our interview subject feels prepared and confident. That includes them knowing as much about what they can't talk about in advance as what they can.
Define Your Home Base...
Are your hands feeling a little clammy thinking about these pitfalls? How can you feel prepared if you're worried about falling into an interview trap? When we're coaching our teammates, this is why we try to make things simple. Specifically, we ask our interviewees what is the one message that is vital for them to communicate in the interview. We avoid multiple talking points. We also encourage our interviewees to make that message their own, in their everyday words. The message has to be authentic or it comes across as simply "PR speak."
Nobody likes PR speak.
We refer to our singular message approach as our "home base." This is the short phrase the interviewee can always return to reset the conversation and regain confidence. Past examples of a home base message at Insomniac have included pointing to a "CG movie-like experience" when talking about visual fidelity and character development in Ratchet & Clank, "rock 'n' roll in the end times" to describe the unique atmosphere in Sunset Overdrive, and a "completely original" take on Marvel's Spider-Man for our current PlayStation 4 project. Oftentimes, the home base message reflects what publishers call a game's "unique selling proposition," or the most important attribute that distinguishes your game from others in the industry without directly calling out the competition.
...And Stick With It
Once we establish our home base message, it's time to talk about adhering to it during an interview. Seasoned journalists know if they're being "messaged" and may try a number of approaches to shift the conversation to elicit a more spontaneous or genuine-sounding answer. This is where the delicate dance between what an interviewer wants and what the interviewee needs occurs.
To ensure a smoother dance, we talk about a technique called "dodge and deflect", or more politely, "bridging." In our mock interview sessions, we practice all the ways an interviewee can bridge to their home base, and that often can be the difference in nailing a focused interview. You can further your cause by helping the journalist retain your key message with "flag phrases" such as, "The key takeaway here is," "To sum it all up," or "The most important point to remember...."
Help the Journalist, Help Yourself...Be Yourself!
All this may sound mercenary or disingenuous. But it's important to remember that a journalist's responsibility is different than a developer or publisher's mission. A journalist is seeking to find out more detailed information about your game or studio - more than what you may want to share. A developer or publisher is often seeking strategic exposure. Balance can be attained in that initial conversation with a journalist about interview parameters, so both agree in advance about discussion topics. Moreover, when you have carefully planned out the course of your content campaign - how and when you reveal information about your game - you can satisfy a journalist's needs while advancing your own agenda. And if you're transparent with the journalist throughout the process, you can build a trust-based relationship that will last far longer than any one story.
"A journalist wants to get a glimpse into who you are as a person, what makes you tick as a developer. You don't have to shy away from that..."
Finally, a journalist wants to get a glimpse into who you are as a person, what makes you tick as a developer. You don't have to shy away from that, as I mentioned the importance of authenticity above. Let your passion and excitement for your game come through!
The people on our team who seem to do best in interviews, like Spider-Man creative director Bryan Intihar, aren't necessarily the least nervous. No, they're the ones who know what they want to say, internalize the message for themselves, and are genuinely excited to talk about a game they love working on. In fact, Bryan himself would tell you that the reason he can conduct an effective interview is not because he's a former games journalist and knows both the industry and his project thoroughly. It's because his communications message guides him, but it doesn't define him.
These tips work. They're simple but effective. Insomniacs understand the context of the interview before we agree to it. We know the interviewer's background and anticipate all the relevant questions that may be asked. We know what we want to say and how each of us can authentically convey that in our own style. Just as important, we know what we don't want to say. Then we practice, again and again, until we're as confident in our delivery as we are our message.
When we do all these things, we assume a posture that promotes positive performance.
And when we project that mindset, we have established a framework that helps us overcome our anxiety. Then, it's possible to see that interviews with the press aren't duels but strategic conversations - an opportunity to share your craft and your game with the world...on your terms.
Ryan Schneider is the chief brand officer at Insomniac Games, where he has worked for the last 14 years. Prior to Insomniac, he provided PR services for Sony Computer Entertainment America, Nissan North America, HP, and T-Mobile, among others.