How to avoid the ‘call and response’ interview exchange

When you sit down with a journalist—on camera, at the microphone or for print coverage—it’s easy to lapse into rote responses. Here’s how to get a running start and let your answers soar.

Is there an echo in here?

A musical “call and response,” according to Wikipedia, “is a succession of two distinct phrases usually played by different musicians, where the second phrase is heard as a direct commentary on or response to the first.”

Sometimes, a live audience offers the response. A charming example comes from Cab Calloway’s 1931 hit “Minnie the Moocher,” which becomes so comically complex as to overwhelm the audience.

The call and response form can be found in jazz and classical and folk, in churches and synagogues and secular gatherings, and everywhere from West Africa to Cuba to England.

It should not be found in your media interviews.

Let’s say you’re an advocate for raising fuel efficiency standards in the United States. You believe that auto manufacturers—particularly for light trucks—must improve their fuel efficiency standards to help reduce the risks from climate change.

Your message is that automakers can make those changes without hurting their bottom lines.

Here’s a typical call and response interview:

QUESTION: “You’re focusing mostly on light trucks, correct?”

ANSWER: “Yes, that’s right, our main focus is not on cars, because manufacturers have already made substantial improvements in smaller vehicles.”

QUESTION: “By 2025, isn’t the CAFÉ standard for bigger light trucks just 30 miles per gallon, compared with 60 for smaller cars?”

ANSWER: “Yes, that’s right, and there’s another metric—the EPA window sticker—which is a bit lower, but still shows the same gap between small cars and big light trucks.”

Here’s what I heard in those two answers:

QUESTION: Hi-de-hi-de-hi-de-hi

ANSWER: Hi-de-hi-de-hi-de-hi

QUESTION: Hi-de-hi-de-hi-de-ho

ANSWER: Hi-de-hi-de-hi-de-ho

That call and response sequence of question and answer did nothing to help the spokesperson advance the key message. Each answer is merely a response to the call. Good spokespeople don’t merely produce an echo.

Let’s try that again—but without the call and response:

QUESTION: “You’re focusing mostly on light trucks, correct?”

ANSWER: “Yes, we’re focusing on light trucks, because they have much lower fuel efficiency than cars. It’s important to note that car manufacturers can deliver more environmentally friendly light trucks for consumers that end up costing little more to produce, but far less for consumers, who no longer have to fill them with as much gas.”

QUESTION: “By 2025, isn’t the CAFÉ standard for bigger light trucks just 30 miles per gallon, compared with 60 for smaller cars?”

ANSWER: “Yes. Light trucks are better than they used to be, but they’re still gas guzzlers that use twice as much fuel as smaller cars. Still, there’s good news on that front: Many manufacturers have already signaled that they can make improvements without risking their bottom lines.”

Your bottom line? Save call and response for musicians and religious leaders. Ban it from your media interviews.

Brad Phillips is president of Phillips Media Relations, which specializes in media and presentation training. He is author of the Mr. Media Training Blog, (where a version of this article originally appeared) and two books: “The Media Training Bible” and “101 Ways to Open a Speech.”

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