Whether for print, radio, television or the web, there’s no denying that media appearances can be disastrously stressful. In addition to worrying about your appearance, your posture, and your tone of voice, there’s that pesky problem of what in heaven’s name you’re going to talk about. How do so many CEOs and politicians so effortlessly breeze through interviews with thoughtful, measured answers? Is it natural talent? Not exactly. It’s because they know the one trick about media appearances that you need to know too.

Journalists frequently ask open-ended questions such as “tell me about your most recent report” or “give me your opinion on this event”. You might fret about what exactly an interviewer means by these questions. What if he’s not happy with my answer? Do I have to tell her my entire story from the beginning? How can I be sure to cover every detail of my project? What if I can’t answer the question at all?   

These are legitimate concerns for the beginner, but in truth, they’re only secondary to what you really need to know: It’s not about the question, it’s about the answer. And you control the answer.

That may sound like an obvious statement. Of course you control the answer! You decide when to start, what words you’re going to use, and how long your answer will be. But the fact of the matter is that novices often let the interviewer decide the direction and content of the interview, whether consciously or not.

The most common mistake is answering the question as literally as possible. Now, it could be that a literal answer is the answer you really want to give. Beware, however, of being so literal that your response becomes overlong or overly technical. In other cases, the reporter may ask a question that you cannot answer, that sets you up to say something that reflects badly on your company, or that merely leads you down a meandering, nonproductive path. True experts, in contrast, treat questions like reins to steer the interview.

Not only do experts have complete control of their answers, but they often have nearly all of their answers prepared in advance. How is this possible? Even if you can’t know exactly what a journalist will ask, you should have a good idea of the areas he or she will cover. From there, don’t sweat the small stuff. Answer the question with the answers that you want to give, not the answers you think they want.

To masterfully handle an interview, try these five tips:

Prepare your goals
To help prepare your answers, first think of your goals for the interview. Do you want to publicize a new report? To cast a positive light on your company? To drum up new business? The answers you choose to prepare should flow naturally from these goals.

Prepare your talking points
Imagine you are a journalist tasked with writing a headline about your work. Thinking in pithy, easy-to-grasp “headlines” will distill what you need to say down to its most essential aspects. Remember that the audience can only hold about three pieces of new information in their heads at any given time. Avoid technical terms and lengthy descriptions of processes that they might not be familiar with.

Keep an eye on the news
Journalists may throw curveball questions about current events or problems. Know how you will answer – or deflect – the most common. If you work in the food industry, for instance, you better be up-to-date on the latest scandals and health findings. Mainstream journalists will always seek ways to relate you and your work back to what their audience will find important.

Practice, practice, practice
The same amount of energy, effort and preparation that you would put into a business pitch should also go into a media appearance. And, of course, the bigger the appearance, the better the preparation. Practice your talking points with a friend, a family member, or just in front of a mirror.

During the interview
Use conversational bridges to steer the discussion. Acknowledge what the reporter has said, and then launch into your talking point: “That’s an interesting question because…” or “That’s hard to say, but what I can say is…”. Repeat your talking points, and don’t worry if you can’t use all your answers. Like outfits in a suitcase, pull them out only as you need them – no need to wear your entire wardrobe at once!