Online press conference
Credit: NATO North Atlantic Treaty Organization on Flickr

"You’re on mute" may well have been the key phrase of the last two years.

When reporting during the lockdowns was the norm you could be forgiven your audio faux pas, but as press conferences and briefings find a regular place online, how can you make sure your killer questions are answered?

Be the first with your hand up

Just like at a physical presser, making sure you are the first name the person monitoring the chat sees when they open the floor makes you difficult to overlook.

"If you raise your digital hand early, the person choosing the question will spot you and is very likely to pick you when the time comes," says Politico London Playbook’s deputy editor, Eleni Courea.

Finding out whether the organisers are lining up journalists to ask questions ahead of the event is key. Try introducing yourself as a reporter to the press conference’s hosts and saying you have questions.

Particularly if the press conference is broadcast live, the press officer will want things to run as smoothly as possible.

"That way you can arrange to be called up straight away after the presentation finishes," adds Courea.

Have confidence in your question

MyLondon health reporter, Lucy Williamson says that confidence is crucial.

"You just have to be bold," said Williamson.

"Even my first time at a press conference, for New Scotland Yard, I felt intimidated by reporters far more experienced than me but I knew I had to have confidence in my question."

Williamson says that knowing what you want to ask before joining the call is a sure-fire way to build that confidence. Have a go-to question prepared in advance that you can tweak to what the speaker has said. That way, it will come naturally when the time comes to ask it.

Keep it simple

Knowing that a virtual room of journalists is behind you in the queue to ask a question can force you to rush or overcomplicate things. Plus, complex language is often knocked off track by ropey internet connections and tinny speakers.

"Make sure what you’re asking is super clear," says Williamson, "and definitely not too long.

"The longer the question, the easier it can be for the person answering to confuse it and not answer it properly."

Be clear about what you want to know. It should be simple but get the person talking - the best questions will tease more information from the speaker.

Have a backup

If you cover a complex story with lots of twists and turns, there will be many routes your questioning could take.

But with a video press conference, especially one where the speaker’s line is clearly set, many reporters will lean towards the same questions.

"It’s a good idea to have a few questions in mind," advises Courea, "just in case somebody else asks the one that was your first choice."

Knowing that you can draw on a line of questioning that adds to the story rather than repeating information will mean you are well-prepared when the Zoom spotlight falls on you.

Just one more thing

Video press conferences add another few layers between you and your interviewee but that does not have to mean you must avoid scrutinising an answer further.

The best material can arise when a speaker is probed to justify something they said that was not entirely prepared. Journalists need not lose this when asking a question virtually where time is short and patience is limited.

"Keep your questions as brief as possible,” says Courea. "That way it’s likely you can squeeze in the follow-up.

"The best way to do so is to keep your mic unmuted and intervene briefly and politely at the end of the person’s answer."

If the question, and the speaker, flow from one point to the next, press officers should allow your follow-up to get the answer it deserves. It may just be the key quote your story demands.

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