This post, “Why Cognitive Dissonance Is a Critical Media Strategy,” was published on October 22, 2014.
Cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values. (source: Wikipedia)
I recently worked with a company that is frequently portrayed by the media as a “bad guy.” As a result of receiving some critical media coverage, the company’s executive team ordered a clampdown on external communications.
That means no more interviews. All interactions with the media occur solely through written statements. That way, the company figures, reporters will be unable to twist their quotes. By maintaining a paper trail, they feel safer and better protected.
There’s one problem with that approach: Their defensive posture results in media stories that contrast the company’s cold, lawyerly written statements with their opponents, who speak to the press, appear open, and look more sympathetic.
When working with the company’s representatives, I had an “A ha!” moment. I noticed that all of the spokespersons were smart, funny, and instantly likeable. Unfortunately, the public couldn’t see that for themselves, since their statements contained none of those things. But if they could—if the public could see that this company was made up of thoughtful people who were trying to serve their customers well—it could force them to change their thinking.
Think of it this way: A customer who thinks, “Oh, I hate that company. Their customer service sucks.” would believe that their beliefs were well founded when watching a news report that showed the company communicating solely through uninspired written statements.
But a customer who thinks, “Oh, I hate that company. Their customer service sucks.”— and who then sees a company vice president expressing sincere commitment to improving their service—might experience a bit of cognitive dissonance (“I thought they were jerks. I still don’t love them, but maybe they’re not as bad as I thought.”).
If your company is in a defensive crouch but has charismatic, credible, and thoughtful spokespersons, ask yourself this question: Would our interviews create cognitive dissonance for some members of the audience? And if they would, should we really depend solely on written statements to carry our message?
This post, “Seven Rules of Engagement for Managing Audience Q&A,” was published on April 8, 2014.
Too often, speakers spend weeks carefully crafting their presentations but fail to prepare adequately for their audience’s questions. As a result, they deliver a successful presentation only to become derailed during the question and answer interaction.
One bad response can be all it takes for speakers to diminish—or even reverse—the good impression they established during their presentation. This week, we’ll focus on the question and answer period to make sure you take advantage of those critical minutes.
1. Set Time Expectations
If your presentation doesn’t have a firm ending time, tell the audience for how long you intend to take questions. If the audience knows you’ll wrap up the session in 15 minutes, they’re less likely to be distracted by the phone call they have to make, their biological needs (“When can I go to the bathroom already?), or their growing hunger.
If you don’t tell them, they’ll become uneasy, as they don’t know whether they’ll be stuck in the room with you for 10 minutes or an hour. You can eliminate this step if your session is time limited—the audience will understand that a 50-minute conference breakout session will predictably end at 50 minutes past the hour.
2. Invite Audience Participation Using The Right Phrases
When most speakers open the floor to questions, they ask, “Does anyone have a question?” That question often fails to elicit a response. One reason is that whereas only a few people in your audience may have a question, many more likely have thoughts, opinions, or comments about the material you presented. You can encourage more participation if you use those words when soliciting feedback from your audience instead of—or alongside—the word “question.”
Ken Molay, president of the firm Webinar Success, says that another problem with the “Does anyone have a question” approach is that it doesn’t place personal responsibility onto any single member of the audience to act. As better alternatives, he advises clients to change that question to “Do you have a question?” or “What are your thoughts?” Although those questions can be addressed to the full audience, the use of the pronoun you may prompt a more active response.
An even stronger cue, Molay says, is to give the audience a direct command to take action in a specific way: “Now it’s your turn to guide the discussion. What should I clarify or go into more detail on?”
3. Repeat the Question or Comment
There’s usually no need to repeat (or summarize) an audience member’s comment or question when speaking to smaller groups in smaller rooms, or in larger groups when questioners use a microphone.
But repeating an audience member’s question is imperative when: The audience size or room is large enough that some people might not hear the question; the person asking the question is soft-spoken; or the session is being recorded and questioners do not use a microphone.
You don’t have to repeat back each question in its entirety, but make sure you include the heart of the question in your summarized version.
4. Avoid Negative Language
Neurophysiologist Rick Hanson writes that, “Your body generally reacts more intensely to negative stimuli than to equally strong positive ones…Negative stimuli produce more neural activity than do equally intense positive ones.” Since negative words or experiences tend to be more memorable than positive ones, it’s best to remove any negative language when restating a question posed by an audience member.
For example, a member of the audience—a person who rents apartments from your management company—might say, “We’ve been complaining about the noise for a year, and you’ve done nothing about it. It’s obvious that all you care about is money.”
When repeating back the comment to the audience, don’t say:
“She says that all we care about is money and that we haven’t addressed the noise problem.”
Instead, strip away the negative language when restating the comment:
“I understand that you’re concerned about the noise. Let me tell you what we’ve done to address the noise problem.”
Click here for part two of this post!
This post, “A Surprise for People Who Think They Hate Reporters,” was published on October 6, 2014.
I’ve worked with many people who don’t trust or like the media. But one recent group of trainees from a public entity was more emphatic in their hatred of the press than I’d ever encountered before.
This group constantly felt besieged by a rapacious press corps that couldn’t be satiated, and they believed that reporters were far too busy pursuing their own predetermined agendas to give them a fair shot.
Given the hostility of this group toward the press, I decided to try something different. The result was striking, if not outright shocking.
Instead of playing the role of reporter (as I usually do in media training sessions), I decided to divide the group in half.
The first group played their usual role of serving as corporate spokespersons. I gave them a scenario to work with, asked them to develop their messages and media strategy, and told them to assign a person who would deliver a press conference.
The second group was tasked with playing the role of reporters during a press conference. I told them that their job was to do everything they could to get the facts the spokesperson was reluctant to offer. I instructed them to get past the spin, challenge evasive responses, and do whatever they could to get to the truth.
The second group took their job seriously. When the press conference began, they were unforgiving of anything that remotely bordered spin. They asked tough follow-up questions, used evidence to contradict some of the spokesperson’s claims, and adopted an almost hostile tone. Frankly, they were tougher than most of the reporters I’ve ever seen at press conferences.
The “Aha!” Moment
When the press conference ended, I asked both groups what they were feeling. The group representing the company said they felt exhausted and beaten up. But the group of reporters was pissed. They felt that the company was being evasive, and they resented the company’s lack of candor.
I didn’t have to say anything. My takeaway message seemed to wash over everyone simultaneously: Reporters aren’t always being jerks just to be jerks; sometimes, they just resent that you’re not being straight with them.
That profound realization, which reminded me of the old adage about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, changed their perspective. Suddenly, they understood how they were complicit in the media’s reaction to their attempts at media management—and they recognized the need to begin doing things differently.
This post, “The 5Cs of Crisis Communications,” was published on February 20, 2014.
A crisis strikes your company. News helicopters are flying overhead, reporters with camera crews are showing up at your headquarters, and journalists from all over the world begin calling your communications department.
That scenario might seem dramatic—and admittedly, most corporate crises aren’t quite that sensational—but it happens. When a plane crashes, a factory has a major explosion, or a university has a school shooting, all of those things happen, and more.
It’s common for executives to deliver a press conference in those situations—and how well they come across during their early press conferences and media interviews is critical to establishing a strong public perception.
The 5C’s of crisis communications detail the five critical traits all executives and spokespersons must convey during their press conferences and interviews.
Early in a crisis—before the facts are known and when company officials are as blindsided as everyone else by the news—it’s easy for an executive to appear flustered, unsure, and tentative. As an example, watch this example of the flustered chairman of a rail company responding to a derailment that killed more than 40 people in Quebec.
The public can’t see how well you perform handling the details of the crisis itself. They can’t watch you delegate roles, see your private meetings, or hear your phone calls. So fairly or not, they will judge your competence based on how well you perform during your time in the media spotlight. Handle a tough press conference with dexterity? You’re deemed competent. Look uneasy before cameras? You’re not.
There’s one question that drives the public’s perception of an executive or spokesperson more than any other: “Does he or she get it?” Anything that undercuts an executive’s credibility threatens their public image for the rest of the crisis, and possibly forever. In some cases, the best way to gain credibility is to concede, rather than defend, an obvious point.
When BP’s former CEO Tony Hayward declared during the worst oil spill in U.S. history that “the amount of volume of oil…we are putting into [the Gulf of Mexico] is tiny in relation to the total water volume,” the public concluded that he didn’t get it. He should have conceded that it was an environmental disaster and stopped there.
To set the right tone, executives and spokespersons generally need to express (in words or actions) a deep commitment to communicating with any affected stakeholders, the media, and the general public. Doing so ensures that reporters use you as the primary source and helps communicate your commitment to solving the problem (or at least mitigating its effects).
When Carnival Cruises had a PR challenge in February 2013 after an on board fire knocked out water and power, the company’s CEO got credit for showing up when the ship docked and going on board to apologize to passengers personally. But the company’s commitment to communicating to the passengers themselves was less effective; many complained that the crew didn’t keep them fully informed about the situation.
Little makes the public turn on an executive or public figure in crisis more than someone who’s cavalier toward any victims. As an example, when Lance Armstrong admitted to Oprah Winfrey that he had used performance-enhancing drugs, he took the opportunity to “jokingly” label a former teammate’s wife—who Armstrong had falsely called a liar for years—a “crazy bitch.”
Few executives label victims that way, but they might communicate their indifference through self-focus. If an executive talks about the way he or she has suffered more than the way the actual victims suffered (see Tony Hayward’s “I’d like my life back,”) they will be held in low regard or become outright pariahs.
Finally, the public must perceive that the executive is capable of solving the problem. BP’s Tony Hayward failed that test. So did Susan G. Komen Foundation CEO Nancy Brinker. So did Paula Deen. So did Lululemon founder Chip Wilson.
But Jet Blue’s David Neeleman got it exactly right. When Jet Blue faced a media crisis after canceling hundreds of flights and leaving passengers stuck on grounded planes without food or water for many hours in 2007, CEO David Neeleman responded by releasing a “Passenger Bill of Rights.” That Bill of Rights offered passengers increasing levels of compensation based on the length of their flight delays.
This interview from The Today Show demonstrated his competence, credibility, commitment, caring, and capability.
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This post, “The Nuns Were Wrong About Your Hands,” was published on January 19, 2014.
I occasionally ask audiences whether anyone went to Catholic school. I follow up by asking those who did whether they were ever instructed that it was rude to gesture using their hands. Many of them nod their heads, chuckling at the memory from long ago.
It’s not just nuns (and certainly not all of them) who perpetuated the belief that gesturing with one’s hands is considered undisciplined, undignified, and unrefined. Many of our presentation training clients have been taught the same thing by other presentation trainers (although I know many great trainers who never teach that erroneous advice).
In this post, I’ll strip away the myths about gesture—and share with you what the experts tell us.
Researcher Susan Goldin-Meadow, author of Hearing Gesture: How Our Hands Help Us Think, tells us that “we have not yet discovered a culture in which speakers do not move their hands as they talk.”
It turns out that gesture is innate. “Even individuals who are blind from birth and have never seen others gesture purposefully move their hands as they talk,” Goldin-Meadow reports. In one study, “the blind group gestured at the same rate as the sighted group.”
Whereas many people once believed that speech and gesture were two different things that could be teased apart, the research suggests otherwise. Goldin-Meadow writes:
“Gesture not only conveys meaning but does so in a manner that is integrated with speech. Several types of evidence lend support to the view that gesture and speech form a single, unified system.”
Not convinced yet? In their book Nonverbal Communication In Human Interaction, authors Mark Knapp, Judith Hall, and Terrence G. Horgan report similar findings:
“Gestures help speakers retrieve certain words or describe objects that move as part of their function, and thus serve a greater interpersonal function. Listeners may benefit more from a speaker’s gestures when these gestures add emphasis or clarity to speech, help characterize and make memorable the content of speech, and act as forecasters of forthcoming speech.”
The evidence is clear. Humans speak using their hands. Effective communication depends on it. If any trainers tell you otherwise, throw them out of your office.
There are, of course, some guidelines for the best way to gesture. You can see some of those here.
Thank you for our best year yet! We posted 170 articles to the Mr. Media Training Blog this year—and you rewarded our efforts with more visits than ever before. Thank you very much for being a loyal reader of our blog!
Starting tomorrow, we’ll begin running our ten best posts of the year.
These “best of” posts represent a combination of your favorite posts and my own personal favorites. The post I selected as the “best” of 2014, for example, didn’t get a lot of traffic. But I loved the post at the time—and I hope you learn as much from it as I did.
We’ll run the top ten posts from tomorrow until the end of the year. I hope you enjoy the series and are able to catch up on a few of the highlights you might have missed.
And stay tuned for our annual “Worst Video Media Disasters of The Year” post, which we’ll publish on December 31.
Thank you for reading, and Happy Holidays!
I recently received this email from a communications consultant working in Brussels, Belgium. She writes:
“I bought your book a couple of months ago and found it a terrific read. I give a great many media trainings a year and found inspiration for a couple of improvements of the way I train my clients.
I do have one question / remark. You present the proof points of the key messages as messages to bridge to. But should a spokesperson not be bridging to key messages in lieu of proof points? I always tell my trainees to repeat key messages a couple of times during an interview (not word for word of course).
Scientific research shows that a minimum amount of repetition is useful for a message to sink in with an audience (print interviewer) and besides if you repeat a key message a couple of times (A/V interview) you increase the chances of it being selected by the editor for the final cut of the report. What is your take on this?”
She is referring to my advice to bridge—or transition—not only to your core messages, but also to “message supports” such as stories, statistics, and sound bites.
First, she is right—repetition increases the likelihood that a message will be used by the media and remembered by the public. Upon reading her email, I quickly concluded that the advice we’re both offering our clients is compatible, not contradictory.
The system I developed for answering questions—described in The Media Training Bible as the “message support stool”—was designed to get around a problem that tends to affect (and afflict) longer interviews.
As I assert in our training sessions, reporters and the public resent a spokesperson who simply regurgitates the same messages repeatedly. Therefore, the problem I wanted to solve was this: How can a spokesperson answer every question in a manner that conveys their main themes but without ever lapsing into the kind of obnoxious repetition that repels an audience?
The idea behind the message support stool—or “proof points,” as supporting material is sometimes called—is that you can supplement your main messages by occasionally expressing them through a story, statistic, or sound bite. Beyond simply preventing repetition, a well-curated story, statistic, or sound bite can be more memorable than the main message itself, which is often an abstraction or more conceptual idea.
But I agree with her that it’s a good idea to come back to the main messages themselves at least a couple of times throughout the interview, using different words each time, as she suggested. That’s important for the reasons she stated, but I’d add one more reason.
During longer radio interviews, for example, the audience may turn over a few times. In other words, a person listening at the beginning of an interview may not still be listening at the end, and many people may have tuned in sometime during the middle of the interview. Therefore, repeating your message a few times is the only way to ensure that each listener hears your most important points at least once.
Thank you very much for your thoughtful question!
Do you have a question about media interviews or public speaking that you’d like answered in a future blog post? Please email me at Contact@MrMediaTraining.com.
William Davis, a writer for the American Nuclear Society and a friend of this blog, recently sent me an article he had written about the huge difference one word can make.
His article focuses on an unremarkable incident that occurred at a nuclear plant in Ukraine late last month. He writes that the event was little more than a “fault in electrical transmission equipment,” which is common “in the world of power generating equipment anywhere, no matter the power source.”
The real problem occurred when Ukraine’s Premier dubbed this minor incident an “accident.”
The term ‘nuclear accident,’ so still burned into the minds of so many after Chernobyl and Fukushima, refers to a very serious event. An event that compromises all the layered, defense-in-depth levels of safety protecting nuclear materials from reaching the environment.
In the case of the Ukrainian Nuclear Power Plant, Zaporizhia Unit 3, no such event occurred and was never approached.”
The Premier’s use of the wrong word, “accident,” led to terrifying but untrue international headlines and even affected Ukraine’s bond market. William’s post is a perfect example of how an ill-chosen word can magnify—or even create—a crisis.
A Similar Example From A Recent Training
We recently conducted a crisis communications drill related to foodborne illness. The scenario began with a report that six employees, all of whom had attended the same catered event, reported to the facility’s health center with complaints of nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
We ran this scenario with different groups of trainees several times, and we saw the same mistake during the practice press conferences each time: Every spokesperson referred to this as an “outbreak.”
“Outbreak” is a scary word, especially when it is applied to a foodborne illness that might be the result of an intentional act. Simply saying that word during a press conference would give the media an easy hook—”An outbreak of unknown origin!” —and the facts up to that point didn’t justify such heightened language.
Other trainees in this drill used the word “situation,” which also suggested a degree of seriousness (perhaps even foul play) that was unjustified by the scenario. Those words—”situation,” “outbreak,” “event,” even “incident”—would only serve to make the established facts sound more severe.
What should the spokespersons have done? They should have simply stuck to the facts:
“What we know is that 1,000 people attended an event and that six of them have checked into a local hospital with symptoms of nausea and gastrointestinal distress. They are being cared for and are expected to make a full recovery. We do not know whether a food item might have been the source of this illness, but we are asking anyone else who attended the event and feels similar symptoms to call us at 312-555-5555.”
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