I received a phone call recently from a PR professional who is struggling with a frustrating and all-too-common problem.
He read my book and is trying to implement some of the messaging suggestions I wrote about—but he’s running up against executives who are so scared of potentially alienating any stakeholder that they hedge every statement and water down the messages to the point where they’re not even remotely engaging.
He wondered what someone in his position can do when they know the right thing to do but keep getting thwarted by overly cautious colleagues.
The first thing I would share with my executives is this: We know that some forms of communication are more efficient at transferring information from us (the organization) to them (the organization’s audiences) than others.
We know, for example, that:
- PowerPoint slides full of bullets and text aren’t as efficient at transferring information as well-designed and simple visuals.
- Sharing data point after data point isn’t as efficient at transferring information as an anecdote that contextualizes that data.
Similarly, we know that trying to communicate during media interviews with carefully wordsmithed phrases full of hedged, cautious language isn’t nearly as efficient as transferring information in the form of tightly constructed and more memorable media sound bites.
The executives may be pleased that their messages have been cobbled together through a pleasing process that allowed the input of a dozen board members—but that focus-grouped message will sound like it’s been cobbled together by a dozen people.
Their Caution Comes With a Cost
The executives should know that their caution may come at a cost of more media coverage, possibly resulting in fewer customers, donors, or members. I’m not suggesting that executives should take reckless risks, but rather that they carefully consider the consequences of their caution. Their preference for risk-free language may be costing them more than the rewards effective media appearances would bestow upon them.
Looking at similar organizations may also help. If other organizations in the same space have more media success, it’s worth assessing whether their less cautious approach is part of the reason. Presenting executives with such evidence can often be persuasive.
Have you experienced this problem? What advice would you offer this PR pro? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
If you react to a challenging question with defensiveness, your reaction will communicate volumes to your audience, which will speculate about its cause. They’ll conclude that your defensive behavior occurred for a reason—you have an unpleasant demeanor, you’re easily threatened, or the accusation being leveled against you is true.
But since defensive reactions are natural, advice that simply says “Don’t be defensive!” leaves most people without the tools they need to avoid them. Therefore, it may require you to redefine what a challenging question is—and is not.
Many people perceive challenging questions as unfriendly acts from audience members who are positioned against them and have incentive to make them look bad. Certainly, that happens. But in far more cases—the overwhelming majority—they’re questions from people whose genuine objections are centered around true concerns, rooted in a misunderstanding, or based on a previous experience that has nothing to do with you.
That being the case, wouldn’t it be healthier for you to redefine challenging questions as opportunities to learn from their objections so that that you can offer effective responses? Wouldn’t it be even worse if a skeptical audience didn’t ask you challenging questions, preventing you from addressing their concerns at all?
When you respond to their questions, you’re actually offering two (hopefully complementary) responses: one through your words, and the other through the manner in which you deliver those words. Responding to objections using the right words is obviously preferable—but in many cases, your tone may be more important than the words you choose.
A Personal Experience
That point was seared into my memory a few years ago when I was hired to train a group of 100 military officials. As you might imagine, addressing that room was particularly intimidating, and I was more nervous than usual before beginning my presentation.
About two minutes into my opening, one of the attendees raised her hand and said, “I don’t think that’s right.” She then proceeded to tell the room why my opening point was wrong.
My internal reaction was immediate and powerful. My adrenaline—already surging—sent my heart racing even faster. In my mind, I was thinking that just two minutes into my presentation, her comment would undermine my credibility for the entire day. My internal monologue was full of self-doubt (and a few four-letter words). I was panicking.
But as profound as my physiological reaction was, I was fortunate enough to remember to change my internal monologue. I forced myself to change my “four-letter word” reaction to “Okay, I can handle this.” And then I reminded myself of the two words that allowed me to deliver an effective response: “Be open!”
I walked ever-so-slightly in her direction (physical proximity often softens the tone of a question or comment) and gave her my full attention. As soon as she completed her comment and the eyes of the room turned to me to gauge my reaction, I thanked her, turned to the rest of the group, and said, “I know that other people in this room probably have a similar view, and I’m glad she brought that up. Let’s talk about that.” My open and nondefensive reaction changed the mood in the room, resolved the tension that built up during her comment, and enhanced my credibility with the audience.
My handling of that situation didn’t come naturally for me, and it may not for you, either. I had to work hard to quickly replace my instinctive four-letter internal monologue with the essential phrase, “Be open!” When confronted with a similar situation, work hard to remember those two magic words.
Have you had a “four-letter word” moment during a presentation? Please share your story in the comments section below!
Let’s say your company wants to produce videos of your subject matter experts to post to your corporate website, YouTube, or to share with clients.
You want them to look directly into the camera and say something about their work. But they’re inexperienced with being interviewed, and they keep breaking eye contact with the camera.
It’s no surprise that they’re having a tough time. That direct-to-camera set-up is typically the most difficult format not only for shooting video, but for media interviews. The problem? Unlike other formats, the spokespersons can’t make eye contact with anyone.
Thanks to a product called EyeDirect, that problem has been solved. (I have no connection with this company, nor is this a paid endorsement. I am not being compensated by EyeDirect in any way.)
As you can see in the video above, it’s easy to use: spokespersons look directly into the lens but see the eyes and faces of their interviewers. In that more natural setting, I have no doubt that spokespersons would be much more dynamic and less awkward.
In an email, EyeDirect’s inventor, Steve McWilliams, said:
“I built and patented this device initially to solve the problem of getting a dog to look into the camera for a Target commercial…I went on to use is with babies, celebrities, real people, cancer survivors, parents and camera-shy teens…The EyeDirect puts the human component back into the subject’s story…and they don’t have to ‘act’ into the lens of a camera, they simply ‘interact’ with the producer or director asking the questions.”
I’d offer a couple of caveats. First, this product is valuable and I’d recommend it to clients who shoot corporate video. But it’s not a substitute for learning how to deliver a straight-to-camera media interview. Many news organizations don’t have this device, and you’ll need to know how to deliver an interview without it.
Second, I’d be reluctant to use the TelePrompTer feature described in the video. Most people sound like they’re reading when they use a prompter—and I’d prefer that people know how to deliver their words more extemporaneously.
Those mild objections aside, I see the enormous value in this product. If it works as shown in the video (I haven’t seen an in-person demo), I’d be an enthusiastic endorser of this product.
Prices begin at $995; rentals are also available through unaffiliated suppliers. You can find more information about EyeDirect here.
Don’t miss a thing! Click here to join our mailing list and have the best of the blog delivered to your inbox once per week.
I recently media trained a well-regarded executive.
Off camera, this client was funny, warm, and engaging. But her first on-camera interview was terrible. While answering my questions, she appeared stiff and restrained, bordering on unlikeable. As I sat listening to her answers, I thought, “How in the world am I going to help her improve?”
After we stopped recording, I mentioned to her that although she had all of these wonderful traits in person, I wasn’t seeing them come across during the interview. I asked what was holding her back.
She told me that she had been told by a previous boss that she has too much personality—and, over time, she’s learned to dial back her performance in order to be taken more seriously. (In my experience, this has been a recurring theme with many more women than men.)
I asked her to do another interview with me—but this time, to be the person she truly is, the one that hasn’t been criticized or critiqued in the past. I wanted the unrestrained version of her, the one that goes out to dinner with her closest friends.
Guess what? Freed of her self-defeating internal monologue, she delivered a great on-camera interview in the second round. Even better, she actually enjoyed the experience after I gave her permission to be herself.
Like many of our trainees, advice she had received from someone earlier in her life—in this case, a former boss—had killed some of her spark.
If you’ve ever been given advice from a supervisor, friend, partner, media or presentation coach, or anyone else that isn’t sitting right with you, question it. Don’t dismiss it entirely; there’s always a chance they could be right. But allow for the possibility that you know something about yourself that the other person simply doesn’t know.
And remember: There’s no one model for what a spokesperson should look like, other than themselves at their best. Spokespersons can succeed as communicators whether they’re quiet and shy or personable and high energy. So to this client’s former boss, I say this: personable people can be taken seriously.
The House Majority Leader, Virginia Republican Eric Cantor, is trying to win re-election this year against a little-known Democratic opponent named Mike Dickinson (See update below).
Mr. Dickinson entered the national spotlight late last week after he appeared on Fox News to speak with anchor Greta Van Susteren.
Van Susteren wanted to know more about Dickinson’s “War on Fox News,” which the candidate launched because he thought Fox News often misrepresented the facts. (That shouldn’t exactly be a tough position to argue.) But Van Susteren—a skilled criminal defense lawyer—decided to do some research about Dickinson’s past. And the resulting interview was simply devastating.
Watch this interview, then tell me: Is it me, or did Dickinson look like SNL’s Darrell Hammond doing a parody of a local politician?
The first lesson is this, as stated by Political Wire’s Taegan Goddard: “Pro tip: If you’re running for Congress and pledging a “war on Fox News” then it’s probably best not to appear on Fox News.” But I only agree with that partially. Appearing on Fox News while pledging a war on the network could have turned this local Democratic candidate into a popular national Democratic hero—if he was a skilled debater who could have held his own against an experienced host.
Second, if you have skeletons in your closet (consulting for strip clubs), you should probably have a good response ready. Instead, Dickinson just took Van Susteren’s punches without offering any counter response. For example, he could have said:
“You know, I know that’s not a popular profession with some people. But I want to be clear about how my policies would benefit women—and how Eric Cantor’s have hurt them [insert examples].”
But the worst moment came when Van Susteren cornered him into admitting that he had lied about calling himself the CEO of a company (he wasn’t). He admitted to being a liar. Again, a skilled candidate would have had a better response prepared:
“I’m embarrassed by that and wish I could do that one over again, but let’s be very clear about one thing: I haven’t spent my entire professional career misrepresenting who I am and what I believe. Eric Cantor has. For example…”
Dickinson is trying to use heightened rhetoric to earn free national media coverage. Other politicians have used that strategy as well: Democrats Alan Grayson and Anthony Weiner, and Republicans Louis Gohmert and Michele Bachmann, among others. But there’s a key difference: they were all good at that game, and Dickinson is not.
As Van Susteren told him, “You’re a piece of work.” The problem for Dickinson is that I suspect many of his potential voters agree.
UPDATE: After writing this article but before posting it, news emerged that Mr. Dickinson failed to meet the filing deadline to run as a Democratic candidate for Congress in Virginia’s 7th District. He reportedly failed to inform Fox News that he wasn’t officially a candidate; nor did the network appear to verify his claim otherwise.
A grateful hat tip to reader John Barnett.
One of the greatest fears public speakers have is being confronted by a question they don’t know the answer to.
Admittedly, there are times when not knowing an answer can make a presenter look bad. If you’re a political candidate who can’t answer a question about your own economic plan, for example, you’re going to receive negative media coverage. But in the vast majority of cases, not knowing an answer is okay—if you handle it well.
This post will offer you six ways to handle a question that stumps you.
Letting a few seconds elapse between a question and your response may feel like an eternity to you—but it doesn’t to the audience. Pausing to think also conveys to the audience that you’re taking their questions seriously, not offering canned answers.
If you’re temporarily unable to think of an answer, you can tell the questioner that you’d like to think about the question for a few minutes and that you’ll come back to them later (“That’s an important issue, and I’d like to think about it for a few minutes before responding.”).
3. Ask Them To Elaborate
Ask questioners to elaborate upon their main point. Oftentimes, people become more specific when they restate their question, which makes it easier for you to understand and respond.
4. Turn To The Audience
Don’t be afraid to use your audience as a resource. If stumped, you can ask the audience to share their knowledge and experience with the questioner (“I know we have some people in the audience who have dealt with that issue before. How have you handled it?”).
5. Tell Them What You Know
Sometimes, knowing a specific answer isn’t as important as providing a general response. In those cases, it’s okay to tell the questioner what you do know, not what you don’t. As an example, if you work for an office supply company and someone asks what percentage of your sales last year were for recycled paper, you might say, “I don’t know the specific number, but what I can tell you is that recycled paper sales continue to grow steadily and we’ve given more shelf space to the product due to increased consumer demand.” You might pair that response with the final tip below.
6. Use These Seven Words
This final point is a critical one that should permanently eradicate most of your fears about being stumped. If you don’t know an answer, just say these seven words: “I don’t know, but I’ll find out.” Then, follow up as promised. If you have a website, blog, or social media account, you can even tell your audience that you’ll post the answer within 48 hours for anyone who’s interested. That seven-word sentence is an especially powerful resource for speakers with perfectionist tendencies, since it reminds them that they’re allowed to be—and should be—human in front of their audiences.
Like our blog? Please help spread the word! Share buttons are below. Thank you!
Married Louisiana Congressman Vance McAllister was caught on surveillance video this week passionately kissing a woman at his local office.
The woman, Melissa Anne Hixon Peacock, was a longtime friend and donor to McAllister’s campaign. Making matters more complicated, the woman’s husband was also a friend and contributor to McAllister’s campaign; Mr. Peacock told CNN that this incident has “wrecked his life.”
Even worse, Ms. Peacock was on McAllister’s payroll and was terminated after the video became public.
The Republican freshman has vowed to remain in office, but the messy incident has remained in the news, threatening his young political career.
According to CBS News, McAllister is “reportedly asking for an FBI investigation into the source of the leaked security footage.”
A friend and trusted colleague emailed me today and said, “This seems like a bad idea to me. You cheated on your wife and kids, don’t ask the FBI to find the person who caught you doing it.”
I understand where he’s coming from, but I disagree on this one. Rep. McAllister is taking a page out of two smart crisis management playbooks: Don Draper’s and David Letterman’s.
Don Draper, the fictional MadMen anti-hero, famously said, “If you don’t like what is being said, then change the conversation.” McAllister’s request may help shift at least part of the storyline from his steamy kisses onto the person who leaked the footage.
As for David Letterman, he paid a relatively small public price after news of his affair with a staffer became public. He benefited from having a bad guy in the story who was worse than he was—a blackmailer—and that blackmailer took a much worse media drubbing.
I wish McAllister’s crisis management strategy was to apologize, resign, and retreat from public life. But if his goal is to remain in office, his “find the leaker” strategy may help.
UPDATE, April 9, 2014, 5:40pm
Well, so much for that. According to Politico, Rep. McAllister’s staff said the congressman would no longer pursue an investigation into the leaker. It looks like he will have little to hide behind other than the de rigueur “I have let my family down and will try to do better” line.
In yesterday’s post, you learned the first four rules of engagement for managing the all-important Q&A period. In today’s post, you’ll learn three more.
5. Keep Your Answers Brief
You’ve worked hard during your presentation to remain focused on your big shiny object and choose your words with precision. Apply that same discipline to the audience Q&A, and avoid the far-too-common problem of speakers who offer six-minute rambles where 30-second answers would suffice.
Long answers chill the room. Audience members are quick to detect the pattern of a speaker who offers seemingly endless answers—and their questions quickly dry up when they realize further questions would subject them to another interminable monologue.
Keep your answers short. Aim for one minute or less. If you’re generally successful at keeping your answers succinct, the audience will forgive an occasional extended response.
6. Draw Out Your Audience
When speakers ask their audience for questions, they often see a collection of blank stares facing back at them. That moment is understandably difficult for many presenters—two seconds of quiet feels like an eternity—so they conclude that the audience has nothing to say and end the session after just a few seconds of silence.
As a professional presenter, I’ve encountered audiences that are quieter than others. But almost all of them can be drawn out—if you create a climate that encourages interaction.
Let’s say you begin by asking, “What questions or thoughts do you have about my proposal?” No one responds. Here are a few things you could try next:
Wait: People detest a vacuum. Long silences are uncomfortable. If you simply stand confidently and wait, someone in the audience will usually speak up.
Ask the Audience a Question: If no one speaks up after several seconds of silence, you can ask the audience a question. (“During my presentation, I mentioned one possible approach to raise more money from donors by selling licensed merchandise. What advantages or disadvantages do you see with that approach?”) If no one responds, you can call on a few people.
Prompt the First Question: To ease the audience in, you can bring up and answer a question that you’re often asked about your topic—or a question that you had to contemplate when developing your presentation.
End the Session: Gracefully thank your audience, deliver your second close, and invite the audience to approach you with any thoughts or questions after the session ends. Don’t assume that the audience’s lack of feedback was a sign of failure (and don’t convey, through your words or body language, that you thought it was). You may have been so effective in delivering your presentation that they understood it thoroughly and are processing your information. To help determine the root cause of your audience’s silence, analyze why you didn’t receive input by reflecting upon your presentation, speaking to the meeting planner or a few participants to discuss what worked and what didn’t, and evaluating the results of your post-presentation survey.
7. Assign Roles For Team Presentations
If you’re presenting as part of a team, decide in advance which team members will answer questions about which topics. For example, you might assign questions about a project’s timeline to Susan, the project’s cost to Rick, and the project’s architectural design to Raheem. Doing so helps prevent the awkwardness of deciding in front of the audience who should answer which questions.
Also, resist the urge to add something to an answer given by a co-presenter if they offered a sufficient response. Too often, team members compete for “talk time” by unnecessarily adding their thoughts to another team member’s answer, which can slow down the Q&A period.
Thanks for reading! If you learned anything in this post, we’d appreciate it if you shared our work.