What Should I Do With My Hands?

Written by Brad Phillips on February 9, 2011 – 11:01 pm

If you saw Will Ferrell’s movie Talladega Nights (and for your sake, I hope you didn’t), you might remember his character’s dreadful media interview. As Ricky Bobby’s hands kept flying into the frame, he admitted, “I’m not sure what to do with my hands.” 

Sure, the scene was exaggerated for comic effect. But many of our media and presentation training clients are equally unsure what they should do with their hands during media interviews and speeches.

The key is never to “lock” or “hide” your hands. No clasped hands, no hands behind the back, no hands in pockets, and no “steepled” fingers, which is when your fingertips touch one another.

Those positions are generally considered defensive (or arrogant), which not only makes you look overly-guarded, but lowers the audience’s ability to retain your message.

Waiting Hands Clasped

Clasped Hands Communicate Defensiveness and Lower Audience Retention.

Standing: Media Interviews and Speeches

When you’re not actively gesturing, there are two places you can rest your hands during standing interviews or speeches. The first option is to rest your hands at your side. It feels strange, but it looks fine to the audience. The second option, my preference, is to nest your hands in one another, keeping them at navel-level when not gesturing. Nesting is a nice option, since it allows you to gesture freely when making an important point.

One caveat: If you’re speaking at a lectern (and hopefully, you’re not), don’t keep your hands at your side. Keep them nested at navel-level, making it easier for you to gesture. And whatever you do, don’t slump over or grip the sides of the lectern.

Seated Media Interviews

For seated media interviews, you can either nest your hands loosely on your lap, or rest your hands casually atop your thighs. The key is not to clasp or grip your thighs, which makes you look nervous.

Seated Speeches 

Since most seated speeches are panel-style with a table, keep your hands nested in front of you on the table when you’re not gesturing.

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Related: Body Language: How Energetic Should I Appear?

Related: Body Language: Eye Contact – Where Should I Look?


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Posted in Media Training: Performance | 1 Comment »

There’s No Such Thing As An “Official” Interview

Written by Brad Phillips on February 9, 2011 – 6:46 am

Imagine you have a television interview scheduled with a reporter. The handsome TV news personality arrives at your office, the crew sets up the cameras and lights, and the interview begins.

Fifteen minutes fly by in what seems like seconds, and you’re done. You feel good. Even though the reporter asked a few tricky questions, you were prepared and handled them well.

As the crew packs up, you stand around with the reporter and make some polite small talk. He casually asks you about one of your competitors, and you offer a casual, if mildly negative, response about their work. When the piece airs, you’re shocked to find that the reporter introduces the piece by quoting your offhanded remarks about your competitor.

Your boss is not going to be happy.

Man Being Interviewed

You may feel betrayed by the reporter, but he’s done nothing wrong. The interview didn’t officially ”begin” when the cameraman pressed the record button or “end” when he turned it off. Anything you say before, during, or after the actual interview – including any phone or email exchanges – can be quoted.

Don’t say anything in the presence of a journalist that you wouldn’t want published – until you’ve said goodbye, gotten in your car, and driven away. I know that sounds like incredibly obvious advice, yet my month-end media disasters lists are regularly filled by public figures who make this mistake.

One such example was California senate candidate Carly Fiorina, who was caught on-camera (before the “official” interview began) bashing her opponent’s hairstyle. The clip below gave Californians an insight into who Ms. Fiorina really was – and they didn’t like it:

In the downtime before and after the “official” interview, it’s okay to chat with the reporter. But use that valuable time to state your most important messages – if not verbatim, then by advancing the main themes you want him to remember. Otherwise, that causal remark may come tomorrow’s nightmare headline.

Related: Why Going Off The Record Is a Dumb Idea

Related: The Three Questions Reporters Always Ask


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BBC: Those Lazy, Flatulent, Feckless Mexicans

Written by Brad Phillips on February 8, 2011 – 6:41 am

Viewers of the popular BBC program Top Gear are used to the humorous hosts making irreverent remarks. But a few recent comments about Mexicans got the hosts in some well-deserved hot water.

Last week, the show’s hosts were discussing a Mexican sports car that they referred to as the “Mexican Tortilla.”

Mastretta_MXT

Mexico's Mastretta MXT (Photo Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

As the co-hosts and audience laughed along, one of the hosts said:

“Why would you want a Mexican car? Cars reflect national characteristics, don’t they…Mexican cars are just going to be a lazy, feckless, flatulent…leaning against a fence asleep, looking at a cactus with a blanket with a hole in the middle on as a coat.”

“I’m sorry, but imagine waking up and remembering you’re Mexican.”

 

The Mexican ambassador to Great Britain complained, saying:

“These offensive, xenophobic and humiliating remarks only serve to reinforce negative stereotypes and perpetuate prejudice against Mexico and its people.”

 

And while the BBC apologized, they did it in that weasel-like, half-hearted “If you were offended” kind of way:

“We are sorry if we have offended some people, but jokes centered on national stereotyping are a part of Top Gear’s humour…Whilst it may appear offensive to those who have not watched the programme or who are unfamiliar with its humour, the executive producer has made it clear to the ambassador that that was absolutely not the show’s intention.”

 

That statement reads as a classic non-apology, refusing the blame and re-directing toward the offended.

The list of public figures who have caused major damage to their careers based on these types of remarks is almost endless, but includes: former Senate candidate George “Macaca” Allen; former CNN Host Rick Sanchez; former NPR Analyst Juan Williams; former movie star Mel Gibson; former funnyman Michael Richards; formerly-heard radio host Don Imus; former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott; and former White House correspondent Helen Thomas.

I’ll leave it to others to decide for themselves whether they think stereotypical humor is funny. But it has no place in the public square – unless you want to provoke negative press and cause self-inflicted reputational damage.

Related: January’s Five Worst Media Disasters

Related: Why You Should Be Paranoid In Public


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Posted in Media Training Disasters | 7 Comments »

Should You Ask Reporters For The Questions?

Written by Brad Phillips on February 7, 2011 – 6:41 am

Last week’s Question of the Week asked readers to share their thoughts on this question: Should you ask reporters to see their questions prior to an interview?

Judging from the comments I heard, there’s absolutely zero consensus in the P.R. world on this issue.

Here are a few of your replies, which range from “absolutely not!” to “yes, of course!”

Kate Cohorst, Senior Writer/Editor, Notre Dame College of Arts & Letters: “No way. Asking for questions seems paranoid and makes reporters suspicious.”

Dustin Terpening: “It’s my experience that reporters are willing to share their line of questions…I’m actually kind of surprised by the notion that people think it’s offensive to ask a reporter what they might ask.”

Leila of Dynamite Public Relations: “No, you shouldn’t ask for the questions. But you can ask about the angle which often leads to the questions being offered.”

Jill Chamberlin: “Generally, a simple, “She (or he) asked what topics/questions to expect so that she (or he) can be prepared and helpful,” will prompt at least a casual response that is telling.”

Jeff Domansky, aka The PR Coach: “Color me prehistoric, but…wouldn’t that offend you, even a little, as a reporter? Why risk it?”

Anna Melendez Johnson: “Sure, why not? I would never expect the reporter to stick to the questions, but if it helps my spokesperson to prepare – it works in my organization’s favor.”

Steven Piessens: “Forget about fishing for the questions, just make sure you know what the interview is about and who’s the journalist/media.”

Krista of PR in Pink: “I work in pharmaceutical and healthcare PR. I find that the trade reporters I have built relationships with are used to sending Q’s in advance of interviews.”

Blake Rhodes of Xenophon Strategies: “I have worked with clients who have demanded questions before even agreeing to the interview. As the messenger, I could feel the cold front…coming through the other end of the phone.”

Paul Nonnenmacher: “There’s nothing wrong with asking. I always advise those I’m training that the more they know…the better they’ll be able to answer those questions.”

Pat Smith of Smith Strategic Communications: “I found reporters often withheld key questions in any event and worked them into the interview.”

Chris H.: “I have never had a reporter react negatively to our request.”

 

Up to now, I’ve always told clients not to request questions in advance. Coming from the world of “hard news,” I always regarded questions as proprietary, something not to be shared until the moment they’re actually asked.

But I’ve sensed for some time that the rules are changing and that my “old school” view is becoming outdated. Plus, many of my clients have successfully asked reporters for questions for years. 

Question Man

So, after reading all of your (very smart) comments (thank you!), here’s my view:

I’m shifting from “no” to the middle road on this one. Here are a few tips that may guide your approach:

1. Explore Gently: Commenter Pat Smith put it best: “explore gently.” Rather than explicitly requesting the questions, keep doing what you’re probably already doing: Ask about the story angle, areas of interest, and whether there are any specific pieces of information the source should research prior to the interview.

2. Hard News vs. Soft News: My general sense is that hard news reporters – think Wall Street Journal or The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer – will bristle if asked for questions, whereas “soft news” reporters and some trade publications will happily comply.

3. Existing Relationships: Many of you pointed out that your relationship with the reporter should guide your decision, and you’re exactly right. If you know a reporter and he/she has no problem with sending the questions, go for it. If you don’t, I’d go back to the “explore gently” phase.

BUT BEWARE

Don’t be lulled into a false sense of safety if you get the questions in advance. Reporters can still ask unexpected questions – and they will. Regardless of whether you get the questions in advance, prepare for the interview as if you’ve never seen them.

Your main messages should always reflect what you want the public to know, and shouldn’t change much depending on a reporter’s questions. Therefore, you should use the questions you receive in advance primarily to help you think through how to transition from their questions to your answers.

Related: How to Become a Better Media Guest in Three Seconds

Related: Don’t Dumb It Down. Just Make It Simpler.


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Posted in Media Training Tips | 7 Comments »

Ronald Reagan At 100: The Great Communicator

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on February 4, 2011 – 6:45 am

One hundred years ago this Sunday, Ronald Reagan was born in Tampico, Illinois.

To commemorate President Reagan’s centennial year, this article will look at five of his most famous communications moments, each demonstrating why he earned the moniker, “The Great Communicator.” 

Ronald Reagan 1981

Moment One: February 23, 1980: “I’m Paying For This Microphone!”

Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush were running a close race in New Hampshire in 1980 when a ruling by the Federal Elections Committee forced the newspaper sponsoring the debate to withdraw its funding.

Mr. Reagan decided to underwrite the entire debate himself after Mr. Bush declined to pay for half. So when the newspaper’s moderator tried to cut Reagan’s microphone after he tried to get five other candidates included in the debate, Reagan snapped, “I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green!”

Two things are interesting here. First, he got the name of the moderator wrong (it was “Breen,” not “Green.”)

Second, although Reagan’s anger seemed authentic, it was also probably not an improvised line. His Hollywood contemporary, Spencer Tracy, used an almost identical line in the movie State of the Union.

None of that mattered. Reagan won New Hampshire in a landslide, and this moment paved the way for his ascension to the White House.

 

 

Moment Two: October 21, 1984: Second Debate Against Walter Mondale

In his first debate against challenger Walter Mondale, Mr. Reagan appeared sluggish. So he anticipated he would be questioned about his age during the second debate (he was 73 at the time).

When The Baltimore Sun’s Henry Trewhitt asked about his fitness for office, Mr. Reagan pounced with a now iconic line that perfectly demonstrates how humor, paired with a total lack of defensiveness, can be the best tonic to disarm one’s critics. 

 

 

Moment Three: January 28, 1986: The Challenger Disaster

For my generation (I was born in the early 1970s), the Challenger explosion was our “Kennedy assassination” moment – everyone I know remembers exactly where they were when they heard the news. 

President Reagan took to the airwaves that evening, pain etched on his face as it was on ours. He struck a perfect tone on that night – sensitive but unwavering, avuncular but direct. If ever a president delivered the closing line of a speech better than this, I haven’t seen it:

“We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye – and slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God.”

 

 

 

Moment Four: June 12, 1987: “Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down This Wall”

Coming toward the end of the Cold War, Mr. Reagan’s demand of his Soviet counterpart represented the perfect media sound bite. The oft-repeated phrase left no room for confusion – Mr. Reagan wanted the Berlin Wall down, and now.

Notice how he waited for the crowd’s cheers to die down before delivering the line. He knew its power, and wanted to deliver the television-friendly phrase in the most impactful manner possible.

Less than three years later, the Wall was gone. Mr. Reagan’s speech wasn’t solely responsible, of course – but it was a crucial moment in the Wall’s history. 

 

 

Moment Five: January 11, 1989: Farewell Address From The Oval Office

This speech is best remembered for Reagan’s reference to a “shining city upon a hill.” But upon watching this video, I was struck more by his analysis of his nickname, “The Great Communicator.”

“I never thought it was my style that made a difference,” he said. “It was the content.”

I’m not sure he was right. He didn’t sweep 49 states in 1984 due to his policy positions alone; rather, his ability to use his oratorical gifts helped him reach voters who wouldn’t ordinarily give an “R” another look.

His farewell address feels other-generational. If a president infused an address with this much poetry today, it would almost certainly be mocked as “cheesy.” But Reagan pulled it off, and it’s worth a look.

 

Related: 2012 Election Preview: The Final Candidate Rankings

You Might Also Like: The 10 Worst Video Media Disasters of 2010

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Posted in Media Training Analysis | 17 Comments »

Why Kenneth Cole’s Apology Stinks

Written by Brad Phillips on February 3, 2011 – 4:59 pm

This morning, clothing designer Kenneth Cole stepped in it when he Tweeted this:

Ugh. After the predictable (and well-deserved) negative media attention ensured, he Tweeted this:

That did little to stop the on-line frenzy caused by his insensitive Tweet, so he posted the following message on Facebook this afternoon:

“I apologize to everyone who was offended by my insensitive tweet about the situation in Egypt. I’ve dedicated my life to raising awareness about serious social issues, and in hindsight my attempt at humor regarding a nation liberating themselves against oppression was poorly timed and absolutely inappropriate.” – Kenneth Cole, Chairman and Chief Creative Officer

 

Mr. Cole’s apology is far from ideal, and he should have done better in at least three places: 

1. Passive Responsibility: The wording “…to everyone who was offended…” is too passive. He should have explicitly said, “My insensitive tweet this morning was offensive, and I apologize.”

2. Made Excuses: He needed “hindsight” to know his “attempt at humor” was wrong? His moral compass is so bent that he thought it was appropriate in the first place? So appropriate, in fact, that he had time to create a URL with the word “Cairo” in it? It would have been far better for him to simply have said, “I offer no excuses. It was a stupid and insensitive thing to do, and it will never happen again.”

3. Bad Wording: Why use the phrase “poorly timed?” When, exactly, would that tweet have been “well-timed?”

These may seem like small points, but Mr. Cole’s defensive crisis statement will likely leave his critics unsatisfied. And, as a result, his brand will suffer more negative press than necessary.


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Posted in Crisis Communications | 2 Comments »

Mitt Romney’s Media Admission on “The View”

Written by Brad Phillips on February 3, 2011 – 6:51 am

On Tuesday, Mitt Romney appeared on The View and discussed his likely 2012 bid for the Republican nomination. One of his answers prompted a prominent blogger to declare that Mr. Romney had failed “the smell test.” I disagree.

Mitt Romney

Courtesy Jessica Rinaldi, Wikimedia Commons

When Mr. Romney was asked if he had learned any lessons from his failed 2008 presidential bid, he said:

“I do know that it’s important to make sure that your message is clear and that people understand why you’re running and the purpose of your campaign. The challenge that you have coming from the private sector as I did is when someone asks you a question, you answer it.”

“The challenge I had last time was I answered every question, and sometimes, you need to say: You know, let me quickly answer that question and then get on to what’s really important.”

 

 

That prompted writer Christian Heinze (a terrific blogger whose work I generally admire greatly) to write on The Hill’s GOP 12 site:

“That line doesn’t really pass the smell test for any politician, much less one who’s been saddled with the flip-flopper label. It’s the political equivalent of an interviewee saying his weakness is that he “works too hard.”

 

I disagree with Christian on this one. Mr. Romney is exactly right, and it’s the reason media trainers have encouraged media spokespersons to stay on message for years.

I teach my trainees something I’ve dubbed the “Seven Second Stray,” which means that if a spokesperson is “on message” for 59 minutes and 53 seconds of an hour-long interview, the reporter will almost always use the “off message” seven seconds. Why? Because those seven seconds are usually the least scripted, most interesting thing the person said.

But those seven seconds often have little to do with the key issues of the day. If Mr. Romney answers a question about something Sarah Palin says, for example, that becomes his headline the next day. If he refuses to bite and transitions back to a key point instead, that may become the headline the next day. If Romney thinks he failed on this count in 2008, he’s wise to make the necessary adjustment for 2012.

Far from saying he “works too hard,” he admitted that he failed Media Training 101 during his 2008 run. It’s a candid admission, one that politicians usually only make behind-the-scenes.

If there’s something that doesn’t meet the “smell test,” it’s Mr. Romney’s inference that business executives don’t have to engage with the media in exactly the same way. They do, and I suspect he knows that.


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Posted in Election 2012 (GOP) | Please Comment »

How To Be A Better Media Guest In 3 Seconds

Written by Brad Phillips on February 2, 2011 – 6:43 am

I know this sounds like a catchy headline offering impossible advice. But I swear it’s true – you can become a better media spokesperson in just three seconds.

Here’s how: When a reporter asks you a question, don’t answer. Remain quiet for a few seconds. Use that time to think about your response. Then – and only then – answer the question.

There are two caveats to that rule: Don’t remain quiet during live or particularly contentious interviews. But since most media interviews are neither live nor contentious, you’ll be able to pause for a few seconds before answering each question.

Man Zipping Mouth

Remaining quiet isn’t easy. You’d be surprised to see how many people forget this advice the moment the interview begins and their adrenaline surges. After all, we’re programmed to respond immediately when someone asks us a question in everyday conversation.

But responding immediately prevents you from thinking through your answer before delivering it – which often leads to an inferior answer that requires you to speak out loud for a few seconds before finally stumbling upon your point. When I ask our trainees to pause for a few seconds, their answers almost always become sharper, more focused, and devoid of the “uhhhs” that otherwise plague their responses.

If your interview is live and/or contentious, at least do yourself the favor of letting the reporter finish the question before beginning to speak. Too many people are unable to resist the temptation of jumping in before the question is completely asked, wasting a free pass to think for an extra couple of moments.

Practice this technique in your business meetings, personal conversations, and Q&A sessions. You’ll be shocked how easily you can become a better spokesperson in just three seconds.

Related: Don’t Dumb It Down. Just Make It Simpler.

Related: Why You Shouldn’t Say “I Don’t Know”

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  • About Mr. Media Training

    The Mr. Media Training Blog offers daily tips to help readers become better media spokespersons and public speakers. It also examines how well (or poorly) public figures are communicating through the media.

    Brad Phillips is the Founder and Managing Editor of the Mr. Media Training Blog. He is the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm with offices in NYC and DC.

    Brad Phillips

    Before founding Phillips Media Relations in 2004, Brad worked as a journalist with ABC's Nightline with Ted Koppel and CNN's Reliable Sources and The Capital Gang.

    Brad tweets at @MrMediaTraining.

    Christina Mozaffari is the Senior Writer for the Mr. Media Training Blog. She is the Washington, D.C. vice president for Phillips Media Relations.

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    Before joining Phillips Media Relations in 2011, Christina worked as a journalist with NBC News, where she produced stories for MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, NBC Nightly News, and The Today Show.

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