Editor’s Note: Since August 2010, I’ve written more than 1,000 posts. Some of the most popular posts have gotten buried over time, so I occasionally unbury especially useful older posts to share with readers who missed them the first time. This article was originally published on December 27, 2010.
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ve seen my regular advice to do almost every media interview you’re offered. But there are times when turning down an interview makes the most sense, and this article will discuss the times when saying “no” is your best move.
Below, you’ll find a list of seven times to turn down an interview.
The original list comes from the IABC (The International Association of Business Communicators). Although it’s a solid list, the tips are overly-generalized, so I’ve added my own commentary to each of the seven suggestions to help make them more complete.
1. Employees Have Not Yet Been Notified About a Specific Issue
As a general piece of advice, this is fine. But if a reporter is about to run a story with or without your input – and if you lack the logistical ability to inform your employees directly before it runs – it might make sense to participate in the story to ensure you provide the necessary context. Plus, what is the “specific issue” at play here? Announcing a new product before all employees have been notified (e.g. the iPad) might be strategically sound, while announcing employee layoffs through the press would not be.
2. Employee, Client or Patient Privacy Is Never Breached For Any Reason
Client confidentiality might be waived, for example, if you’re subpoenaed to testify in a lawsuit or before Congress, especially if no confidentiality agreement was signed between the parties.
3. An Emergency Has Occurred; Next-of-Kin Have Not Been Notified
I agree you should not be the first party to announce any deaths before next-of-kin has been notified, but what happens if the media has already announced the names? Do you confirm them then, or continue to wait hours – or days – before next-of-kin has been notified? These cases aren’t always cut and dried, and sometimes confirming the names is the more humane choice.
4. Sensitive Competitive Information Would Be Divulged
In a reputational crisis, there are times you might lose more by NOT divulging a proprietary piece of information. As with any crisis, you have to analyze all possibilities, including divulging competitive information.
5. Security Legislation Would Be Breached
Whistleblowers aside, this is probably good advice. I assume this refers to laws already passed, not pending legislation.
6. Union Negotiations are Underway; An Information Blackout is in Effect
If both sides are honoring the agreement, this is good advice. But what about when one party breaks the agreement and is killing you in the press? You should talk to the media – if not to offer specifics, at least to remind the public that you’ve agreed to an information blackout, that you’re not going to talk for that reason, but that there’s more to the story than they’re hearing from the other side.
7. Legal Counsel Has Advised Against Communications
If there’s one thing on this list that makes me bristle, it’s this one. First, even if counsel has advised against “communications,” you can still communicate. You can almost always offer a generic statement such as, “We can’t offer specifics in this case since it’s in litigation, but I would like to remind everyone that there are two sides to this story, and we’re confident that our side will come out in court.”
Second, legal counsel often advises against communications as a kneejerk reaction, even when communicating makes the most sense. Executives would be wise to consult their attorneys and their communications professionals prior to making such decisions. Sometimes the reputational damage caused by your silence is greater than the financial damage of future lawsuits.
Editor’s Note: A grateful hat tip to a good marketing blog called IMC Intuition by Beth Ryan, on which I originally saw this list.
Most speakers I know use the restroom before delivering a presentation. Doing so seems rather obvious—why would anyone want to be uncomfortable during a speech?
British Prime Minister David Cameron reportedly disagrees. Before big speeches, Mr. Cameron occasionally avoids the restroom. He claims that the discomfort of a full bladder gives him energy and keeps him focused.
According to The Guardian:
“Cameron, it is said, used his tried-and-tested “full-bladder technique” to achieve maximum focus and clarity of thought throughout the grueling nine-hour session in Brussels. During the formal dinner and subsequent horse-trading into the early hours, the prime minister remained intentionally ‘desperate for a pee’.
Cameron has reportedly used the technique before, notably during his ‘no notes’ conference speeches during the early years of his party leadership. He heard about it when watching a Michael Cockerell documentary about the late Conservative politician Enoch Powell a decade beforehand. Powell – best known for his infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in 1968 – remarked that he always performed an important speech on a full bladder: ‘You should do nothing to decrease the tension before making a big speech. If anything, you should seek to increase it.’
Perhaps the technique works for Cameron. But The Guardian points to a study that found that an “extreme urge to void [urinate] is associated with impaired cognition.”
I’m not sure I’ll be adding this technique to my suggested tips for speakers any time soon—but I don’t begrudge Cameron using this tactic if it works for him. In part, that’s because I have an odd—and admittedly outdated and cheesy—ritual of my own. As I’m being introduced before a big presentation, I play the theme song to Rocky in my mind. It pumps me up and allows me to walk to the stage with energy and purpose.
That leads to a question: Have you ever used an odd method of pumping yourself up for a talk? What works for you? Leave your response in the comments section below.
Photo credit: World Economic Forum / Moritz Hager
Once or twice each year, I post 10 of my favorite public speaking and media training quotes of all time. Today’s the day!
In the latest installment, you’ll find quotes from a business tycoon, a philosopher, and a well-known feminist, among many others.
If you don’t see your favorite quote on the list, please leave it in the comments section below.
Public Speaking Quotes
1. “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
– Often attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, Italian Renaissance painter (1452-1519)
2. “Oratory is like prostitution. You have to have little tricks.”
– Italian Prime Minister Vittorio Emanuele Orlando (1860-1952) 1
3. “Years of actually getting up in front of audiences have taught me only three lessons. One: you don’t die. Two: there’s no right way to speak—only your way. Three: it’s worth it.”
– Gloria Steinem
4. “A talk is a voyage with a purpose, and it must be charted. The man who starts nowhere generally gets there.”
– Dale Carnegie
5. “Designing a presentation without defining the audience is like addressing a love letter: “To Whom It May Concern.”
– Attributed to two business executives (see notes) 2
6. “Think as wise men do, but speak as the common people do.”
– Attributed to Aristotle
Media Training Quotes
7. “People trust their ears less than their eyes.”
– Greek historian Herodotus 3
8. “Next to doing the right thing, the most important thing is to let people know you are doing the right thing.”
— John D. Rockefeller, American business tycoon (1839-1937) 4
9. “A reputation once broken may possibly be repaired, but the world will always keep their eyes on the spot where the crack was.”
– Bishop Joseph Hall (1574-1656) 4
10. “My life is my message.”
– Mahatma Gandhi
Credits and Notes
1. I found the Vittorio Emanuele Orlando quote in Alan M. Perlman’s book “Writing Great Speeches.”
2. The “love letter” quote was attributed to Gene Zelanzy, director of visual communications for McKinsey and Co., by Fletcher Dean in “10 Steps to Writing a Vital Speech,” but was attributed to former AT&T presentation research manager Ken Haemer in Nancy Duarte’s “Resonate.”
3. I discovered this quote in Steven Lucas’s book “The Art of Public Speaking.”
4. The Rockefeller and Hall quotes first appeared on Jonathan and Erik Bernstein’s excellent crisis management website.
Four years ago, I learned that my firm, Phillips Media Relations, was about to lose its biggest client.
We had been managing media relations for that client, a nonprofit, for six years, but they never fully recovered from the recession and couldn’t afford our services any longer.
I knew we would suffer a big economic blow without them, and I was nervous (“freaked out” might be a more accurate descriptor). I spent many nights crunching the numbers, trying to figure out how to keep my business growing despite the huge setback of losing a high-value client.
Still, by that point one thing was clear to me: I no longer enjoyed doing media relations. I had been writing press releases and pitching stories for a decade, and I dreaded the days I had to engage in one of those activities. It was also clear to me that the other part of our business—preparing for and leading customized media and presentation training workshops—felt enormously gratifying.
But the numbers weren’t there. Focusing solely on media and presentation training—and refusing future media relations work—would mean a huge drop in revenue. I faced a decision about whether to do the “safe” thing by continuing to market a profitable service I didn’t enjoy, or to do something riskier by pursuing my passion.
I chose the latter. That’s about the time I started this blog, began writing my book, and dropped media relations from our offerings.
It worked. Every year, the business has continued to grow; the risky decision panned out to be the right one. That’s not intended to sound boastful—the past four years have had their fair share of anxiety, stress, and 60-hour workweeks. And the workload too often comes at the high cost of family time, something I’m trying to improve upon.
But I’m happier and more professionally satisfied than ever, and it’s easy to see myself doing this for the rest of my life. All of this reinforces a lesson that I’ve always believed in and only recently relied upon: If you follow your bliss, success—however you define it—will follow.
This article is part of an occasional series about what I’ve learned from running a business. You can read other articles in this series here.
Every public speaking expert I know advises presenters to forge a connection with their audiences by maintaining steady eye contact.
But a highly publicized study published in Psychological Science suggests that eye contact may actually make people “more resistant to persuasion, especially when they already disagree.”
“’There is a lot of cultural lore about the power of eye contact as an influence tool,’ says lead researcher Frances Chen, who conducted the studies at the University of Freiburg, Germany, and is now an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia. ‘But our findings show that direct eye contact makes skeptical listeners less likely to change their minds, not more, as previously believed,’ says Chen.
Is she right? And if so, what does it mean for public speakers?
According to the press release about the study, the researchers “…found that the more time participants spent looking at a speaker’s eyes while watching a video, the less persuaded they were by the speaker’s argument.”
Co-lead researcher Julia Minson of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government concluded that, “Whether you’re a politician or a parent, it might be helpful to keep in mind that trying to maintain eye contact may backfire if you’re trying to convince someone who has a different set of beliefs than you,”
But watching a video isn’t the same as being one member of an audience out of many with a live speaker, so I’m not sure the methodology used by the researchers is naturalistic enough to be applied broadly.
In the research, one viewer looked directly into the eyes of one speaker on a screen, presumably maintaining steady eye contact throughout. But what if that one viewer had been one member of a 50-member audience, during which the speaker gave that viewer a proportional amount of eye contact, meaning during just two percent of the presentation? Would that have the same impact on persuasion?
There appears to be a lot of conflicting data on this point. According to Nonverbal Communication in Human Interaction:
”Research shows that listeners judge speakers who gaze more as more persuasive, informed, truthful, sincere, and credible, and even pictured faces appear more trustworthy when the eyes are showing a direct versus an averted gaze (Wyland & Forgas, 2010). Also, compliance with a request can be enhanced if the requester engages in more gazing within an appropriate range (Gueguen & Jacob, 2002).”
I wouldn’t dismiss the research conducted by Chen and Minson. Perhaps it applies more to one-on-one communication than public speaking. But even then, it’s safe to assume that other factors they didn’t control for—age, gender, and height differences among live speakers, as well as each party’s role in the interaction (e.g. boss/employee, salesperson/prospective customer, two peers)—would also impact the effectiveness of any persuasion attempt.
This study is interesting, and it’s worth noting. But I wouldn’t advise speakers to change their approach in live presentations based on this research alone.
Note: I asked Dr. Chen to respond to this article, and she kindly sent the following response:
“Our findings are in fact in line with prior research — in the case where the listener was sympathetic to the speaker’s view (i.e., when the listener expressed agreement with the speaker’s position on a sociopolitical issue before watching the video of the speaker). In those cases, we found that more eye contact was associated with more receptiveness. This direction of effect is consistent with the other research you mentioned.
Our research specifically showed that eye contact could backfire (i.e. lead to less persuasion) in cases where the speaker and listener start out disagreeing about an issue. It’s in this case that we believe that too much eye contact may be perceived as threatening, or as an attempt to dominate.
I do agree with you that the effects of steady one-on-one gaze from a video may not be the same as more “diffuse” gaze from a live speaker to a large audience. We’re currently planning some follow-up studies to address exactly these questions!”
Want to learn more about public speaking? Check out our recommended reading list!
Imagine you’re on a first date.
You ask your date what he or she does for a living, and your date responds by speaking for the next three minutes with a perfect monologue that was clearly rehearsed and memorized.
You’d think that’s a little weird, right?
That leads to a follow-up question: Why is that weird? In part, it’s because the memorization robs any spontaneity from the moment, which creates a feeling that your date is being inauthentic. At the very least, it’s clear that your date isn’t truly experiencing the date in the moment with you.
That leads to a third and final question: When people memorize their presentations word-for-word, is that any less strange?
Before answering that question, let me offer a narrow disclaimer. A small number of people are able to both memorize a presentation and deliver it with an authentic audience connection. But that’s a rare gift that few people can pull off well. (And yes, stage actors memorize their lines, but the exchange between actor and audience is different than the exchange between speaker and audience.)
Why Do People Memorize?
People often memorize their presentations because they think doing so conveys a sense of polish to the audience. In some cases, that’s true. Seasoned speakers who deliver the same presentation day after day can often deliver it without notes. But seasoned speakers know that in most situations, it’s far better to internalize content (allowing the specific words to come to them in the moment, which more closely resembles real-life conversation) than it is to memorize content (which is reminiscent of a stage play, in which the audience has no speaking role).
In other cases, they think it gives them a sense of control. But audiences generally don’t respond well to tightly wound speakers—they prefer speakers who show a piece of themselves, something comic Billy Crystal calls “leaving a tip.”
The Problem With Memorization
I can almost always tell when one of our trainees has memorized their presentation. So can the audience. It’s easy to spot that they’re searching for their next words—and they’re so busy wracking their brains for the next line that they’re no longer present with the people in the room.
Plus, for the vast majority of speakers, the cost-benefit ratio of memorizing their script is all wrong. Whereas the audience won’t deduct points from speakers who occasionally glance at their notes, they will deduct points from speakers who seem overly rehearsed—or who forget their next line and go blank.
There’s nothing wrong with using notes. Ideally, you’ll reduce them to just a few bullets that serve as memory triggers. When you need to look at one, all you need to do is pause, look down, see your next bullet, look back up, and begin speaking again.
Save memorization for Broadway actors and speaking circuit pros. For the vast majority of the presentations you’ll ever deliver, no one will mind if you glance at notes once in a while.
Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from Gary Genard’s new book, “Fearless Speaking: Beat Your Anxiety, Build Your Confidence, Change Your Life,” which I reviewed here.
Please complete the sections below concerning the eight causes of speech anxiety. Answer the questions honestly and candidly. Your answers will help you know whether you have speaking fear, and identify the type of fear response(s) you experience. Knowing this information will help you zero in on the fear reduction technique best suited to your situation.
Feel free to answer, “Yes” to more than one of the eight causes. But once you’ve completed the entire exercise, go back and circle the name of the response that is strongest for you.
1. Learned Response
Are you still influenced by a negative public speaking or performance situation that happened to you in the past? Did something “teach” you that public appearances are unpleasant, risky, or even dangerous? Have you been afraid to get up in front of others since then?
2. Anticipatory Anxiety
Does the thought of giving a speech or presentation cause you excessive anxiety beforehand? Do you worry constantly about the upcoming speaking situation, lose sleep, have no appetite, or fixate on what’s coming?
Do you believe you know what your audience is thinking? Can you “hear” them in your own mind challenging and criticizing you? Are you certain that their facial expressions reveal their true feelings toward you?
4. Fear of Appearing Nervous
Is your greatest fear that everyone will see how nervous you are? In other words, do you think, “If I appear truly nervous, everyone will realize I don’t know what I’m talking about!” Is this your big concern?
5. Fear of Going Blank
Are you afraid that nervousness and anxiety will make you forget everything you’re supposed to say? Do you picture yourself having a brain freeze? Are you convinced you’ll be unable to say anything or that you’ll forget key parts of your message?
6. Lack of Skills
Are you convinced that you simply lack talent as a public speaker and shouldn’t be up there? Are you afraid that you’ll be “found out” and your secret will no longer be safe?
7. Physical Reaction
Is your biggest problem the physical responses you have when you speak in front of others? Is your principal complaint dry mouth, pounding heart, gastrointestinal distress, racing pulse, sweating, shaky voice, gasping for breath, or other symptoms?
8. Performance Orientation
Is your principal concern that you have to be an excellent speaker? Do you compare yourself to other speakers, telling yourself you have to come up to their level? Is your skill in performance your major concern?
Well done! Now that you’ve identified possible anxiety responses, you can focus on the technique best suited to deal with that particular response.
Editor’s note: To learn the specific techniques that will help you address your primary source of public speaking fear, check out Gary’s book, Fearless Speaking: Beat Your Anxiety, Build Your Confidence, Change Your Life.
Good physicians wouldn’t diagnose you before running blood work or conducting a physical examination. If they did, you’d probably run out of their office, never to return.
But far too often, public speaking experts address the fear of public speaking in exactly the same manner. They offer tips and strategies intended to help you reduce your anxiety—without making any effort to understand the genesis of your fear.
As examples, I recently worked with a woman who developed her fear of public speaking when a boss scolded her for her delivery style; a man I recently worked with developed his anxiety due to a childhood stutter that led to years of painful teasing. The root causes for both people were different—and they each required a different approach.
That’s what I appreciated so much about Gary Genard’s Fearless Speaking: Beat Your Anxiety, Build Your Confidence, Change Your Life. Like a good physician, Genard understands that many different factors can lead to a chronic fear of speaking and that those multiple causes require different solutions. (I’ll publish an excerpt from his book on that topic on Wednesday.)
Genard offers dozens of practice exercises throughout his book. As I read them, I realized that while I’d personally find some helpful, I’d find others less so. And that’s a good thing. By giving readers several options, each reader will be able to find the exercises that are most relevant for them. Happily, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach here. Every reader will use the book slightly differently.
One of Genard’s ideas, for example, is to use an acting technique called “The Actor’s Box.” In order to clear their minds before acting in a play, actors place their personal worries into an invisible box. They don’t try to ignore that they have anxieties—they just give themselves permission to store them in a box for the hour or so they’re on stage, allowing them to act without them—immediately after which they can retrieve the box (and their problems) again.
I had an interesting experience with “The Actor’s Box.” When I read about it in Genard’s book, I dismissed it as a little too “out there” for my taste. But a few nights later, when speaking to my wife about an unrelated topic, I suggested she try the technique. Turns out that idea stuck. And several of Genard’s techniques had a similar effect, continuing to work on me long after I had finished the book.
That approach is one of many. Genard offers a broad range of strategies from the traditional to the creative. He also ends each chapter with a real-life case study that brings his techniques to life.
I’ll give Gary the final word in this review, in which he beautifully sets the foundation for the pages that follow in his book:
“Almost universally, there is never as much danger or risk as you think there is concerning a speech or presentation. However, your anxiety leads you down a path with no exit, since you’re substituting your fears for more accurate measures to judge your success. So you create a false reality that’s actually much harsher than the actual speaking situation.”
Fearless Speaking is available in paperback here.