Comedian Jonah Hill was caught on video last weekend telling a photographer who was following him, “Suck my dick, you faggot.”
I have big issues with paparazzi (and the outlets that buy their photos) who make a living violating the personal space and privacy of celebrities for profit; that stars snap occasionally in such situations seems like an understandable human response.
But what caught my attention was Jonah Hill’s first apology, in which he said: “In that moment, I said a disgusting word that does not at all reflect how I feel about any group of people.”
Hill’s response seems to fit into the de rigueur crisis response in such situations, which goes something like this: “Although I said what I said, it doesn’t represent who I am or what I believe.” (Hill’s apology on Tuesday’s The Tonight Show seemed sincere, and I doubt he’ll incur much reputational damage.)
Alec Baldwin used a similar approach after unleashing gay slurs last year: “As someone who fights against homophobia, I apologize.” Catch that? Although he said what he said, his words don’t represent his views.
After Mel Gibson made anti-Semitic remarks, he apologized by saying: “Please know from my heart that I am not an anti-Semite.”
Even (former) disgraced L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling tried a similar statement: “25 percent of my home game are black people and I love them.”
Here’s my question: Does the “What I said doesn’t represent what I feel” approach work? Is it credible?
In Jonah Hill’s case, it might. He seemed genuinely aggrieved by his choice of words and their impact. And yet…if there wasn’t a place somewhere in him that viewed gay people differently, would he have chosen to lash out by calling someone a faggot? If Mel Gibson didn’t view Jews at least somewhat negatively, would he have used anti-Semitic slurs? Isn’t the language we choose representative of the thoughts we think?
Personally, I’m finding this type of response less and less credible. Michael Richards (Kramer on Seinfeld), who destroyed his career after a particularly ugly rant against African Americans (he repeatedly screamed the n-word at black audience members in a comedy club), may have gotten his response right: “I’ll get to the force field of this hostility, why it’s there,” he said.
That seems to be a more credible approach. I’d rather see a similar type of response in these instances: “Clearly, my choice of words tells me that I have some work to do on myself. Those words are ugly, hurtful, and even dangerous–and I will do everything in my power to understand the source of my prejudices and do the work it takes to extinguish them. In the meantime, I apologize for perpetuating the hurt so many people have endured.”
Earlier this week, video surfaced from five years ago of a then 15-year-old Justin Bieber telling a racist joke. If you have the stomach for such things, the video is below:
(For those who can’t access the video, Bieber’s “joke” asked, “Why are black people afraid of chain saws?” The punchline, delivered in the cadence of a chainsaw, was, “Run, nigger, nigger, nigger.”)
According to the gossip site TMZ, Bieber knew “his own photog was in the room and rolling.” More surprisingly, TMZ exercised some editorial restraint in this case:
“TMZ got this video 4 years ago but we decided not to post it … in large part because he was 15 and immediately told his friends what he did was stupid. People connected with Bieber say one African American was present at the time he told the joke.”
I respect TMZ’s restraint. Racism is too often an insidious force in our country, but I’m not sure targeting teenagers for international condemnation is the best cure. Even TMZ decided to handle this case, in which a minor was involved, differently than it would the public racism of adult stars Michael Richards, Mel Gibson, and Donald Sterling, among others. But whether or not this should be news is irrelevant—it did make news, and Bieber’s team knew it had to respond.
Here’s the statement Bieber released to TMZ:
“As a kid, I didn’t understand the power of certain words and how they can hurt. I thought it was ok to repeat hurtful words and jokes, but didn’t realize at the time that it wasn’t funny and that in fact my actions were continuing the ignorance.
Thanks to friends and family I learned from my mistakes and grew up and apologized for those wrongs. Now that these mistakes from the past have become public I need to apologize again to all those I have offended. I’m very sorry. I take my friendships with people of all cultures very seriously and I apologize for offending or hurting anyone with my childish and inexcusable mistake. I was a kid then and I am a man now who knows my responsibility to the world and to not make that mistake again.
Ignorance has no place in our society and I hope the sharing of my faults can prevent others from making the same mistake in the future. I thought long and hard about what I wanted to say but telling the truth is always what’s right. Five years ago I made a reckless and immature mistake and I’m grateful to those close to me who helped me learn those lessons as a young man. Once again….I’m sorry.”
As PR apologies go, that’s about as good as it gets. Bieber made no excuses, took full responsibility for his actions, apologized, and promised to do better. His apology offers a good template to corporate executives, politicians, and other public figures who find themselves in trouble.
There’s only one part of this apology that’s tough to accept: Bieber’s assertion that “I was a kid then and I am a man now who knows my responsibility to the world.” That line would have more credibility if not for his recent arrest for suspicion of driving under the influence while drag racing (among several other unrelated infractions).
What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
One of my favorite challenges is to help a client take a seemingly boring topic and turn it into a riveting presentation.
I recently faced such a challenge when one of our clients was tasked with speaking about her organization’s new expense processing system. Her job was to lead her colleagues through the new software program and show them how to enter their expenses.
Like most people tasked with such a presentation, she planned to give a talk that flowed something like this: “First, you click this button and enter that number here. Then, you click this button and enter that number here. Next, you click this button and enter that number here.”
That approach wasn’t likely to grab her audience—but by brainstorming together, we discovered a much better way to present that information.
First, it’s important to note that this woman’s colleagues weren’t exactly thrilled to be attending this training session about expense reports. So this speaker already had a challenging task in front of her.
To try to find something more interesting in her presentation, I asked her how much time it took employees to enter expenses in the old system. “About one day each month,” she replied. How about now, I asked? “About two hours per month.” And how many employees are using this system? “About 500,” she replied.
With some quick math, we determined that the new program saved the organization about 3,000 hours per month—a staggering 36,000 hours per year. That’s the equivalent of 18 full-time jobs. Assuming each person filing expenses earned $65,000 in salary and benefits, that represented an annual savings of almost $1.2 million.
An annual savings of 36,000 hours per year and $1.2 million is a huge headline!
Suddenly, she had a much more compelling open with a clear audience benefit: This will not only save you time, but you will be helping our nonprofit organization spend its resources on the people we serve, not on burdensome paperwork.
With that headline serving as her framing statement, the detail she proceeded to offer suddenly fit within a larger context that mattered to the audience. Even better, she further streamlined her presentation by killing some of the less important slides and creating a well-designed takeaway document that allowed her to eliminate several details from her talk.
Finally, and to her enormous credit, she added her own spin and delivered her revised opening brilliantly, proving that even “boring” topics can usually be made more interesting with enough creative thought.
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This was the worst media apology I’ve ever seen.
L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling—who was caught on tape telling his girlfriend not to be photographed or attend basketball games with black people—attempted to apologize during an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
Sterling did apologize. But he also took the opportunity to attack Magic Johnson for getting “those AIDS” and made new racist remarks by claiming that wealthy African Americans “don’t want” to help their own communities like Jews do.
I already deconstructed Sterling’s pathetic interview earlier this month. But as I’ve continued to think about this case, one additional point is worth making.
It’s important to remember that the comments that originally got Sterling into trouble were covertly recorded during a private conversation. Many public figures spanning the full ideological spectrum—though disgusted by his comments—were deeply concerned about the privacy issues in this case.
Basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote:
“Shouldn’t we be equally angered by the fact that his private, intimate conversation was taped and then leaked to the media? Didn’t we just call to task the NSA for intruding into American citizen’s privacy in such an un-American way? Although the impact is similar to Mitt Romney’s comments that were secretly taped, the difference is that Romney was giving a public speech. The making and release of this tape is so sleazy that just listening to it makes me feel like an accomplice to the crime.”
Conservative pundit Bernard Goldberg made a similar point:
“I’m wondering who else among us has said things in the privacy of our homes that would get us in trouble if somebody recorded them and made our remarks public.”
And liberal comedian Bill Maher agreed:
“Last week when President Obama was asked about the Sterling episode, he said, ‘When ignorant folks want to advertise their ignorance, just let them talk.’ But Sterling didn’t advertise. He was bugged. And while he may not be worth defending, the 4th Amendment is.”
But with his interview, Sterling erased that entire argument.
Sterling could have argued that because his comments were made in private and (possibly) illegally taped, he shouldn’t have to sell his team or endure a lifetime ban. But since he willingly made additional racist remarks during his very public televised interview with Anderson Cooper, that line of argument evaporated.
Sterling’s decision to do this interview without the presence of legal or public relations counsel was stunningly reckless. That he chose to do it at all sealed his fate as a racist.
As you know by now, I’m not a PowerPoint basher.
PowerPoint has its place. Used well, it can make entire presentations more memorable and specific points stickier. But there are times, of course, when the use of PowerPoint can interfere with the story the speaker is trying to tell. In this post, you’ll see two funny examples of PowerPoint gone awry.
Example One: Cinderella as PowerPoint
The first example comes from Dublin-based presentation expert Rowan Manahan, who delivered Cinderella as a PowerPoint presentation. In this case, the PowerPoint slides enhanced his presentation, but only because they were part of the joke.
Although Manahan has the rare ability to use PowerPoint for comedic effect similar to how late-night talk show hosts use video, most speakers kill their narrative by burying it with too many similarly loaded slides.
Example Two: The Gettysburg Address
The second example, a famous one from Google Director of Research Peter Norvig, looks at what would have happened if Abraham Lincoln had used PowerPoint to deliver his Gettysburg Address. It’s a sharp way to make the point that far too many speakers diminish their impact with completely unnecessary and counterproductive slides.
His complete six-slide PowerPoint presentation is below, and is being used with permission.
Want to use PowerPoint the right way? Check out our recommended reading list!
Reader Monica Miller Rodgers asks the following question:
“I notice you express your ideas with lots of hand movements (as do I). In media training, though, I have always taught clients to keep their hand movements below the waist to avoid getting gestures in the frame. I teach them to continue using their hands and not to hold them stiffly (then you just get odd shoulder movements), but to keep them low. What is your recommendation for this?”
First, let’s address the biggest downside of allowing gestures in the frame: They can, in some circumstances, be distracting. For example, if someone makes fast gestures, waves their hands near their face, or is wearing stacked bracelets that make noise every time they near the microphone, their gestures can distract the audience and prevent viewers from hearing their words.
But in my experience, those moments are not the norm. The vast majority of the time, speakers who gesture normally look more natural, which is the goal. When I’ve asked our trainees to restrict their hand movements, I’ve observed that they usually become duller—both in terms of their energy and their content.
I’ve concluded that asking people not to gesture—or to dramatically change the way they typically gesture—makes them slower of thought. There’s research to back up my conclusion. According to Hearing Gesture: How Our Hands Help Us Think by Susan Goldin Meadow:
“Gesturing can lighten a speaker’s cognitive load, thus saving effort to expend on other tasks. Moreover, gesturing may even affect the course of thought, making some ideas salient and others not. We may be changing what we think just by moving our hands.”
“Gesture and speech together form a single unified system and, within this system, are coexpressive. Both modalities contribute to a speaker’s intended meaning…Listeners carry out this same synthesis—in the process of speech comprehension, listeners synthesize the information presented in speech and in gesture to form a single unified representation.”
In other words, asking spokespersons to restrain their movements could inhibit both their own thinking and their connection with the audience.
I agree there are times when gestures pose a distraction. But from my perspective, the opposite problem—unnatural stiffness—is the bigger problem of the two. Thanks for your question, Monica!
Do you have a question you’d like to see answered on the blog? Please email us at Contact@MrMediaTraining.com.
While watching singing competition shows, you can often see the contrast between great performers and mediocre ones.
You can almost see the mediocre performers thinking while they’re performing: I need to walk over there now; I need to smile into the camera now; now’s the part where I pick up the guitar; now’s the time when I high five members of the audience.
The great performers make all of those same moves—but you can’t see them thinking about them. The singers are so graceful—so “in the moment”—that each move feels natural, not overly choreographed.
That same dynamic also occurs on the golf course. One of our clients recently told me that when she approaches the tee, she wants to “whack the shit out of the ball.” But over time, she’s learned to loosen her grip and let her club do the work for her instead. Looser grips result in more accurate shots.
Those singing competitions and golf grips provide a critical lesson for public speakers.
Like the mediocre performer, you should think about everything you want to accomplish in advance: I want to show this visual, then summarize our project proposal, then open up a discussion, then close with a witticism I recently heard.
But unlike the mediocre performer, you should no longer be thinking so intently about what you have to do moment-by-moment once you’ve started speaking. If you are, the audience will probably see you thinking too hard—which will diminish the connection you’re supposed to be forging with them.
The best way to avoid that problem is to loosen your grip.
You’ve done your planning. Trust that all of the practice and preparation you put into your presentation will do the work for you. Trust that you’ve developed the muscle memory you’ll need to perform well.
Loosen your grip. When you hit the stage, focus less on the paint-by-numbers steps you need to follow, and focus more on developing a genuine connection (more about that here) with your audience.
Want to learn more about public speaking? Check out our recommended reading list!
When I worked for CNN, I occasionally went into the streets of Washington, D.C. to interview “real people” about a topic in the news.
Those interviews—known within newsrooms as an M.O.S. (“man on the street”) or a “vox pop” (derived from the Latin “voice of the people”)—always struck me as problematic.
If we interviewed 20 people about a specific topic, we might have encountered 14 people with a “for” position and 6 with an “against” viewpoint. But when we edited the interviews, we might have had time to air quotes from only two of the people—so for purposes of “balance,” we’d air one of each, as if that 50/50 ratio represented the views we encountered.
That’s an inherent problem with the M.O.S. Time and space restrictions prevent every comment from being aired or printed, so they have to be condensed. Some journalists are better than others about disclosing the overall sentiment of opinions they encountered—and even if they do, that sentiment doesn’t mean much, since M.O.S. interviews only represent a specific place and time (M.O.S. interviews shot on Wall Street would likely yield different results than ones shot at a homeless shelter).
I’m far from the only person skeptical of the technique. In fact, some of the journalists I worked with referred to the M.O.S. under a different, more jaded name: Any Available Assholes, or A.A.A.s. Although flip, it really did seem to capture the essence of the assignment.
Stephen Colbert recently mocked Fox News correspondent Jesse Watters, who occasionally uses the M.O.S. technique to make his subjects look uninformed. Here’s Watters’ technique:
And Colbert’s hilarious response:
For all of these reasons, both silly and serious, I recommend viewing M.O.S. interviews with great skepticism—unless reporters disclose their broader findings.
What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.