In Shakespeare’s Othello, Othello is tricked into believing that his wife, Desdemona, cheated on him with his Lieutenant. When he confronts Desdemona, she weeps—a sign, Othello concludes, of her guilt. In a rage, Othello murders her, only to learn shortly thereafter that she hadn’t committed adultery after all.
Othello made the mistake of assuming that he understood the source of Desdemona’s anguish. He assumed that his wife’s sobs when confronted were a sign of her guilt; he didn’t understand that her grief was rooted not in guilt, but in her knowledge that there was no way to convince her husband of her innocence.
That tragic mistake—what psychologist Paul Ekman dubbed “Othello’s Error”—teaches us that just because someone exhibits an emotion doesn’t mean we understand the root cause. “Emotional signals don’t tell us what brought them forth,” Ekman writes in Emotions Revealed.
As an example, let’s say you’re about to deliver a talk and you’re feeling nervous about the proposal you have to present. You believe that a few people in the room actively oppose your idea, so you’ve prepared rebuttal arguments just to be safe.
During your presentation, you notice a man in the front row—a key decision-maker—who’s furrowing his brow and crossing his arms. He looks unhappy with your proposal, confirming your worst fears.
At the end of your talk, he approaches you to thank you for your talk and ask you a question about how he can follow up with you. “I’m surprised you’re interested,” you say. “I was convinced that you didn’t like my proposal because you looked skeptical.” “Nah,” he says. “My wife tells me I look that way when I’m thinking. I thought your proposal made sense all along.”
That type of scenario happens all the time. And it happens, in part, because we’re conditioned to see that which we expect. According to Dr. Ekman:
“Our emotional state, our attitudes, our expectations, what we want to believe, even what we don’t want to believe can all bias how we interpret an expression or more specifically what we think caused the emotion shown by the expression.”
In other words, if we’re nervous about an audience when presenting, we’re more likely to interpret a man’s “thinking” face as his “disgusted” face. We’re more likely to assume that his seemingly disinterested expression means that we’ve failed to persuade him. We’ve committed Othello’s Error.
Othello’s Error doesn’t mean you should stop trying to read your audiences. You can often glean important clues about their moods and attitudes by remaining attentive to nonverbal cues. But it does suggest that before solidifying any assumption that they’re against you, you should ask a clarifying question instead (“It looks like a lot of people are thinking hard about this proposal. May I ask what you’re thinking about or what questions you might have?”).
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Australian rugby player Andrew Fifita recently made a comment that cost him a four-year, $3.5 million contract ($3.2 million U.S.).
The 24-year-old announced that he would be changing teams, from the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks to the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs. But before he even put on his new uniform, he expressed disloyalty to his new team. Here’s the story via news.com.au:
“On Friday he let slip in an interview that he wished he’d chosen rugby union [a different league] instead. Then yesterday, the Dogs effectively said fine, forget the whole deal.
Oh, the Bulldogs cited a bunch of legalese. But reading between the lines, they appeared to be saying “You’ve got no loyalty? Then we don’t want you.”
What caught my eye were comments made by his teammate, Paul Gallen, who offered this solution:
“I think he’s really going to have to be micromanaged, I really think they have to get him some kind of media training or something.”
The columnist agreed:
“Gallen is right. If Fifita doesn’t have any natural humility, he desperately needs a slick professional to drum it into him.”
Both Gallen and the unnamed columnist have a distorted view of media training.
A media trainer’s job is not to “drum” humility into someone. Good practitioners are not slick professionals who attempt to create personality traits where they do not exist (we can help people emphasize traits they do possess). Doing so would be doomed to failure, as the public can usually tell when someone is faking it.
We can only be successful when working with somewhat self-aware people who have a desire to change. If Fifita is not naturally humble, I would never try an approach intended to make him fake humility.
What would I do? I’d focus on helping him reduce the likelihood of a future “seven-second stray.” I would try to accomplish that by invoking his competitive spirit and analogizing his public comments to rugby. Every time he prevents himself from making a potentially controversial comment, he should award himself a point. Every time he makes one, he should view it as voluntarily allowing the other team to score.
That’s it. No drumming false humility into him. But by getting him to be as competitive with the use of his words as he is during play, it might serve the same purpose—he’d learn to bite his tongue more often, which might result in him genuinely appearing more humble. And it wouldn’t take a “slick” professional to help him do it.
That’s my take. What’s yours? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
This is an excerpt from my book, The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview.
Although this section has dealt exclusively with crisis communications, it’s important to note that not all bad press results from a crisis. Sometimes, a reporter gets a key fact wrong, a columnist takes an unfavorable view of your political stance, or an arts critic disapproves of your museum’s new exhibit.
Lessons 91 and 92 will help you respond to negative media coverage that doesn’t result from a full-fledged crisis but that has the potential to negatively affect your brand. This lesson focuses on how to respond to bad press before the story runs.
You can’t always respond to stories before publication, since some run without reporters contacting you in advance. But reporters will often ask for your perspective before the story runs, and their questions may make it clear to you that they’ve drawn incorrect impressions. If you think you’re about to be the recipient of bad press, consider these five actions.
1. Detail the errors
Make a list of the reporter’s errors and explain why the story is wrong. Provide the reporter with the accurate information and cite your sources.
2. Ask to meet with the reporter
Little is more disarming than a spokesperson who asks to meet in person. It sends a message that you have nothing to hide and may make reporters reconsider their perspectives.
3. Take it up a notch
If you’re getting nowhere with the reporter, speak with his or her boss. That person bears greater responsibility for running accurate stories.
4. Get your lawyers involved
You may be able to get a story delayed, revised, or killed if you can demonstrate to the news organization that it is factually incorrect and could lead to a costly lawsuit.
5. Beat the press
In extreme cases, you might consider releasing your story before the reporter can. That may mean offering the story to a competing (and fairer) journalist or releasing it through your own social media channels. By beating the journalist to the story, you’ll be able to get your version of events out first and help control the narrative. But beware: If you pursue this strategy, the reporter may punish you in future coverage.
Tread carefully when considering lawsuits against news organizations, since legal cases often attract more headlines and keep damaging information in the headlines that much longer.
Can You Sue a News Organization for an Incorrect Story?
If you’re the target of an inaccurate news story, you may be able to sue the offending news organization. The information below comes from Erik M. Pelton & Associates, a law firm specializing in intellectual property and social media issues.
Libel and slander are legal terms for injuring another party by making harmful misstatements. Libel relates to statements made in print or online; slander applies to oral statements. Both are difficult to establish in the U.S., where the person suing has the burden of proof. Claims are easier to prove in many other countries, since the person accused of libel or slander has to prove that the disputed statement is true.
In order win a lawsuit in the U.S., the statement must have been negligently made and resulted in harm to the person defamed. Public figures have an even higher threshold to meet, and must show the person making the statement knew it to be false or had a reckless disregard for the truth.
To avoid being sued yourself, be sure that any negative statements you make about a specific individual or business are accurate—or are clearly identified as your opinion.
Click here for more information about The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview.
Last summer, media critic Jay Rosen announced he would no longer criticize CNN. “As of today, I have retired from criticism of CNN for falling short of some sort of journalistic standard that news providers should maintain. That activity no longer makes sense.”
Rosen argued that since CNN no longer holds itself to news standards, it would be pointless to do so himself.
I agreed with much of his premise at the time, but wasn’t ready to give up on my former employer quite yet (I worked at CNN from 1999-2001). I cherish the role that CNN should be playing—a straight-up-the-middle news outlet—and wanted to believe that the network would eventually wander back to its roots.
Instead, with its saturation coverage of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, CNN has taken a giant step backward in its evolution from well-respected news outlet to The Jerry Springer Show.
The coverage reached its nadir during Don Lemon’s newscasts. First, Mr. Lemon speculated that the supernatural could be responsible for the plane’s disappearance:
“Especially today, on a day when we deal with the supernatural, we go to church, the supernatural power of God. You deal with all of that. People are saying to me, why aren’t you talking about the possibility—and I’m just putting it out there—that something odd happened to this plane, something beyond our understanding?”
Next, he wondered whether a black hole could have somehow sucked the plane out of the universe, a suggestion his guest batted down immediately.
Not to be outdone, CNN’s sister network, CNN Headline News, hosted a psychic who said she doesn’t like to rely on facts (the passengers are alive, she claimed).
Psychics. Black holes. Supernatural forces. Baseless speculation. This is CNN.
As atrocious as CNN’s coverage has been, the network’s ratings are up. That prompted Piers Morgan’s executive producer to tweet this:
Wald appears to be conflating popularity with quality. That’s like saying McDonald’s sells the best burgers since it sells the most hamburgers. No, quality and popularity aren’t inextricably linked. Wald’s suggestion otherwise offers a discouraging view into the network’s ends-justify-the-means approach to news.
Yes, CNN still has some quality journalists working for the network, some of whom are friends and former colleagues. But that misses the point. The network is only as good as its least responsible programming, of which there’s an intolerable amount.
Like Jay Rosen before me, I’m tired of expecting more from the network. I’m choosing to click away and find my news in places that exercise more journalistic restraint. I’m just sad that the once-respected 24-hour news network has become little more than a 24-hour network.
Jon Stewart’s takedown of the shameful cable news coverage of Malaysia Air 370 is worth watching.
What are your thoughts about CNN’s programming? Please leave your views in the comments section below.
Things go wrong during presentations. There’s no way to entirely prevent that from happening. What you can control is your reaction to what goes wrong—and people who react well during tough moments take advantage of an unexpected opportunity to impress their audiences.
Let’s say your PowerPoint projector suddenly goes dead. Many speakers would immediately get nervous, scramble frantically to reconnect the wires, and apologize to their audiences for the glitch (“I’m so sorry, I tested this before I began. This is so embarrassing!”).
Instead, the best thing to do during those moments is to slow down. Everyone in the room knows the projector just went dead. Calmly—and deliberately—turn to the projector to check the connections. Calmly check the power supply. Calmly press the on-off switch. If none of those things work, calmly look up and ask someone to get help—or, even better, tell the audience you’ll try to fix the equipment during the next break but that you’re going to keep going.
No apologies, no excuses. Just a professional speaker reacting to an unexpected technical failure with an impressive display of control.
The same strategy applies if you misplace a page in your notes. Stop talking, slowly flip through your notes to locate the correct page, and calmly look up and resume your talk when you find it.
The same strategy applies if your microphone cuts in and out. Calmly smile and request a new microphone or, for smaller audiences, go without one.
I call this “slowing down to speed up” because I’ve regularly observed that speakers who slow down during challenging moments solve their challenges more quickly. (Although I came up with that phrase independently, many others have used that phrase in similar contexts.)
Finally, consider selling unexpected circumstances as a virtue. For example, most speakers are mortified when only six people show up to their breakout room that was set for one hundred. Instead, sell it as a positive to the six people who showed up: “I’m so glad this is a small group, because we’ll have an opportunity to really talk and help solve one another’s challenges. How about you all move up to the front, I’ll come join you, and we’ll just talk?”
Remember: When things go wrong, project a quiet calm. Slow down to speed up.
Three years ago, I wrote a post called “The Five Most Common PowerPoint Mistakes.”
I recently reread that post and concluded that it needed to be refreshed. (What started out as a “refresh and update” post became an almost entirely rewritten post.)
Since several websites are already pointing to the original article, I decided to keep the URL the same.
The new post is here. Hope you enjoy it!
Many businesses depend on testimonials to help sell their products or services.
My firm, for example, has a “what our clients say” page on our website that features short testimonials from past clients. I’m proud of the clients we’ve worked with, and the blurbs send a nice message to potential clients that we’ve delivered successful trainings to a broad variety of high-profile organizations.
But a few months ago, a client told me they almost didn’t hire me because of a testimonial on our website. The blurb came from a former U.S. Congressman (I won’t name names or parties). The new client didn’t like that politician’s politics—and he assumed, based on the testimonial, that my firm specialized in ideological causes (we don’t).
He was right. Not only was the politician not representative of our work, but the inclusion of his name sent a signal—the wrong one—to potential clients about what we do and who we are. I removed the testimonial.
Getting testimonials right matters. And a lot of businesses get them wrong, such as this one:
The restaurant claimed to have the best Philly Steak in town—but attributed that quote to an anonymous person, not a local magazine, restaurant reviewer, or Yelp review. Nope, just some random person who, probably drunk at 3:00 a.m., took a bite and screamed, “This is the best Philly Steak in town, dude!” —and then, almost certainly, threw up.
Then, there was this review on the back of one of my son’s books:
This book is “…an instant hit,” said some random child. (This book is intended for one- and two-year olds, so I’m in awe of the 20-month-old who allegedly uttered the phrase “…an instant hit.”) Most other books, in comparison, feature reviews from book reviewers or respected children’s publications, not a random and anonymous child.
Then, there was the poorly reviewed Sylvester Stallone-Robert DeNiro movie “Grudge Match,” which relied on random Twitter users to praise the film (presumably because no self-respecting film critic would).
In all four of these cases—mine, the cheesesteak restaurant’s, the book’s, and the movie’s—the testimonials backfired. Mine sent the wrong signal; the other three sent a signal that lacked credibility (or worse, elicited unintended laughs).
Be mindful of this when citing third parties during your interviews and speeches. If you quote someone you find credible but who may divide your audience, you might do better without it.
It’s occasionally effective to quote an anonymous party—but those quotes are often best when either elaborated upon in an anecdote or bolstered by data. For example, you might say, “One father told me that this is his favorite book to read to his child—and 32 other reviewers said something similar on the book’s Amazon page. No wonder the book is the top-selling title for toddlers!”
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National Public Radio recently ran a piece with an attention-grabbing headline:
Physicists, Generals And CEOs Agree: Ditch The PowerPoint
Like similar stories before it, the argument went as follows: PowerPoint prevents two-way engagement, PowerPoint makes the speaker go on autopilot, PowerPoint prevents people from reducing their points to their critical core.
As one Rutgers professor said, “The main advantage of forgoing PowerPoint is that it forces both the speaker and the listener to pay attention.”
But the story—and the people quoted in it—are blaming the wrong problem. PowerPoint isn’t the problem. It’s a tool that’s only as good—or as bad—as its users. The problem is the misuse of PowerPoint by far too many speakers.
Don’t buy into articles that suggest PowerPoint is all good or all bad. It’s true that the pendulum swung too far in the direction of ubiquitous and poorly planned PowerPoint presentations, and it’s good that it’s swinging back in the opposite direction. But these articles are suggesting a pendulum swing to an opposite—but still problematic—extreme.
I’m struck in particular by generals removing PowerPoint from their rhetorical arsenal. Shouldn’t generals, more than most of the rest of us, value keeping as many potential tools in their toolkits as possible and knowing exactly which tools to deploy, and when, and how?
Here’s what we know: PowerPoint can help people make longer-lasting, deeper, and more meaningful connections when used sparingly and strategically. Some presentations may never need PowerPoint. Some may be stronger without it. But that’s not always the case.
One client wanted to make a crucial point to his employees about the increasing cost of electronic storage for his firm. “This is how much data we’re storing today,” he said, as a giant black circle filled the screen. “Three years ago,” he continued, “this is how much we were storing.” As he delivered that line, he clicked again and an almost imperceptible white circle appeared in one corner, atop the giant black circle. The audience gasped.
Sure, he could have said that verbally instead, perhaps by drawing a clever analogy. But I watched the reaction in the room as he delivered that slide, and it’s difficult for me to believe that anything would have been more effective.
He used PowerPoint sparingly and strategically. So should you. Ask yourself whether a visual representation of your spoken point would do more to enhance your audience’s understanding. If it would, use one. If it wouldn’t, ditch it.