When we prepare executives for panel presentations, we typically focus on the message they want to convey and the manner in which they deliver it.
We focus less on how they interact with other panelists—but after reading an article about Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt in The Wall Street Journal on Monday, we’ll probably bulk up that section of our trainings.
“Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt had a lot to say Monday about the lack of racial and gender diversity in the technology industry.
In fact, Schmidt had so much to say that he often interrupted and spoke over his co-panelist, Megan Smith, the U.S.’s chief technology officer and a former Google executive. The two appeared on a panel at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Tex.
At one point, Schmidt opined on which of two questions Smith should respond to. Later, he interjected mid-sentence with thoughts on Raspberry Pi, a small computer popular with digital tinkerers that Smith was promoting.
Toward the end of the session, one woman in the audience asked the two to address how personality biases in men and women affect workplace dynamics. She noted that Schmidt repeatedly talked over his former colleague — prompting applause from a full exhibit hall.”
It’s entirely possible that Mr. Schmidt didn’t interrupt Ms. Smith because he’s sexist. He may just be a serial interrupter. Or perhaps he was particularly excited about the subject matter. Or maybe he viewed himself as a stronger presenter than his colleague.
But as I recently wrote, men on stage with women have to be keyed into certain gender-related issues—or risk being perceived as boorish. And that’s particularly true during a presentation about the lack of gender equality in the workplace.
Mr. Schmidt’s interruptions not only stepped on his core message about the need for greater gender equality in the tech industry, but generated a bevy of negative headlines, such as these:
CBS San Francisco: “Google’s Eric Schmidt Called Out For Repeatedly Interrupting Woman Tech Leader During Diversity Talk At SXSW”
The Verge: “Google executive Eric Schmidt, man, makes total ass of himself at SXSW”
Slate: “Google Chairman Gets Called Out by His Own Employee for Interrupting a Female Panelist at SXSW”
That said, interrupting your fellow panelists can occasionally be appropriate during panel discussions. In fact, some crosstalk can help electrify an otherwise soporific conversation.
Just remember that the audience is judging not only your words and your delivery, but the manner in which you interact with your fellow panelists. Be judicious with your interruptions, save them for the moments that truly matter, and work to contain your enthusiasm every time your id feels the need to express itself.
Photo credit: Gisela Giardino via Wikimedia Commons
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My wife and I recently had plans to leave our house earlier than usual for a Sunday morning. As I went upstairs to shower, I turned back toward her and said, “Let’s try to aim to leave around 7:30.”
As soon as I said that, I knew there would be no chance of us leaving at 7:30. I had heard my own words, which packed three hedge words into a single short sentence:
“Let’s TRY to AIM to leave AROUND 7:30.”
That choice of words suggested to me that I wasn’t particularly committed to my own idea (we ended up leaving closer to 7:50). And it made me think about all of the times I hear speakers use hedge words—or their kissing cousin, words of apology—which are the focus of this post.
I often hear speakers using these types of phrases:
“I’m just going to take a minute to tell you about….”
“Real quickly, I’ll explain why…”
“”I’m sorry if you’ve heard this before, but…”
Like the phrase I used when speaking to my wife, each of those phrases signal something to an audience.
The first two phrases send a message of insecurity, that the speaker doesn’t feel confident enough in his or her content or position to simply say what they had planned to. As I say to our clients, it’s going to take you the same amount of time to share that content whether you pre-apologize for it or not—so why pre-apologize? Doing so only makes you look insecure and unnecessarily threatens your credibility.
The third sentence sends a message of either poor planning or poor framing. Instead of apologizing and barreling through the content anyway, the speaker could have either looked for a new way to share the same information or at least sold the repeated content as an asset (“For those of you who have heard this before, this will serve as a useful refresher.”).
In her post about the word “just” published last spring by PR Daily, leadership strategist Ellen Petry Leanse writes that she sees more women using these “permission” words than men. I’ve made the same observation in my own workshops. There are all sorts of cultural reasons for why that may be the case, but it can undermine an otherwise confident message nonetheless.
As Leanse says:
“The more I thought about it, the more I realized that [just] was a “child” word…As such, it put the conversation partner into the “parent” position, granting them more authority and control.”
Using these words or phrases of apology are not going to doom your next presentation. But it’s a good idea to remain aware of the potential message they send and work to remove them from your talks.
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Reporters frequently ask media spokespersons to gaze into their crystal balls and tell them what the future looks like.
Some of those “speculation” questions are innocuous: if you’re a software designer and you’re asked what changes you think will emerge in the industry over the next five years, it’s okay to provide your analysis of where you think things are headed.
But many speculation questions are dangerous. Your answers can make a situation appear worse than it really is—and if you guess badly, your wrong answers can damage your credibility.
For example, imagine that the director of a nonprofit group lobbying for better safety regulations of toxic household cleansers is asked whether the state legislature is going to pass the bill she supports this year. If she answers “yes,” she’d better be right. That’s because the media will inevitably ask her about her incorrect prediction if the bill doesn’t pass, and her wrong answer might diminish her credibility with the public and the press for future stories.
Instead, she can use a variation of the ATMs to answer this question:
“(A) I’m reluctant to speculate, (T) but I can tell you that (M) the majority of lawmakers I’ve spoken to have told me that they recognize how important this bill is to protect children from dangerous household cleansers and that they plan to vote for it. (s) We still need as much support as possible, though, so I’d ask everybody watching this to call their representative and tell them to vote ‘yes.’”
As illustrated by the example above, it’s usually best to deflect questions that call for speculation by saying something along the lines of, “I can’t speculate, but here’s what I can tell you…”
Apply the same technique for hypothetical questions. Your job is to share what you know, not to answer “what if” questions. It might be appropriate to answer a hypothetical question about a specific situation with a general answer about how you would approach your decision making in that case. But that approach often leads to even more questions intended to get you to be more specific (plus, your general answers might be applied to the specific situation), so be cautious and practice in advance.
Case Study: Treasury Secretary Speculates Incorrectly
In an April 2011 interview, U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner appeared on the Fox Business Network to discuss the possibility of the U.S. credit rating being downgraded:
Peter Barnes (Host): “Is there a risk that the United States could lose its triple-A credit rating, yes or no?”
Geithner: “No risk of that. No risk.”
Barnes: “So Standard and Poor’s is wrong, the United States will keep its triple-A credit rating?”
Four months later, rating agency Standard and Poor’s downgraded the U.S. credit rating for the first time in the nation’s history. Cable news channels played the video clip of Mr. Geithner’s overly confident (and incorrect) answer for days, and political opponents pointed to that moment as evidence that he should resign his post.
Mr. Geithner could have answered the question by saying something like this:
“Let me tell you what we’re doing to make sure we retain our triple-A rating…”
Imagine you’re the communications director for Hartown Manufacturing, a midsize company based in California. You’re responsible for all communications in the western United States.
One morning, you arrive at work and log in to your Twitter account. You’re scrolling through the rather dull tweets when you suddenly see one that takes your breath away: “Breaking News: Major Explosion at Salt Lake City Hartown Plant.”
Within minutes, dozens of people are tweeting about it, spreading rumors along the way. Some eyewitnesses claim they’ve seen ambulances pulling away with dozens of victims. One claims a plant supervisor has been killed. You call a colleague who works at the plant who tells you that no one knows whether anybody was badly hurt—and that no ambulances have arrived yet.
You immediately post that accurate information to Hartown’s social media pages. Journalists who follow your feeds see your posts and decide against reporting any of the rumors they’ve read about possible injuries or deaths until you confirm them.
That type of scenario is commonplace in the age of social media, and it underscores three important truths:
- 1. The public and the press may learn of a crisis affecting your company through their social media networks before you even know there’s a problem.
- 2. People will begin discussing (and speculating about) your crisis before you’ve had time to obtain the facts.
- 3. You need to use your social media channels to immediately correct misinformation and establish yourself as a primary source of accurate information.
Most reporters now use social media as an essential tool of crisis reporting. As Jane Jordan-Meier reported in The Four Stages of Highly Effective Crisis Management, “Two journalists I spoke with saw Twitter as the new police scanner.” You can no longer afford to relegate social media to being of secondary importance.
Communicate through your social media networks as quickly as possible, ideally within half an hour of learning about an incident. You can include links to lengthier statements and additional resources in your posts.
There’s one additional way to help manage a crisis using social media: be engaged with your social networks before a crisis strikes. You’ll need fans to defend your integrity when something goes wrong, and few people are more credible than the unaffiliated third parties who voluntarily vouch for you.
Case Study: Domino’s Pizza and a Disgusting Video
In 2009, an employee of a North Carolina Domino’s franchise filmed a coworker sticking cheese up his nose before appearing to send the food out for delivery. The two workers uploaded the video to YouTube, where it quickly racked up a million views. Television anchors showed the disgusting clip on their newscasts and customers stopped ordering pizza.
Company president Patrick Doyle waited two days before finally responding. He issued a two-minute YouTube apology, in which he appeared genuinely pained by the incident. He was deservedly given credit by many crisis management professionals for releasing the heartfelt video— but most suggested that he waited too long and incurred unnecessary financial and reputational damage by waiting 48 hours.
Mr. Doyle’s response was noteworthy for one additional reason: it was the first time a major company president used YouTube as the primary method of responding to a crisis.
We’ve all seen those politicians on television who keep reciting the same message points over and over again.
Such overt repetition tends to infuriate the audience. It’s easy to picture viewers rolling their eyes in disgust and shouting, “Answer the question!” at their television sets—if they didn’t already flip to a different channel.
As a result, the politicians not only fail to persuade the audience but also diminish their reputations in the process.
So it may surprise you that my advice is to articulate a message or message support in almost every answer you ever give.
I don’t mean that you should repeat the same words in every answer, but rather that all of your answers should convey the theme of at least one of your main messages.
If you filled in the message worksheets in lesson 93, you now have 21 different answers: three in the form of messages, six as stories, six as statistics, and six as sound bites. Those 21 answers allow you to answer 21 different questions in 21 different ways, all of which are “on message” but none of which are repetitive.
You may occasionally wonder whether it’s okay to abandon your message for an answer or two along the way. I’d encourage you not to. Here’s why: Let’s say a newspaper reporter asks you 10 questions during an interview. You articulate a message or message support in 7 of your 10 answers. Pretty good, right?
But what happens if the reporter chooses to quote one of your other three answers? It means your one quote in the story—that one critical opportunity to influence or educate your audience— will not contain one of your most important points.
I know that may sound obvious, but I can count dozens of exasperated clients who have asked me at some point, “Why did the reporter include that quote? It wasn’t even that important!” I always respond the same way: “If you don’t want it quoted, don’t say it at all.”
I often joke with my clients that you should even transition to a message when a reporter asks, “How are you?” I’m kidding, but barely. Most questions are opportunities to communicate a message or message support, so don’t waste any answers. Today’s wasted answer may become tomorrow’s quote.
Unless the interview is live, reporters will usually offer you a final opportunity to get your messages out. Journalists typically end their interviews by asking if they missed anything or whether there’s anything you’d like to add. Seize that opportunity. If you said everything you needed to say during the interview, restate a key point. If you forgot to state one of your messages, that’s the perfect time to do it.
Finally, remember to treat your communications with reporters before and after the interview as if they’re part of the “official” interview. Your interactions with reporters prior to an interview may help inform the questions they ask, and your follow-up emails may help the reporter remember to include a key point in the final story.
Hillary Clinton faced reporters for 20 minutes this afternoon to answer questions about the personal email account she used while serving as Secretary of State.
Secretary Clinton repeatedly came back to the same talking points: She had operated within the rules of the State Department and opted to use a personal account (and her own server) due to the convenience of carrying one phone instead of two.
But a key question continues to hang in the air, and today’s press conference did little to answer it: If Clinton’s team decided which emails to keep and which to delete, how can anyone know whether something work-related but embarrassing was deleted?
Clinton answered that, in part, by saying that State Department rules make it incumbent upon the employee to differentiate between personal and professional emails.
But Clinton also said she wouldn’t allow an independent investigator to review the content on her server—and that it wouldn’t matter anyway, because she recently deleted all of her personal emails on topics such as her daughter’s wedding and mother’s funeral.
That, more than anything, strikes me as odd. Other than preventing other people from ever being able to see them, why delete those emails? Could she not have reached an agreement with a trusted third-party—such as a reporter or respected former government official—to review the personal emails with a guarantee of confidentiality for all emails that truly contained no work-related content?
It’s possible that Clinton’s experienced team considered and rejected that idea, calculating that the potential risk of those emails becoming public was greater than the risk of being perceived as secretive.
Several people pointed out to me that her body language—specifically her lack of eye contact—was telling. I noticed her lack of eye contact too, but due to “Othello’s Error,” am reluctant to speculate on its cause. What seemed obvious, though, is that she didn’t exactly forge a warm connection with her interrogators.
Just like Mitt Romney found out after his refusal to release several years’ worth of tax returns, narratives can be difficult things to reverse. In 2012, I wrote the following for Politico:
“Mitt Romney has already lost the tax debate. By not releasing additional returns, he has allowed his opposition to paint the worst case scenario onto him — that there are years he failed to pay any taxes whatsoever.”
Clinton is fortunate that it’s early in the campaign. This story is unlikely to stop her seemingly inevitable march to the Democratic nomination. But she must know that any future stories appearing to confirm a lack of transparency will take hold—and that her Republican opponents will be doing everything possible to exploit that.
What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
Many people tell me they were instructed by a previous media trainer never to gesture when they speak. A few were even taught—often by grade school teachers—that gesturing is rude.
That’s terrible guidance. Your goal during a media interview is to appear as natural on camera as you are in person, and almost everyone gestures naturally when they speak. Sure, a small percentage of people gesture too much, but that’s a rare problem.
According to body language experts Allan and Barbara Pease, “Using hand gestures grabs attention, increases the impact of communication, and helps individuals retain more of the information they are hearing.”
In other words, gesturing not only helps you look more natural but also enhances the impact of your words.
We see that regularly in our media training sessions. When we encourage trainees to incorporate gestures into their delivery, something amazing happens: their words get better. The physical act of gesturing helps them form clearer thoughts and speak in tighter sentences.
To gesture effectively, keep your hands “unlocked” at all times—no clasped hands, hands behind your back, hands in pockets, or arms crossed in front of you. Those “closed” positions can communicate arrogance or defensiveness, and they lower the audience’s ability to absorb and retain your information.
For seated interviews, keep your hands and arms unlocked and ready to gesture at any moment. When not gesturing, you can:
- Keep your hands on your lap near your knees.
- Nest your hands loosely within one another atop your lap.
Avoid clasping your hands or gripping your thighs, which can make you appear nervous (men should also be careful to steer clear of the defensive “hand covering groin” position).
For standing interviews, you have two good options:
- Loosely nest your hands, one within the other, keeping them at navel level when not gesturing.
- Rest your hands at your side, bringing them up to gesture (it feels strange, but looks fine to the audience).
If you’re having a tough time gesturing naturally, speak about 10—15 percent louder than usual. As parents know all too well, it’s impossible to yell at your kids while your hands and arms are frozen—an increase in volume helps to reanimate motionless hands.
Finally, some people wonder if they should still gesture if the television program on which they’re appearing will only use a tight shot of their face, neck, and shoulders. Absolutely. Viewers can always tell if a spokesperson is gesturing—even if they can’t see the movements—because the spokesperson’s face is more expressive as a result.
In the last lesson, you learned to begin most of your answers with the lead. But there’s one time you should use a slightly less direct lead: when you’re asked a broad question about your work, such as, “Can you tell me about your company?”
Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, spokespersons answer that type of open-ended question with a direct lead by saying something like:
“Well, the Association for the Advancement of Arkansas Education is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization with 25 employees working in four statewide offices to improve elementary and secondary education in Arkansas.”
“Smith Toys is one of the leading companies in the United States making high-quality children’s toys in an affordable and sustainable manner.”
I’m guessing neither of those statements grabbed you. They’re not bad, since both conveyed real information, but they’re rather bland and uninspiring.
Worse, neither statement is particularly original. It’s easy to imagine that dozens of American companies manufacturing environmentally friendly toys could have answered the question in exactly the same way.
Those responses failed to get your attention because they answered a “what” question with a “what” answer.
Imagine if the spokespersons had answered the questions just a little differently, beginning with some context that explained why their work mattered. Their answers might have sounded more like these:
“Here in Arkansas, we rank 50th in the United States in high school graduation rates. That means our students are among the least prepared in the nation when entering the workforce and the most likely to live in poverty for the rest of their lives. The Association for the Advancement of Arkansas Education is dedicated to changing that and to making sure our students get the high-quality education they need to successfully compete in the global marketplace.”
“You know how children’s toys always seem to cost too much and break within weeks of opening the box? Well, Smith Toys makes toys that are going to work for years after you open the package—we guarantee it—and we’ve even figured out a way to make high-quality toys that are both affordable and environmentally friendly.”
I’m guessing those versions grabbed your attention more than the first ones. That’s because both spokespersons formatted their responses as a “why + what” instead of just a “what.”
You can use the “why + what” format every time you’re asked an open-ended question such as:
- What does your company do?
- What is your organization’s focus?
- Can you tell me about your product?
By themselves, “whats” just don’t work very well. Most people don’t care if you’re a 501(c)3 charity, how many offices you have in the state, or whether you’re a “leading” toy company. Those “whats” aren’t going to initiate a rush of support to your brand.
So when you’re asked an open-ended question, don’t just tell them what your company does. Tell them why it matters.