Every so often, speakers resist my advice to practice for an interview or presentation, claiming that practice robs their talks of spontaneity and reduces their performance. They insist that they’re “better when they wing it.” It’s tempting to tell them they’re wrong—and they almost always are—but I thought I’d turn this one over to a few familiar names.
SWIMMER MICHAEL PHELPS
According to Discovery Health, “He’s usually at the pool by 6:30 am where he swims for an average six hours a day or around 8 miles per day. He swims six days per week including holidays.”
Ma tells The New York Times that: “Practicing is about quality, not quantity. Some days I practice for hours; other days it will be just a few minutes. Practicing is not only playing your instrument, either by yourself or rehearsing with others — it also includes imagining yourself practicing. Your brain forms the same neural connections and muscle memory whether you are imagining the task or actually doing it.”
According to Business Insider, “Cy Young award winning pitcher Roy Halladay is one of the hardest working men in baseball. According to Sports Illustrated, he routinely puts in a 90 minute workout before his teammates make to the field.”
I attribute people’s reluctance to practice to one of four things: insecurity, fear, arrogance, or (most typically) a genuine but misguided belief that they’re better without it. I understand why they might have reached that conclusion: practice can feel uncomfortable and unfamiliar, and it’s that very lack of familiarity that convinces people that they’re better off-the-cuff.
But unless you’re a better speaker than Phelps is a swimmer, odds are you can benefit from practice. As Yo-Yo Ma suggested, the goal is to develop muscle memory through practice that automatically guides you when you hit the stage.
“At a tournament, I don’t really spend a whole lot of time there on the range, or even on the putting green or anything like that. When I get to a tournament site, I feel like my game should be ready. That’s one of the reasons why I don’t play as many weeks as a lot of these guys do, because I spend a lot of time practicing at home. I do most of my preparation at home. Once I’m at a tournament site, I’m there just to find my rhythm, tune up a little bit, and get myself ready to go play the next day.” – via Human Kinetics
When I watch people practice their presentations, we often uncover a few soft spots. It could be an abstract point without the rich supporting material that makes it more memorable. It might be an awkward transition. It may be a visual that interferes with the spoken delivery. Those gaps cannot be identified without practice, and the “off-the-cuff” speaker usually ends up committing those otherwise preventable errors while standing in front of an audience.
The quality of practice is imperative, though, and too much practice can be a bad thing. This post offers some tips on how to practice for a media interview. How to practice for a speech or presentation while keeping the material fresh for you as a speaker will be the focus of a post soon—but in the meantime, here’s one tip: pay close attention to the transitions between points, as that’s often a place where everything falls apart.
All images from Wikimedia Commons. Michael Phelps in public domain; Yo-Yo Ma by Sam Felder; Roy Halladay by Keith Allison.
Through his pioneering body language research, psychologist Paul Ekman found that a feedback loop exists between the physical actions you take and the emotions you feel.
“If you put on your face all of the muscular movements for an emotion, that emotion will generally begin to occur…Our research shows that if you make those movements on your face, you will trigger changes in your physiology, both in your body and in your brain.”
From that, you might conclude that other feedback loops exist between your mind and body—and you would be right. Take, for example, the manner in which you walk. If you added a “bounce in your step,” could you actually begin to feel happier? Was Monty Python’s John Cleese onto something?
According to recent research from Ontario’s Queen’s University and clinical psychologists from the University of Hildesheim, Germany, Cleese was on the right track. They report that “walking in a happy or sad style actually affects our mood.”
“[Queen’s University professor Nikolaus Troje] presented the participants of the study with a list of positive and negative words, such as “pretty,” “afraid” and “anxious” and then asked them to walk on a treadmill while the researchers measured and analyzed gait and posture in real time. While walking, participants were looking at a gauge whose reading depended on the result of this analysis – namely if their gait appeared to be rather happy or rather sad as indicated by features such as slump-shouldered (sad) or vertical bouncing (happy). Participants didn’t know what the gauge was measuring. They were simply asked to make the gauge deflect from the neutral position. Some had to try to move the gauge left, while others were told to move it right.
Afterward, they had to write down as many words as they could remember from the earlier list of positive and negative words. Those who had been walking in a depressed style remembered many more negative words. The difference in recall suggests that the depressed walking style actually created a more depressed mood.”
That study had only 39 participants—a low number from which to form a hard conclusion—but it squares with a growing body of other research that shows similar results.
This “feedback loop” has direct implications for public speakers, particularly those gripped with negative thoughts and fear. If that sounds like you, put a smile on your face and walk with a slight bounce the next time you approach a stage. Allow yourself to benefit from the automatic changes in your body’s and brain’s physiology.
Even if this doesn’t work for you, your more confident demeanor will send a positive message to your audience, which will likely mirror your positive body language back toward you through their own (confident speakers breed more confident audiences). The feedback loop doesn’t only occur within yourself, after all. It also occurs between you and your audience.
Want to learn more about public speaking? Check out our recommended reading list!
This is a guest post by Ted Flitton, a public relations professional working in the banking industry. He is also the owner of T Communications. He lives in Calgary, Alberta.
Many questions have been raised from the Brian Williams fiasco, mostly from the perspective of journalism and corporate ethics.
But there’s a question that’s been mostly overlooked: Is it really a good idea for one person to be the primary public face of a brand, as Brian Williams was for NBC News?
Building a brand around a single face comes with significant benefits—but, as the past week has once again proven, also significant risks.
Williams had a zest for the spotlight, and no doubt his superiors encouraged him to market himself and his newscast. He starred in an advertising campaign commemorating his ratings-winning decade commanding the show. He was a semi-regular on the late night talk show circuit, he made cameos in movies and TV shows, and even granted plenty of interviews to the tiniest of small town newspapers.
Hopefully NBC executives are now plotting ways to build their corporate brand without relying so heavily on a single, fallible human. With Lester Holt firmly in the anchor seat until summer, the execs have time to consider the role they played in setting the NBC brand on fire.
The Perks of a Primary Public Face
Companies big and small have tied their fortunes to high profile names for years, and for good reason. It’s impossible to think about Apple without thinking about Steve Jobs, Virgin without Richard Branson, or, until his death, Wendy’s without founder Dave Thomas.
Dynamic people build corporate brands by:
- 1. Providing a quick template for building brand values, raising consumer awareness, and signaling expected employee behaviors
- 2. Creating excitement and gaining employee buy-in
- 3. Adding star power to employee town hall meetings or community outreach events
The Downsides of Being Too Closely Associated With One Person
As Williams has proven, though, people make disastrous mistakes. Sometimes they go completely rogue. Depending on the scenario, not to mention how the fallout is handled, the downsides of a brand relationship involving a public figure include:
- 1. Tarnishing, if not severely damaging, a brand
- 2. Causing difficulty in separating the rogue person from the brand
- 3. Giving less-contented employees reason to thumb their nose at company culture
- 4. Pushing the company into crisis mode and hijacking priorities
On the last point, the Williams fiasco has consumed a great deal of time for a growing number of NBC executives. In fact, the storm is swirling around the upper tier at NBC Universal. As The Washington Post reports, Williams’s suspension:
“…was the culmination of a long period of internal concerns. NBC officials had been warned for some time about Williams’s exaggerations and self-aggrandizement, the network official said.
People were sending up red flags about a year ago, the official said.
What started out as eye-rolling escalated into genuine concern, but no one took action earlier because the statements that drew attention of staffers were not aired on the news broadcast.”
At the very least, decoupling from a rogue brand face is messy and all-consuming. Brian Stelter’s excellent 2009 New York Times article highlights the massive “Tiger-proofing” campaign Accenture officials immediately launched once golfer Tiger Woods’s serial infidelities were exposed.
Inc. Magazine chronicled the financial and human resources toll cyclist Lance Armstrong’s doping admission took on his charity Livestrong. Doug Ulman, CEO of the charity, openly wrestled for months with the existential knowledge that Armstrong’s deceit was the key ingredient for immense fundraising success.
What companies considering a conscious coupling should do:
- 1. Fully vet the person first. Once finished, vet again
- 2. Consider the tightness of the bond. Ask: “Is this a person who shares some of our values that we can casually reference in speeches or will we implore audiences to “Be a Tiger?”
- 3. Run the tie-in as a campaign with a sunset clause
- 4. (If you proceed) Monitor the person’s behavior and public statements and address problems the moment they surface
- 5. Prepare for the “go-rogue scenario” with a decoupling plan and standby statements and have your spokesperson briefed
Another tactic could include highlighting a team of individuals who espouse noble virtues. Imagine a TV commercial featuring the many faces of NBC journalists including Holt, the flawless Andrea Mitchell, Chuck Todd, and Richard Engel as the words ‘trust’ and ‘integrity’ fade in and out. If one person trips up, the piece can be edited. One rotten apple shouldn’t spoil the bunch. But this tactic isn’t foolproof; just ask the U.S. Postal Service about its sponsorship of the men’s cycling team.
Ted Flitton is a public relations professional working in the banking industry. He is also the owner of T Communications. He lives in Calgary, Alberta.
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The most-viewed article on The New York Times website today is about Justine Sacco, the PR executive whose infamous tweet from December 2013 sent her life—and her career—into turmoil.
The article, titled “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life,” paints a sympathetic portrait of Sacco (and others) who have endured the painful wrath of online mobs.
As a reminder, the tweet above, sent to Sacco’s 170 Twitter followers prior to boarding an 11-hour flight without Wi-Fi, quickly became Twitter’s top trending topic. By the time she landed, she had become a source of outrage for some—but short-term amusement for many others.
Sacco says her tweet wasn’t meant to be taken literally: “Living in America puts us in a bit of a bubble when it comes to what is going on in the third world. I was making fun of that bubble.” Regardless of her intent (she had sent other insensitive tweets the same night), the Twitter mob had selected its target. And, as The New York Times contributor Jon Ronson writes, being the target of online rage comes at a steep cost:
“For the past two years, I’ve been interviewing individuals like Justine Sacco: everyday people pilloried brutally, most often for posting some poorly considered joke on social media. Whenever possible, I have met them in person, to truly grasp the emotional toll at the other end of our screens. The people I met were mostly unemployed, fired for their transgressions, and they seemed broken somehow — deeply confused and traumatized.”
A Problem of Proportionality
The issue, it seems to me, is one of proportionality. In a bygone era, similar comments overheard in an office hallway might have prompted a friendly boss to throw an arm around her shoulder and say, “Hey, I need you to cut that out.” But those same comments made publicly today can lead to a fierce and life-altering blowback that far exceeds the original grievance.
There’s value in society enforcing publicly accepted norms by holding people who violate them to account. But social media makes it too easy to turn an act deserving of a mild rebuke into a moment that turns the offender into an unemployed moral reprobate. Perhaps it’s reasonable to ask who among us could endure such scrutiny and make it out unscathed?
Was Justine Sacco An Appropriate Target?
My preference is to analyze and critique bigger targets, people who put themselves into positions of responsibility by choice. But occasionally, the unknown PR professional, random university student, or obscure business manager comes along and says or does something stupid. And I occasionally decide to write about that person.
The question, then, becomes whether I’m simply joining the large chorus of attack or writing something intended to be at least somewhat productive. As readers of this blog know, I succeed at that only some of the time.
Still, I aim to remain mindful of this brilliant monologue from comedian Craig Ferguson, who delivered these thoughts about choosing the “right” targets while Britney Spears was enduring her much-publicized breakdown.
To see if I met the “Craig Ferguson Test,” I went back and looked at my Twitter timeline from the period when the Justine Sacco story broke. I was relieved to see that despite sending a few snarky tweets, I lived up to my standards for myself at least some of the time.
What Do We Owe The Justine Sacco’s Of The World?
If the first rule of media training is this:
“Don’t say anything you wouldn’t want published on the front page of tomorrow’s newspaper.”
Then perhaps the first rule of blogging and interacting on social media should be this:
“Don’t write anything about another person that you wouldn’t feel comfortable defending if you went to dinner with them tonight.”
I’d maintain that it’s okay to write, tweet, and post about Justine Sacco, or any of the other formerly anonymous people who committed dumb thoughts to paper (or Twitter). It’s okay to ask that they be held to some sort of account for their actions.
But I’d argue that we have also have an obligation to talk about these people with some measure of compassion. Perhaps we should allow the person to defend themselves before assuming the worst about them. And maybe we should pause to examine whether our online bloodlust is coming from a place of genuine outrage or cheap titillation. For if we don’t, we diminish ourselves.
What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
Editor’s Note: A college student recently asked me to answer a few questions about the media training industry for a class assignment. As I typed my answers to her, I realized that the answers might be of interest to some of this blog’s readers. With permission from that student to reprint our exchange, here’s an excerpt of our Q&A.
1. Could you briefly describe what your job entails?
My job as a media and presentation trainer requires me to do several different things.
The most obvious part of my job is when I’m working with clients in media or presentation training workshops, helping them improve their media and in-person communications skills. In order to do that, I need to read a substantial amount about each client in advance—every client is different, and although their media challenges may be similar, there are important distinctions that may significantly alter the manner in which they answer questions and interact with reporters.
In addition, I read a lot about the latest studies regarding messaging and body language to make sure my recommendations conform to the latest science.
2. How do you assist in preparing executives or company professionals for a media interview?
We use a combination of what I call “interactive” lecture (lectures in which trainees do brief exercises) and practical exercises, including videotaped practice interviews. The most valuable part of the training often occurs immediately following each practice interview, when we watch the interview back and discuss the answer the trainee gave versus the one they could give. My goal as a trainer is to push trainees just past their personal comfort levels—wherever that may be—but not so far past it that it becomes destructive. If I do my job right, each trainee should leave the room feeling more confident about their ability to deliver an effective interview, not perseverating about their flaws.
3. What has been one of the most challenging media encounters that you, your clients or your organization have faced?
One of the most challenging media encounters I remember was a challenge one government client was facing. It was one of those cases where there simply were no perfect answers—their choices, for rather complicated reasons, ranged between bad, really bad, and terrible. Therefore, choosing the “bad” option was the best of a lousy bunch of choices, but they weren’t going to get any credit from the public or the media for making the most rational choice of the bunch.
In those cases, spokespersons are usually best served by acknowledging that they get that it’s not a perfect choice. Before the public can hear anything else that the person will say, they have to believe that the person “gets it.” Therefore, I usually advise people to acknowledge the obvious truth early, explain their choice without defensiveness, and to use more relatable “human speak” instead of lapsing into “expert speak.”
4. Can you recall any clients in particular that you have seen successfully improve and implement your media training tactics in the news?
Yes. I can’t share their names because we sign confidentiality agreements with our clients, but I can share something that is very common for many of our clients.
One of the biggest challenges for me as a trainer is to help clients become less defensive when talking about more controversial parts of their work. That defensiveness is a natural human instinct, and it makes sense—people immersed in a project tend to be aware of their project’s flaws—and that defensiveness tends to sneak into their answers. But what gets lost far too often are the positives about that project.
As an example, a defensive answer to a question might look like this:
“Well, we can’t solve everyone’s problem, but we certainly can help some people.”
“We’re quite proud that we’ve been able to improve so many people’s lives, and we’re determined to continue growing the program so we can help even more people.”
5. What advice would you give a potential media trainer on how to prepare a client for an interview?
Remember that knowing all of the right answers and teaching all of the right answers are two very different things. To the degree the client comes up with the answers themselves, they’ll have greater ownership over them. My success as a trainer is often measured by how deft I am at leading them to those answers without them even realizing that I’ve done so.
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Olympic swimmers spend years trying to shave a few tenths of a second off their racing times. Ambitious students learn to become more efficient studiers. Daily commuters learn how to avoid peak traffic by leaving the house at precisely the right time.
We’re all looking to gain small advantages in our daily routines, and yet, most of us have missed a technique that can have a dramatic impact on our personal and professional lives. And to benefit from it, all you need to do is find two minutes and a private space (a bathroom stall is fine) before the next situation in which you’ll be evaluated (e.g. a job interview, a date, a presentation).
In her 2012 TED Talk (the second most-viewed TED Talk ever), social psychologist and Harvard Business School associate professor Amy Cuddy discussed her research into “power poses”—and concluded that your body language shapes who you are.
Cuddy’s research found that people who adopted “high-power poses” (such as the one she’s displaying above) for two minutes prior to an evaluative situation experienced a 20 percent increase in testosterone (the “dominance” hormone) and a 25 percent decrease in cortisol (the “stress” hormone).
She also found that the reverse is true: People who adopted a “low-power pose” (such as the one displayed in the slide above Ms. Cuddy) for two minutes before an evaluative situation experienced a 10 percent drop in testosterone and a 15 percent increase in cortisol.
Based on those results, Ms. Cuddy says that, “Our nonverbals govern how we think and feel about ourselves.” Her conclusion? Just two minutes of power posing can increase our dominance and decrease our stress.
I encourage you to watch her talk. And don’t miss the ending, in which she shares a moving personal story that explains why she doesn’t encourage you to “fake it until you make it,” but to “fake it until you become it.”
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NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams announced yesterday that he would take a voluntary leave of absence from his broadcast. It’s a smart—and necessary—move that preserves the most options for both the anchor and his network.
In this post, I’ll offer NBC News and Brian Williams a few ideas about how to handle this controversy most effectively.
Advice For NBC News
By pulling himself off the air, Brian Williams has given you some breathing room. Take it. You don’t have to make any immediate decisions, and can use the next several days (probably weeks) to conduct a full investigation into Mr. Williams’s previous claims.
It’s good that you’ve named Richard Esposito, the head of the NBC investigative unit, to look into his previous reporting. But that’s an insufficient step. I know nothing about Mr. Esposito and don’t doubt that he’s an honest reporter who will work doggedly to uncover the facts. But the very fact that he’s paid by NBC News will, fairly or not, call his final results into question, particularly if they validate Mr. Williams’s previous reporting.
Therefore, in addition to your internal investigation (which has merit and should proceed), you should immediately name someone of prominence and widespread respect to run a simultaneous external investigation. A well-known reporter, media critic, academic, executive, or government expert (a former Inspector General, for example) could work.
Finally, you should release the results of both investigations publicly. There’s risk attached to that, of course, but I don’t believe it’s an inappropriately high-risk step. With outside reporters and bloggers continuing to dig up dirt, they’ll probably find many of the same things your investigators will anyway—but you will bolster your news department’s credibility by finding and revealing any shortcomings first.
Considering that the rumor mill is growing—and that Mr. Williams’s reporting from Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, and Haiti are all coming under fire (including an inconsistent story he’s told about saving a dog from a fire)—these steps are necessary to either partially restore Mr. Williams’s credibility before returning to air or demonstrating why he can’t.
Advice For Brian Williams
First, cancel your appearance on the Late Show With David Letterman, scheduled for this Thursday. Letterman can be a tough interviewer, and you’re a charming guest—so, in the perfect circumstance, I could see how an appearance would benefit you.
But your first post-crisis interview shouldn’t be held with a tough comedian—it should be held with a tough reporter who knows the details of your story inside and out and can ask the pointed questions that require direct answers. CNN’s Brian Stelter, who has done an admirable job of covering this story, might be a good choice. But you shouldn’t do the interview until the shock of the past few days has receded a bit; you, probably more than most, understand how public figures in the middle of crisis too often respond with a defensive tone that serves them badly.
And since you’ve been accused of spending too much of your time building your entertainment brand by hosting Saturday Night Live and slow-jamming the news with Jimmy Fallon (among many other appearances), this would send a message that your critics are right.
(Update: Shortly after this post went live, I learned that Williams canceled his Letterman appearance late this afternoon.)
Second, you’ll need to think about exactly what you would say. That you “conflated” your experiences and misremembered the events on an Iraqi helicopter was met with widespread derision. Even if you accidentally misremembered, it calls your ability to serve as an anchor into question—why should viewers trust someone whose memory of first person events is unreliable? You’ll need to dig deeper. Did you feel the need to exaggerate stories to bolster your credibility, popularity, or news bona fides? If so, you’ll need to cop to that in direct and unsparing terms—and announce specific steps you’d take to avoid that in the future.
Third, slow down. Your statement said that you would “take myself off of my daily broadcast for the next several days,” but also presumed that you would make an inevitable and probably rapid return. That’s a mistake. If you’re innocent of pervasive résumé-inflation (beyond the Iraq RPG story), time is on your side. Allow the results of an internal and external investigation to come in, vindicating your integrity, and come back to the newscast strengthened—at least in relation to your current position.
Fourth, adding more humility to your tone would go a long way. Your on-air apology on Wednesday—deemed insufficient by many—bordered on glib. And I wasn’t crazy about the statement you released on Saturday:
“In the midst of a career spent covering and consuming news, it has become painfully apparent to me that I am presently too much a part of the news, due to my actions.
As Managing Editor of NBC Nightly News, I have decided to take myself off of my daily broadcast for the next several days, and Lester Holt has kindly agreed to sit in for me to allow us to adequately deal with this issue. Upon my return, I will continue my career-long effort to be worthy of the trust of those who place their trust in us.”
Your statement used vague, distancing language: “Due to my actions” didn’t admit to anything specific, nor was there any apology attached to it. Second, calling it “my broadcast” seemed unnecessarily possessive and heavy handed. I’m sure NBC views Nightly News as its broadcast—and the journalists who work for you probably think of the broadcast as a collective effort. Finally, as discussed above, “upon my return” is not fait accompli. If an investigation finds other instances of inaccurate reporting, you’re probably gone.
Finally, I’d recommend that you hire an experienced crisis management firm, stat. Your career is at risk, and it’s normal to feel defensive, angry, and disoriented. So don’t rely solely on your own instincts. Professionals who understand today’s media climate, the evolution of crisis, and who have helped public figures facing severe reputational risk can help you navigate this crisis with better precision. Perhaps you’re already working with such counsel; if so, that’s good.
READERS: What have I missed? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
I wrote last night about the career-threatening controversy enveloping NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams (read that post here), who repeatedly told a false story about being under enemy fire while covering the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The evolution of his tale is quite damning. CNN has a good timeline of how Williams changed the story over time to put himself in the center of the action.
What’s unclear to me is whether he purposefully lied (according to the sentiment I’ve seen on Twitter, that seems to be the overwhelming judgment) or whether he had a false memory of the event. Scoff at that latter option if you wish, but the science is rather clear on how unreliable human memory is, particularly during dramatic events.
Even if that more charitable option is the operational one here, it suggests that Williams is an unreliable witness to major news events which is, by itself, enough to seriously damage his credibility.
From a crisis management standpoint, what should Williams do now?
I asked that question on Twitter last night; here’s what a few of you said:
I’m not sure a longer explanation without a meaningful punishment is sufficient. Other people think a suspension is warranted but suggest Williams could survive this incident.
In my judgment, NBC News, which has its lead anchor telling tall tales that made him the hero of his own story, must act. They must suspend Williams (or place him on a “leave of absence”) immediately. During that time, they should examine his other reporting to make sure this fabrication is truly an isolated incident.
That suspension isn’t only the right thing to do, but it may help Williams keep his anchor job. Other stories will quickly fill the news vacuum, and his absence will take at least some of the air out of this story. Upon his return, Williams must provide a more credible explanation to viewers—one that doesn’t contain the glibness of yesterday’s insufficient on-air apology. Although that will resurrect the story and lead to more negative headlines, the second telling of the story won’t be accompanied by the same shock as yesterday’s original revelation. And either way, it’s a necessary step.
Some people are calling for his immediate resignation, and it’s possible Williams will be out. But I still view this as a survivable scandal; a damaged Brian Williams may still be preferable to NBC than an undamaged successor—although Lester Holt would be great at the job.
What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.