During MSNBC’s election coverage on Tuesday night, Tom Brokaw’s cell phone alarm started blaring while he was on the air. A seasoned pro, Brokaw played it off nicely, pretending he had received a call from his wife, who had requested that he bring home some milk.
Rudy Giuliani had a similar moment in 2007 during his ill-fated presidential run when he received a call from his wife during a speech to the National Rifle Association. He picked up the phone while speaking before hundreds of people, had a brief conversation with her, and continued his speech.
Giuliani’s stunt earned widespread ridicule from the press; even conservative columnist Kathleen Parker wrote that picking up the call was “emasculating”:
“While jaws began setting in a room of muted chuckles, Rudy played public cuckold to his third wife. Feigning amusement and affection while exchanging sweet nothings, the aspiring president utterly emasculated himself in front of a crowd whose cumulative testosterone level had the Army Corps of Engineers on alert.”
Both of those moments reminded me of a speech I saw television anchor John Stossel deliver several years ago. His phone started ringing while he was speaking to a packed ballroom; he fumbled for his phone, turned it off, and apologized to the audience for the interruption. That moment was highly distracting—it removed me from his speech and turned my attention to his phone—and highly memorable, as it’s the moment I remember best from his speech.
My advice in this post is simple—turn off your phones before a media interview or speech—but there’s one less intuitive piece of advice I’d offer. It’s not enough to put your phones on vibrate. While the audience may not hear your device ring when it’s on silent mode, you will—and the vibration itself is often enough to distract you from your comments.
Writing in The New York Times, author Martin Lindstrom explains:
“So are our smartphones addictive, medically speaking? Some psychologists suggest that using our iPhones and BlackBerrys may tap into the same associative learning pathways in the brain that make other compulsive behaviors — like gambling — so addictive. As with addiction to drugs or cigarettes or food, the chemical driver of this process is the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine.
Earlier this year, I carried out an fMRI experiment to find out whether iPhones were really, truly addictive, no less so than alcohol, cocaine, shopping or video games. In conjunction with the San Diego-based firm MindSign Neuromarketing, I enlisted eight men and eight women between the ages of 18 and 25. Our 16 subjects were exposed separately to audio and to video of a ringing and vibrating iPhone.
In each instance, the results showed activation in both the audio and visual cortices of the subjects’ brains. In other words, when they were exposed to the video, our subjects’ brains didn’t just see the vibrating iPhone, they ‘heard’ it, too; and when they were exposed to the audio, they also ‘saw’ it.”
Some studies show that the momentary buzz in your pocket removes you from your central task, if even for a brief moment. And when that buzz occurs, I wouldn’t be surprised to observe speakers suddenly increasing their amount of verbal filler and hesitations; since their brains are momentarily otherwise occupied, it would make sense to see their speech briefly interrupted.
Turn off your cell phones, people.
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Political journalists David Mark and Chuck McCutcheon recently released a new book, Dog Whistles, Walk-Backs, and Washington Handshakes: Decoding the Jargon, Slang, and Bluster of American Political Speech, which defines what politicians really mean when they use certain words and phrases.
You’ll probably hear many of these terms from tonight’s winners and losers, pundits, and reporters.
Their book humorously defines more than 200 political terms. Here are 14 of my favorites, which the authors explain in greater detail in their book.
Terms You’ll Probably Hear Tonight
1. The American People
Every politician, even the ones in complete disagreement, claims to speak for the people. It’s invoked often enough to have achieved drinking-game status.
2. Democrat Party
A GOP distortion of the Democratic Party’s name meant to belittle it. The way members of the Democratic Party see it, the phrase is meant to imply that they are less than fully “democratic.” Republicans, in this view, use the “Democrat” term to imply “they are the only true adherents of democracy.”
3. Strategist / Adviser
Broad catchall descriptions for campaign consultants. Television talking heads are often labeled this way, even when the strategist has little or no experience working on an actual campaign.
4. “Elections have consequences.”
The political way for a winner to tell a loser, “Tough luck, you lost. Get over it.”
5. “The question we should be asking…”
One of the biggest maxims for politicians in dealing with the media is that you don’t always answer the question that you were asked; you answer the one you want asked. It’s a rhetorical pivot away from potentially dangerous territory onto safer ground while staying on message.
6. “With all due respect…”
An age-old preface to leveling criticism, with the perfunctory pretense of appearing fair-minded. As humorist Dave Barry once wrote in his mock language column: “It is correctly used to ‘soften the blow’ when you wish to criticize someone in a diplomatic and nonjudgmental manner, as in: ‘With all due respect, you are much worse than Hitler’ or ‘No disrespect intended, but you have the intelligence of a macaroon.’”
7. My good friend
Politician-speak for somebody they often can’t stand.
Terms You May Not Hear Tonight, But Will Soon
A term that once commonly described wealthy Republicans—so-called country-club elites—it has morphed in recent decades into a pejorative description of Democratic intellectuals, including Acela Corridor inhabitants.
9. Acela Corridor
The densely populated stretch of the Northeast traversed by pundits, campaign consultants, and other political cognoscenti. Named for the express, pricier Amtrak trains that can shuttle between Washington, D.C., and New York City in under three hours.
10. Committing candor
To speak the unvarnished truth, usually inadvertently, and thus spark a controversy.
11. Deep regret
A classic form of non-apology apology, in which the politician does not actually express contrition.
12. “I’m sorry if I offended anyone.”
A classic non-apology apology that makes it clear the public figure is sorry for being caught, not for what he or she actually said.
13. “I want to spend more time with my family.”
One of the most pervasive euphemisms in the government and business worlds, it’s the lame excuse when someone doesn’t want to provide the real reason for departing a job.
14. Walk back
Attempts by politicians and press handlers to limit the damage done by dumb, embarrassing, and stupid statements. It’s a politely euphemistic way to address the subject of lying or deception without having to use those rather unseemly words.
Did you hear any of these terms tonight? Did you hear others that should be on this list? Please leave your words and phrases in the comments section below.
Wikipedia defines a gimmick as “a trick or device intended to attract attention, publicity, or business.” For the purposes of this post, I’ll define gimmick slightly differently—as an unusually theatrical device intended to make a speaker’s point much more memorable.
Because gimmicks are so attention grabbing, they fall under the category of “high risk, high reward.” When they work, they’re brilliant and become the one moment the audience remembers more than any other. But the opposite is also true: When they fail, they become the one moment the audience remembers more than any other.
As an example of a gimmick that worked, I once consulted with a scientist who was about to deliver a major talk about The Dark Ages. He described that period in great detail, explaining that the darkness was absolute, beyond any darkness that humans living today have ever experienced.
It occurred to me that killing the room lights could help the audience visualize that period even better, transporting them into the period of darkness better than his words alone ever could. We timed the moment to match his narration—and when the right moment struck, we killed the lights. For two minutes, he explained The Dark Ages to an audience that couldn’t see their own hands.
That moment worked well because the “gimmick” was tied directly to his message. It seized the audience’s attention at the exact moment that he had a strong takeaway message to deliver. Most importantly, it felt purposeful and sincere, not gratuitous and manipulative.
Another Gimmick That Worked Well
The excellent book Made to Stick tells the story of Geoff Ainscow, an advocate who lobbied for arms control. The problem he encountered during his talks was that his audiences weren’t moved by his presentation. He found himself unable to convey the scale of the problem through statistics alone.
He changed tactics. To make his point, he dropped a BB into an empty bucket and compared it to Hiroshima. What came next had a huge impact. The authors write:
“Next, he’d drop ten BBs into the bucket. The clatter was louder and more chaotic. ‘This is the firepower of the missiles on one U.S. or Soviet nuclear submarine,’ he’d say.
Finally, he asked the attendees to close their eyes. He’d say, ‘This is the world’s current arsenal of nuclear weapons.’ Then he poured 5,000 BBs into the bucket (one for every nuclear warhead in the world). The noise was startling, even terrifying. ‘The roar of the BBs went on and on,’ said Ainscow. ‘Afterward there was always dead silence.”
An Awful Gimmick
An example of a gimmick that didn’t work comes from Jeremey Donovan’s book How To Deliver a TED Talk. Discussing a speaker he had recently seen, he writes:
“To kick off his presentation, he asks his audience to stand up, put their hand on their heart, turn around, and take one step forward. He then goes on to say that he can now report to his own boss when asked how the presentation went, that he ‘got them on their feet, touched their hearts, turned them around, and got them moving in the right direction.’”
Ugh! Donovan describes the change in that audience’s body language, which clearly reflected their resentment at having been manipulated purposelessly.
My general advice regarding gimmicks is this: They should be meaningful, tied directly to the message, and delivered by a sincere speaker who truly believes in the tactic. If you follow that guidance, don’t be afraid to use an occasional gimmick.
Florida Governor Rick Scott failed to take the stage for several minutes during a live gubernatorial debate earlier this month against his opponent, former Florida Governor Charlie Crist.
Why? According to the moderators, Scott refused to debate due to a small fan placed beneath Crist’s lectern, which may have violated the debate’s prohibition against “electronic devices.”
For four minutes, Crist benefitted from the optics of appearing on stage alone and an opponent who refused to show up due to the presence of a small fan. Sure, he may have broken the debate rules, but the specific violation struck many people as petty and unimportant. The sublimely ridiculous political moment instantly became the stuff of ridicule, launching a #fangate hashtag on Twitter that trended nationally.
When he finally walked onto the stage and was asked why he refused to join the debate for the first four minutes, Governor Scott gave an answer that bordered on incomprehensible.
”Well, I waited until we figured out whether he was going to show up. He said he wasn’t going to come to the uhhh, he was, he said he was going to come to the debate, so why come out until he’s ready?”
That not-ready-for-primetime response solidified the moment, confirming for many viewers and members of the press that Mr. Scott was the victim of his own intransigence.
But that storyline, compelling as it was, may also be false. According to CNN:
“[Scott’s] campaign said later that it was actually Crist who was in the midst of intense behind-the-scenes conversations with debate organizers over whether his fan would be allowed — and that Scott was just waiting to see what happened. He hadn’t realized that Crist had gone on stage.
Scott said on CNN’s ‘The Situation Room’ with Wolf Blitzer on Thursday that he had been waiting in a trailer for debate officials to tell him to head to the stage. ‘They said he wasn’t going to show up, that he was balking about his fan,’ Scott said, adding that he didn’t care if Crist had a fan, a microwave or a humidifier.
The organizers of the October 15 debate backed up Scott’s version of events Thursday, saying Crist clearly broke the rules — and ignored instructions given an hour before start time — by having an aide place the fan on stage.”
It’s worth reading the entire CNN story; the timeline suggests that Mr. Scott’s version of events is true and that he had never told event organizers he wouldn’t debate.
Assuming that’s true, the quickly formed narrative about this debate—that Rick Scott refused to debate due to a fan—was false.
But political watchers know that facts and narratives don’t always line up, and it’s the responsibility of Mr. Scott and his advisors to ensure that he’s where he’s supposed to be at the moment he’s supposed to be there. That reporters predictably latch onto these types of stories is obvious; it’s the campaign’s job not to give them the opportunity.
“Fangate” was not a failure borne of stubbornness, as the media suggested. But it did represent disorganization and a lack of vigilance (did no one have a television monitor on behind the scenes, on which they would have seen Crist standing alone at the lectern?), and as a result, this debate will be remembered as the debate at which Mr. Scott appeared to refuse to debate because of a fan.
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Professional Golfers Association (PGA) President Ted Bishop was forced out of his job late last week after posting comments to his social media accounts that many people found sexist. On Facebook, he wrote the following to criticize a golfer:
“Used to be athletes who had lesser records or accomplishments in a sport never criticized the icons. Tom Watson (8 majors and a 10-3-1 Ryder Cup record) and Nick Faldo (6 majors and all-time Ryder Cup points leader) get bashed by Ian James Poulter. Really? Sounds like a little school girl squealing during recess.”
He also tweeted the following:
As career-ending tweets go, that one might seem mild. But it’s important to place it into the larger context of women in golf, an exclusionary history the PGA has long been trying to improve upon.
Mr. Bishop, like many others in his situation, defended his record on women’s issues, arguing that his words weren’t representative of his true views (here’s his interview and apology on The Golf Channel). I’ve written before about that fashionable but increasingly non-credible apology—and questioned whether it can be possible for a person to refer derisively to men as “little school girls” without harboring at least some disrespect for girls.
That canned apology has become such a cliché that fictional television character Selena Meyer—who plays the Vice President of the United States on HBO’s Veep—has recorded this spot-on parody of it:
If an apology has become so hackneyed that it’s the stuff of parody, it’s probably a sign that it’s no longer as effective as it once was. That said, it still may be the best of a set of lousy options for many people in crisis—and, depending on the context, it may still work for some people. But they shouldn’t expect this type of apology to be a panacea that erases their statements and leads to immediate forgiveness.
Thanks to reader John Kelley for sending me the “Veep” video.
CNN.com recently ran a fascinating piece about the “GOP’s secret school,” in which candidates learn how to interact with the media. The school is a reaction to the high-profile crises the GOP has inflicted upon itself in recent years—from Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” comment to Christine O’Donnell’s “I am not a witch” ad—and party officials are determined not to repeat past mistakes. According to the article:
“Since the beginning of 2014, the RNC says it has graduated over 200 operatives and placed many of them as communications directors and press secretaries in Capitol Hill offices and federal campaigns nationwide…[Instructor] Rob Lockwood has also conducted media training boot camps with nearly 1,000 candidates, staff and local political figures in a dozen states.”
It appears that this GOP training class is doing everything right in its effort to improve external communications. There’s good advice here for everyone involved in politics, regardless of party or cause. In this post, I’ll highlight the excerpts that caught my attention most.
1. Don’t Treat Reporters As Your Enemy
Tim Miller, the executive director of America Rising, says:
“‘If you treat reporters with hostility, there will be blood….As recently as 2008 and 2010, you would sit in these rooms and it would be somebody from the Lee Atwater era, talking about how the media is your enemy…My talk was about talking the ways to use the 24/7 news cycle and Twitter and social media to your advantage, as well as recognizing the pitfalls.’”
2. Think Twice Before Holding Press Conferences
“’Doing a press conference just to do a press conference doesn’t work anymore,’ Lockwood tells students. ‘It’s an antiquated way of thinking. If you don’t know what you want your headline to be, and think you can go out there and say what you want in five points, and answer none of the questions, that the news reports are going to be about your five points. Nope. The reports will probably be about the five things you didn’t answer.’”
3. Remember That Dull Can Be Good
Lockwood tells his audiences that being a bit dull may be preferable:
“’Don’t use jokes that you’ve never told before … Jay Carney showed everyday that it’s better to be dull than offensive,’ referring to the former White House press secretary who is now a CNN political commentator. ‘Don’t introduce new phrases, like Etch-a-sketch.’”
4. Maintain a Bit of Healthy Paranoia
“’I’d rather have candidates being careful to a fault than, you know, having a fountain of blabber coming out of their mouth that’s not disciplined,’ [RNC Chairman Reince] Priebus says.‘ We are training candidates, training state parties, training operatives to appreciate that communicating isn’t just a free-for-all, natural-born type of activity. People need to be trained and disciplined.’”
5. Don’t Chase Every Story
Although “rapid response” is key to every political communications shop, it doesn’t mean you have to respond to everything:
“As much as the classes focus on the capacity of the web to drive a message, students are urged not to chase every shiny object or micro-story that pops on Twitter.”
Cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values. (source: Wikipedia)
I recently worked with a company that is frequently portrayed by the media as a “bad guy.” As a result of receiving some critical media coverage, the company’s executive team ordered a clampdown on external communications.
That means no more interviews. All interactions with the media occur solely through written statements. That way, the company figures, reporters will be unable to twist their quotes. By maintaining a paper trail, they feel safer and better protected.
There’s one problem with that approach: Their defensive posture results in media stories that contrast the company’s cold, lawyerly written statements with their opponents, who speak to the press, appear open, and look more sympathetic.
When working with the company’s representatives, I had an “A ha!” moment. I noticed that all of the spokespersons were smart, funny, and instantly likeable. Unfortunately, the public couldn’t see that for themselves, since their statements contained none of those things. But if they could—if the public could see that this company was made up of thoughtful people who were trying to serve their customers well—it could force them to change their thinking.
Think of it this way: A customer who thinks, “Oh, I hate that company. Their customer service sucks.” would believe that their beliefs were well founded when watching a news report that showed the company communicating solely through uninspired written statements.
But a customer who thinks, “Oh, I hate that company. Their customer service sucks.”— and who then sees a company vice president expressing sincere commitment to improving their service—might experience a bit of cognitive dissonance (“I thought they were jerks. I still don’t love them, but maybe they’re not as bad as I thought.”).
If your company is in a defensive crouch but has charismatic, credible, and thoughtful spokespersons, ask yourself this question: Would our interviews create cognitive dissonance for some members of the audience? And if they would, should we really depend solely on written statements to carry our message?
On October 20, 1999, Elizabeth Dole—a former Reagan and Bush cabinet secretary—ended her bid for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination.
I was working at CNN in Washington, D.C. at the time. As I was leaving work late that night and crossing through the building’s quiet front lobby, I noticed Ms. Dole entering for her appearance on Larry King Live.
As I neared Ms. Dole, I watched as she looked past me, gave a huge, broad smile, and offered an unusually enthusiastic wave.
I was confused. I didn’t remember passing anyone else in the lobby, and couldn’t imagine to whom she was waving so excitedly. I turned around to see what I was missing, and there he was: a single, solitary news photographer.
Ms. Dole clearly knew how to play to the cameras. From the perspective of the photographer’s lens, the photo would have suggested that there was a throng of supporters greeting her arrival. No one seeing that photo would have had any reason to believe that she had actually arrived without even the slightest hint of fanfare.
I knew that politicians managed their own photo ops, of course, but I didn’t realize politicians were that calculating. I found the moment deceptive (she purposely sent a false message), impressive (here’s a woman who knew what she was doing), and instructive (be skeptical of photographic “evidence”).