Don’t Poop In the Pool

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on September 4, 2013 – 6:02 am

I recently had the pleasure of staying at a Ritz-Carlton, a luxury hotel chain that operates 81 hotels in 25 countries.

Upon visiting the indoor rooftop swimming pool at one of their New York hotels, I came across this sign:

Dont Poop In The Pool


That sign is a failure for many reasons, only some of which are the Ritz-Carlton’s fault. More on that later.

First, I’ll come back to a point I’ve made repeatedly on the blog: Any message intended for a mass audience must be broadly understandable in order to be effective.

The Ritz-Carlton has an international customer base, and it’s safe to presume that many of their guests speak imperfect English. That sign would do nothing to help them understand the pool’s rules (although I have a tough time imagining that a Dutch-speaking guest from Suriname, for example, would have been inclined to poop in the pool but for the presence of the sign).

Forget international travelers. Many native English speakers would have numerous problems with this sign, as well:

1. The Ritz misspelled the word “expectorate.” The word means “to cough or spit out phlegm from the throat or lungs.” (I didn’t know the word before writing this post, and I’m guessing many other people didn’t, either.)

2. Who blows their nose on a pool? I suspect doing so would be quite a feat. Blowing one’s nose in a pool makes much more sense.

3. Discharge of fecal matter? I find that language grosser than the plain-speak version, “Don’t poop on in the pool.”

4. Why are there quote marks? “By order of the board of health” isn’t a direct quote. If anything, the rest of the sign was (close to) a direct quote.

Swimming Pool Mother and Chile

I wondered whether the Ritz developed that language or whether it was some bureaucratic language mandated by the State of New York. Guess what? It is! Here’s what the state regulations say:

“Urinating, discharge of fecal matter, expectorating or blowing the nose in any swimming pool is prohibited.

(c) Posting regulations. Placards reciting the contents of subdivisions (b), (d) and (e) (where applicable), inclusive, of this section shall be posted conspicuously at the swimming pool or enclosure and in the dressing rooms and offices of all swimming pools.”

So the State of New York gets most of the blame. But the Ritz made the state-mandated language worse; at least New York spelled “expectorate” correctly and referred to blowing the nose in any swimming pool.

It’s easy to see how this mangled sign made its way past the proofreaders at the Ritz. They probably didn’t know the word “expectorate” either, so they didn’t recognize that it was spelled incorrectly. And if they didn’t know that, how in the world would swimmers of all ages and education levels at other New York State pools know it?

This one’s pretty easy, folks. Don’t poop, pee, or spit in the pool. 

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The Statistic Communications “Experts” Keep Getting Wrong

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on July 21, 2013 – 6:02 am

In dozens of books and hundreds of articles, you’ll find media trainers, presentation coaches, and communications experts offering a startling statistic:

Only 7 percent of the way someone forms an impression of you comes from your words! The remaining portion comes from your voice (38 percent) and your body language (55 percent)!

There’s only one problem: Those statistics are wrong. Completely wrong.

Their root comes from a 1960s study by a UCLA professor named Dr. Albert Mehrabian. But Mehrabian never intended for his research to be used—or misused—that way.


This slide is fascinating. It’s also completely wrong.


Mehrabian’s study was very limited in scope—it looked only at single words, focused solely on positive or negative feelings, and didn’t include men—and yet, I see articles at least once a week touting these numbers as gospel, as if they have much broader implications than they actually do.

Had these communications “experts” taken the time to look at the original research (or simply look at Dr. Mehrabian’s Wikipedia page, which debunks this myth), they wouldn’t have made this mistake. So I can only conclude that communications professionals who use this data are ignorant,  lazy, or willfully misusing this data to sound smarter than they are.

As an example, I came across a video from Stanford Business Professor Deborah Gruenfeld last week. I saw the video because it was a “Sponsored Post” on Twitter. The link led me to a YouTube video, which had this in the video description:

“When people want to make an impression, most think a lot about what they want to say. Stanford Business Professor Deborah Gruenfeld cautions you to think twice about that approach. The factors influencing how people see you are surprising: Words account for 7% of what they take away, while body language counts for 55%.”


In the video, Gruenfeld says:

“When people are forming an impression of you, what you say accounts for only seven percent of what they come away with.”


Creativity Works, a U.K.-based communications firm, produced this video called “Busting the Mehrabian Myth.” It’s a well-produced (and humorous) video. UPDATE: Several readers have correctly pointed out that this video goes too far in the opposite direction, prioritizing words over delivery. That, too, is wrong — the right balance of words and delivery is highly contextual, and it’s too reductionist to say that one generally matters more than the other.

Have thoughts about body language and the Mehrabian Myth? Please leave them in the comments section below.

The PowerPoint slide in this post comes from the Presentation Zen website; to their credit, they acknowledged that this graphic isn’t quite right.

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I’m Back! (And A Tale From The Hospital)

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on April 4, 2013 – 6:02 am

I’m back!

After taking two blissful weeks off to get to know my newborn son, I’m slowly catching up with emails, the blog, and other office duties. Thanks once again to the wonderful guest bloggers who helped me hold down the fort here in my absence. I hope you’ll scroll down and read some of their wonderful work.

My wife and I had a wonderful experience at the hospital, where the physicians, nurses, and other personnel did a great job of helping our new family get acclimated (and cope with some unexpected health challenges, which have fortunately been resolved).

But there was one bump in the road that threatened to undermine our entire hospital experience. 


Me and our little nugget


On our first morning post-delivery, an audiologist came into our room to administer a state-mandated hearing test. She struggled to attach the sensors onto our barely 17-hour-old son, who squirmed throughout most of the test.

As I watched the computer monitors give real-time results during the test, I noticed that his score was reading low. He needed 350 to pass—and he was hovering in the low 100s. What, exactly, were those numbers measuring, I asked the tech? She couldn’t answer. She was clueless, only reiterating that “350 was passing.” 

That’s when the tech sent us into a panic. She asked, “Has he been crying a lot?” “Not really,” I answered, “Why do you ask?” “Because I learned in the graduate school class I’m taking that when a baby doesn’t cry a lot, it’s a bad sign.”

I thought my normally mild-mannered wife was going to strangle her. This tech clearly had no idea what she was talking about (newborns are usually quiet in the first 24 hours, we later learned), and she was unable to define what she meant by “bad sign.” Did she mean our son was going to be deaf? Have severe developmental problems? Autism? Again, she had no clue. Given that she wasn’t a physician or registered nurse, she shouldn’t have offered uninformed, unhelpful, and unclear speculation about the problems our son may or may not have had.

I barely slept that night. I spent the evening Googling message boards about the implications of not passing an initial hearing test. Some websites said newborns fail them all the time since their amniotic fluid hasn’t cleared; other parents discussed life with their hearing-impaired children.

Our son’s hearing was retested the next day. He passed.

You might say that this tech was particularly insensitive, or oblivious, or poorly trained. She may have been a combination of all three. But how many times have you encountered someone similar, someone in a position to offer reassurance who instead makes you feel more agitated due to their poor word choices?

It seemed to me that this experience is the perfect example of why even non-media spokespersons need media training (or even more tailored interpersonal communications training). I’m guessing that the tech would be surprised that her carelessness affected us so much. And with some basic training about what she should say to a patient and what she shouldn’t, this situation could have been avoided.

It’s good to be back! Thank you so much for being a loyal reader. 

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Is Lance Armstrong A Sociopath?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 20, 2013 – 4:34 pm

In my review of Lance Armstrong’s interview with Oprah Winfrey, I noted that Armstrong seemed to fit the classic profile of a sociopath.

To my eye, he appeared to be a pathological liar who lacks remorse, is manipulative and superficially charming, and who fails to take responsibility for his actions. But he showed emotion on the second night of the interview, which made me wonder whether my original analysis was correct.

Reader Mary Fletcher Jones, owner of the Virginia-based public relations firm Fletcher Prince, says that I was.


She writes:

“You hit the nail on the head, Brad. Sociopath. Classic case. The only reason why I know that for sure after watching the interview is because of the books and articles I have read about sociopathy, and the surprisingly consistent way they express themselves and handle challenges like this. It helps them get to the top, but they also have spectacular falls, when there is this collective “oh my god” realization of people realizing the extent of their…illness? Deviance? I have yet to figure out if this is a character defect, a mental imbalance, or a combination of both. At least, it is possible to say: yup, that’s it! That’s helpful to all of us, because we’re bound to encounter a Lance Armstrong in our own lives one day, and at least this interview will help us recognize him or her.

He has a functional inability or significant impairment to experience guilt in the way most of us understand it. Anyone can appear cool and reserved on television but there is a difference. Sociopaths lie, and lie well, and they do not feel shame about it. They do not have the same physiological responses to lying as other people. They have an impaired ability to feel as other people might, empathy. They fail to take responsibility or recognize the consequences of their actions. They don’t show anguish over what they have done. You can see this in taped murder confessions — there is the same detachment.

I think Oprah did us all a service by recording this interview that goes WAY beyond any interest we might have in the integrity of professional bike racing.

Sociopaths can have feelings for their family members and other people. I know that caused you some doubt when Lance talked about his family in the interview. They can express pride and affection, for example. But it’s a different kind of relationship and there are other troubling aspects to it. For example, they typically aren’t good caregivers when family members are ill, becoming distant, detached, seemingly uncaring, or even angry.

One scenario of how a sociopathic father relates to his wife and daughter is explained in The Sociopath Next Door. Anyone who listened or observed this man (I believe he was a university administrator) would feel he loved his family and was just like anyone else, and it wasn’t until an event happened that the daughter realized how sociopathic her father really was.

Sociopaths snow virtually everyone, even family members, because we are wired to think of people thinking and reacting as we do.”


I don’t profess to have the expertise to diagnose a sociopath, but everything I’ve read confirms that Mary’s conclusion is correct. Thanks very much for your thoughtful comments, Mary!

Finally, I try to stay away from “question mark journalism,” in which I throw out a question (“Is Lance Armstrong a sociopath?”) without having the evidence to answer it conclusively. But in this case, Armstrong was confronted directly with that term by Oprah Winfrey during the interview. He didn’t deny the charge. 

Click here to see my full review of the Lance Armstrong – Oprah Winfrey interview, including video of one key exchange.

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Should We Just Stop Apologizing All The Time?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on March 27, 2012 – 6:12 am

A public figure says something insensitive.

People get angry about it. They air their discontent on Facebook and tweet their demands for an apology.

The insensitive public figure goes into high gear, drafts a statement, and apologizes for the infraction.

The public moves on, at least until the next time a public figure says something insensitive.

Is that predictable cycle – the one that begins with a high-profile infraction and ends with an apology and public punishment – too much? At least one controversial figure thinks so. Writing in The New York Times, comedian Bill Maher (whose misogynistic comments recently landed him in hot water) wrote:

“When did we get it in our heads that we have the right to never hear anything we don’t like? In the last year, we’ve been shocked and appalled by the unbelievable insensitivity of Nike shoes, the Fighting Sioux, Hank Williams Jr., Cee Lo Green, Ashton Kutcher, Tracy Morgan, Don Imus, Kirk Cameron, Gilbert Gottfried…

Let’s have an amnesty — from the left and the right — on every made-up, fake, totally insincere, playacted hurt, insult, slight and affront.

If that doesn’t work, what about this: If you see or hear something you don’t like in the media, just go on with your life. Turn the page or flip the dial.”


Maher has a point. I’ve noticed recently that some social media “disasters” have a half-life confined to a single afternoon, after which the supposedly “outraged” flock moves on with their lives, never to mention the alleged infraction again.

But Maher takes his point too far. The public was right to blast comedian Tracy Morgan for saying he would “stab” his son “to death” if he was gay. Or to criticize Gilbert Gottfried for “joking” during the horrific Japanese tsunami that killed more than 15,000 people that “I just split up with my girlfriend, but like the Japanese say, ‘They’ll be another one floating by any minute now.’” Or, yes, to knock Maher for calling Sarah Palin a “c*nt.”

Is Maher right? Do we apologize too much?

I’m glad that we live in a time when we can use the power of social media to hold people accountable for their most horrific statements, even if the public occasionally deploys those tools with too little provocation or too much frequency.

Maher continues by writing:

“If we sand down our rough edges and drain all the color, emotion and spontaneity out of our discourse, we’ll end up with political candidates who never say anything but the safest, blandest, emptiest, most unctuous focus-grouped platitudes.”


That may be overstating it a bit. Colorful characters still break through and succeed – New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former VP nominee Sarah Palin, and Vice President Joe Biden immediately come to mind. This isn’t an “either/or” debate. We can have color, personality, and spontaneity without having bigotry, anti-gay rhetoric, and jokes about thousands of dead innocents.

All of that aside, I’m not sure this debate really matters for PR professionals. It’s usually outside of our power to change societal sensitivities. Our job is to help our clients present themselves in the most positive light while helping them sidestep unnecessary controversies, all within the confines of the societal sensitivities that already exist.

That means that in most cases when my clients screw up, I’ll continue to recommend that they apologize. I know that will likely upset Bill Maher. Sorry, Bill.

What do you think? Is Maher right that we’ve become a world of over-apologizers? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

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What Whitney Houston Taught Us About Communications

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on February 11, 2012 – 10:10 pm

I had just entered my teenage years when Whitney Houston hit it big in 1985.

Most of my friends were listening to much “cooler” music at the time – Depeche Mode, The Talking Heads, Van Halen. But there was something about Whitney Houston that I found captivating, even if admitting it would have made me the laughingstock of the junior high boy’s locker room.

Watching her obit on the cable news channels tonight, I kept thinking back to her rendition of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You.” Specifically, I thought about a comment a disc jockey made on a Tucson radio station the first time I ever heard the song when he introduced it back in 1992. He noted that he couldn’t remember any other artist having the bravery to begin a pop song with 43 seconds of a cappella singing – or having the gravitas to pull it off. 

So that’s the first thing Whitney Houston taught us about communications. Just because virtually every other song of the pop era had started with music didn’t mean it had to be that way. She had the confidence to do something different – and, in the process, proved that pop radio would indeed play a song that started with moments of virtual dead air. 

I’m also struck that the most powerful moments of Houston’s video for that song featured her sitting down, singing the song directly to the camera. Ms. Houston wasn’t known as a terrific dancer, so she turned her liability into an asset by sitting and delivering a powerful vocal that reached right through the lens to the subject of her song.

That’s the second thing she taught communicators: that we don’t need to be strong in every area to become one of the greats. Great communicators know how to highlight their strengths and deemphasize their weaknesses. A public speaker with a groan-inducing sense of humor, for example, learns to bury the yuks and present a more dramatic speech. A political candidate who isn’t particularly warm turns that into an asset by labeling himself disgusted with the status quo.

Finally, the third thing she reminds communicators is that great storytelling often has a dramatic arc, typically presented in five steps: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and dénouement. “I Will Always Love You” is far from unique in having all five, but the song’s extreme reaches are atypical for pop music. The song’s crescendo, or climax, remains one of the most torch-worthy moments in pop history.

For readers who didn’t follow Ms. Houston’s music (or were raised after her peak), her 1990 number one smash, “All The Man That I Need” remains my favorite. If you haven’t heard it before, it’s worth a listen.

What are your favorite memories? Please leave your thoughts in the comment section below.

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  • About Mr. Media Training

    The Mr. Media Training Blog offers daily tips to help readers become better media spokespersons and public speakers. It also examines how well (or poorly) public figures are communicating through the media.

    Brad Phillips is the Founder and Managing Editor of the Mr. Media Training Blog. He is the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm with offices in NYC and DC.

    Brad Phillips

    Before founding Phillips Media Relations in 2004, Brad worked as a journalist with ABC's Nightline with Ted Koppel and CNN's Reliable Sources and The Capital Gang.

    Brad tweets at @MrMediaTraining.

    Christina Mozaffari is the Senior Writer for the Mr. Media Training Blog. She is the Washington, D.C. vice president for Phillips Media Relations.

    Brad Phillips

    Before joining Phillips Media Relations in 2011, Christina worked as a journalist with NBC News, where she produced stories for MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, NBC Nightly News, and The Today Show.

    Christina tweets at @PMRChristina.

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