The One Small Adjustment That Changed Everything

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on April 15, 2014 – 6:02 am

I recently media trained a well-regarded executive.

Off camera, this client was funny, warm, and engaging. But her first on-camera interview was terrible. While answering my questions, she appeared stiff and restrained, bordering on unlikeable. As I sat listening to her answers, I thought, “How in the world am I going to help her improve?”

After we stopped recording, I mentioned to her that although she had all of these wonderful traits in person, I wasn’t seeing them come across during the interview. I asked what was holding her back.

She told me that she had been told by a previous boss that she has too much personality—and, over time, she’s learned to dial back her performance in order to be taken more seriously. (In my experience, this has been a recurring theme with many more women than men.) 

Dragging

I asked her to do another interview with me—but this time, to be the person she truly is, the one that hasn’t been criticized or critiqued in the past. I wanted the unrestrained version of her, the one that goes out to dinner with her closest friends.

Guess what? Freed of her self-defeating internal monologue, she delivered a great on-camera interview in the second round. Even better, she actually enjoyed the experience after I gave her permission to be herself.

Like many of our trainees, advice she had received from someone earlier in her life—in this case, a former boss—had killed some of her spark.

If you’ve ever been given advice from a supervisor, friend, partner, media or presentation coach, or anyone else that isn’t sitting right with you, question it. Don’t dismiss it entirely; there’s always a chance they could be right. But allow for the possibility that you know something about yourself that the other person simply doesn’t know.

And remember: There’s no one model for what a spokesperson should look like, other than themselves at their best. Spokespersons can succeed as communicators whether they’re quiet and shy or personable and high energy. So to this client’s former boss, I say this: personable people can be taken seriously.

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The Worst Advice Media Trainers Offer Clients

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on June 10, 2013 – 12:04 am

A surprising number of our clients share with me a piece of advice they learned from a media trainer somewhere along the line: “Don’t answer the question the reporter asks you. Answer the question you want to answer.”

I’ve met several of my industry peers—and have read articles, blogs, and books from some of those I haven’t—and I’ve yet to encounter a professional media trainer who offers that advice to their clients. So I really don’t know where that bad advice is coming from.

What I do know is that it’s pervasive. Many clients, who work all over the country and have never met one another, have heard that bit of hackery somewhere along the line. And if they take that advice into their interviews, they’re going to create a disaster for themselves.

Not Listening

Perhaps that advice comes from an earlier era, one in which reporters were less likely to air the full raw tape of a spokesperson dodging a question. To the degree that era ever existed, it’s over. Journalists regularly (and rightfully, in my view) shame spokespersons who refuse to answer direct questions by exposing their evasions.

As an example, check out this video of British Labour Party Leader Ed Miliband, who pretends that the journalist is invisible.

Naturally, there may be times when you don’t want to answer a question. Perhaps the reporter is asking you about something off-topic instead of the thing you really want to be speaking about. Maybe a journalist wants to know an embarrassing detail you’d rather not reveal, or about a confidential detail your lawyers have banned you from elaborating upon. (Read more about “Commenting without Commenting” here.)

Even in those moments, it’s almost always better to answer the question directly—and briefly—before transitioning to something else. In some situations, you may even be able to answer the reporter’s query with incomplete sentences and responses in which you don’t cite the subject by name (“DUI” becomes “that issue”), to make your answer more difficult to quote. But answer the question.

Here’s an example:

Let’s say a reporter is asking you about a campaign staffer who was arrested for DUI. You’ve decided not to fire that employee, and you already answered questions directly about his arrest yesterday; every major newspaper, website, and news channel covered the story extensively today. You’re reluctant to continue speaking about it, as your detailed responses will only lead to additional news stories that will take you far off your campaign’s message.

Reporter: “A lot of people in the media are asking why you didn’t fire Bob Smith yesterday? You’ve been speaking about the need for personal responsibility throughout this campaign, and your refusal to fire him seems to contradict your message.”

You: “You know, I addressed that question and several others on this topic yesterday. My answers haven’t changed, and there’s nothing new to add. Many members of the press have already spent a full day covering that story in detail. Given that we only have three weeks left in this campaign, I’m going to spend today speaking about the important issues voters consistently tell us they care about most.”

That answer doesn’t share any new information. It doesn’t give reporters any juicy quotes to add to their news story. But it does address the specific question that was asked.

So ignore that pervasive but pernicious piece of advice. A direct question deserves a direct answer—even if it’s not the direct answer the reporter hopes to hear.

Learn more about the best ways to answer media questions in The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview.


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What Horror Stories Teach You About Media Interviews

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on December 19, 2012 – 6:02 am

When Harvard’s Center for Media and Public Affairs studied the average length of a sound bite in 2000, they found that the typical television quote lasted just 7.3 seconds. It’s probably even shorter today. And that’s down from 42 seconds in 1968. (PDF of study here.)

Since most of us speak an average of two or three words per second, that translates to a measly 18 words per quote.

Many spokespersons complain that they couldn’t possibly say anything of meaning in that short time period. And they’re right—it’s a major challenge. But it is possible.

I recently saw a tweet that contained the “world’s shortest horror story.” It read:

“The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door.”

Those 17 words send chills down my spine. If you’re like me, you probably created a strong mental picture of the room, how the man was sitting, and the terror he felt when he heard that unexpected knock. With just 17 words, this story elicits a strong visceral reaction.

That tweet made me think of another terrifying line, this one from the 1979 classic horror movie, “When a Stranger Calls.” You may remember the set up to that film: a babysitter is alone in a house with the young children she’s looking after. She keeps getting threatening phone calls. She calls the police, who ask her to keep the caller on the line when he phones again to allow them to trace the origin of the call. She complies. After the police trace it, they call the babysitter back and say:

“We’ve traced the call. It’s coming from inside the house.”

I saw that movie as a teenager. And whenever I’m alone in my house and hear a strange sound, I’m reminded of those 10 terrifying words.

So next time someone tells you it’s impossible to say something of meaning in just 7.3 seconds, remember the lesson from those horror stories. Sometimes, the most evocative ideas require the fewest words.

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The Ten Best Media Training Quotes Ever (Part Two)

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on September 15, 2011 – 6:36 am

Last year, I wrote an article with ten of my favorite media training quotes of all time. I expected that it would appeal to a very limited audience – but I wanted to post it anyway since I’m a word nerd who appreciates a well-delivered line. 

To my great surprise, that article has become of this blog’s most popular posts ever. So today, I’m updating the list with another ten of my favorite media training quotes of all time. Enjoy!

MESSAGE DEVELOPMENT QUOTES

  1. 1. “Everything should be as simple as possible but no simpler.” – Albert Einstein (paraphrased from   a longer quote)
  2. 2. "The best way to be boring is to leave nothing out." – Voltaire, French Enlightenment writer
  3. 3. “Brevity is the best recommendation of speech, whether in a senator or an orator.” – Marcus Tulius Cicero, Roman orator

Cicero advised speakers to be brief

MEDIA INTERVIEWING QUOTES

  1. 4. "It’s not what you say, it’s what they hear." – Red Auerbach, Legendary Boston Celtics coach
  2. 5. "No man ever listened himself out of a job." – Calvin Coolidge
  3. 6. “It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what others say in a whole book.” – Friedrich Nietzsche German philosopher

Celtics Coach and President Red Auerbach, Photo Credit: Basketballphoto.com

CRISIS COMMUNICATIONS QUOTES

  1. 7. “In time of crisis people want to know that you care, more than they care what you know” – Attributed to Will Rogers, American comedian, among others
  2. 8. “Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.” – Napoleon Bonaparte
  3. 9. “There can’t be a crisis next week. My schedule is already full.” – Henry Kissinger
  4. 10. “When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters — one represents danger, and the other represents opportunity.” – John F. Kennedy

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Related: The Ten Best Media Training Quotes Ever

Related: The Best Media Training Quotes Ever (Part Three)


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5 Types of Political Humor: The Good and Bad

Written by Brad Phillips on April 26, 2011 – 10:02 pm

I was recently quoted in The Hill newspaper regarding the role that humor plays in politics. The writer of the piece, Christian Heinze (also a terrific blogger at GOP12), asked me to comment on the advantages (and disadvantages) of humor in a political campaign.

Inspired by Christian’s question, I’m going to go into more detail on that topic today and break down five different types of humor (each with a video example). 

Candidates who have a natural humor often have an easier time relating with voters. But humor is not a prerequisite for winning (Mike Huckabee had a better sense of humor than John McCain), and humorless candidates shouldn’t try to force it. Candidates who do force it risk looking like they’re trying too hard, which usually plays badly with voters.

#1: Self-Effacing Humor

Few types of humor are as appealing as gently self-effacing humor. A little goes a long way here – no candidate should lapse into “shtick.” But self-effacing humor that acknowledges a widely-lampooned trait demonstrates a candidate’s willingness to laugh at him or herself, something the public tends to appreciate. Al Gore offered a nice demonstration of self-effacing humor in 1996, playing off his “stiff” reputation.

 

#2: Gently Ribbing Opponent

“Mean” humor doesn’t play well, but gentle jabs at one’s opponent often do. Ronald Reagan was a master of this, delivering a killer line with a mile-wide smile. In this famous clip from 1980, Mr. Reagan counters President Carter’s attack with a killer one-liner that’s still often quoted today.

 

#3: Definitional Wit

Humor is at its best when it serves a specific purpose. One such purpose is to help define yourself – or your opponents – as something specific, using humor as the delivery vehicle. In 2008, Sarah Palin got off a terrific one-liner days after her selection as John McCain’s running mate. Sure, it was lampooned, but it also helped establish the relative unknown as a tough and credible player in the election.

 

#4: Inappropriate Humor

The political hall of shame is filled with candidates who, in being “humorous,” only demonstrated their cluelessness. John McCain gleefully singing “Bomb Iran” to the tune of The Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann” is one such example. But my favorite cringe-worthy example is when Mitt Romney tried to show his cultural “hipness” with a group of African-American school students.

 

#5: Sarcasm

Sarcasm rarely plays well, as candidate Barack Obama learned in the days following his 2008 Iowa primary win. Within days of the next primary in New Hampshire in which he was heavily favored, Mr. Obama made a bitter and unpleasant crack about Hillary Clinton’s lack of popularity. Voters resented it, and rewarded Ms. Clinton with an unexpected win in New Hampshire.

 

Come on, people now, smile on your brother, everybody get together and follow my Twitter feed right now. I’m at @MrMediaTraining.

Related: Whatever. I Was Just Being Sarcastic, Okay?

Related: Can You Stop An On-Air Laughing Fit?


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Beware of False Media Training “Experts”

Written by Brad Phillips on March 17, 2011 – 2:27 am

I’m often asked which media training firms are our greatest competitors. I always give the same response – our biggest competitors are media trainers that spout awful advice.

That’s because trainers that offer clients lousy recommendations give the whole industry a bad name, and potential clients who have interacted with them in the past are skeptical of the rest of us. 

I’ve never viewed other high quality media training firms as my competitors. I’ve gotten to know (in person, by phone, or by reading their materials) many media training firms through the years, and I’d say there are about a dozen firms I regard quite highly. If I lose a proposal to one of those firms, it’s fine. They’re good practitioners, and there’s enough work to go around.

Here’s where I’m going with this: I recently saw a blog post on a PR firm’s website selling their media training “expertise.” But two of their four recommendations offered dreadful advice.

Throw Money Away

Throwing Your Money Away Is More Efficient Than Hiring A Mediocre Media Training Firm.

I won’t call out this firm by name, because my intent isn’t to publicly shame them, but rather to caution media training shoppers to make sure the firm they go with doesn’t spout this type of nonsense.

First, they suggested that you should rephrase a journalist’s question by saying, “I think what you’re really asking is…”, followed up by stating the question you want to answer.

Really?!?

The interviewee may as well say, “I think you’re obviously too dumb to know what you’re asking, so let me help you out by telling you what you should have asked.” That bridge line will immediately create a red flag for reporters, obvious as it is in its passive aggressive evasiveness.

Spokespersons should take control, yes. But attacking the reporter’s question (excluding in the most hostile interviews, when it’s occasionally appropriate) is rarely a good strategy, particularly if it’s done in such a clumsy manner.

Second, they suggested that you address a “no comment” issue by saying something like, “that’s not something we can really talk about right now because of legal concerns. I hope you understand.”

Really?!?

Any good reporter will follow that up with, “Actually, no, I don’t understand. Many other people in legal situations have something to say, so I can’t understand why you wouldn’t want to defend yourself.”

Why would you ever ask a reporter if they “understand” your refusal to speak? The journalist isn’t your therapist, and you shouldn’t ask their permission to validate your media strategy. Instead, tell the reporter why you can’t say more, that you wish you could, and that you look forward to the day when the full story can come out.

These small-seeming semantic differences may seem petty, but they’re the difference between a successful media interview and a disaster. When choosing a media training firm, do your homework. Read their marketing materials, their blog, their articles on industry websites – whatever you can get your hands on. If anything in their advice makes you nervous, run – don’t walk – to a different firm.

Related: An Unbalanced View of Media Training

Related: Yes, Our PR Firm Is Running a Sweat Shop

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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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