Don’t Set Up A Buffet Line For Reporters | Media Training

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on April 13, 2015 – 5:02 am

One of the most common concerns I hear from potential clients is that the person they want media trained says too much when speaking to reporters.

That’s true of many executives, who like to hold court, and many subject matter experts, who are loathe to leave out any detail.

The spokesperson who says too much gives reporters a greater number of options for potential quotes. I like to think of it this way: A verbose spokesperson is essentially working at a buffet line, serving reporters a little bit of many different dishes. The loquacious spokesperson gives reporters a touch of the pasta, a spot of lamb, a slice of beef tenderloin, a chicken leg, a dollop of potatoes, a few yams, a mound of salad, a spoonful of green beans almondine, a wedge of spinach pie, and a scoop of carrots.

As a result, the reporter may decide to quote something about the green beans even though the beef tenderloin was the spokesperson’s main dish. And whose fault is that?

waiter serving chinese chow mein

 The more you say, the more you stray

The more a spokesperson says, the more likely it is that they’re straying from their top two or three messages into less pertinent secondary or tertiary messages—if, that is, they’re anywhere near their messages at all.

Some people say too much in an effort to boost their credibility—but they fail to realize that saying too much doesn’t prove how knowledgeable they are; it demonstrates that they’re a bit gluttonous.

Saying too much doesn’t make the reporter’s job any easier, either. Instead of walking away from the interview clear on the spokesperson’s most important points, the reporter is left trying to decipher the mountain of information the spokesperson laid at his or her feet. 

A disciplined spokesperson sticks close to their two or three messages and supports them through a combination of stories, anecdotes, case studies, examples, and statistics. They dispense with the buffet line and serve a neatly plated meal—a piece of meat, a nice starch, and a fresh vegetable.

The next time you see one of your spokespersons saying too much, remind them that their buffet line has 12 trays of food available—and that you’re going to insist they remove nine of them from the line.

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This May Make You Paranoid. Read It Anyway.

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on March 30, 2015 – 5:02 am

When I’m in the shower
I’m afraid to wash my hair
‘Cause I might open my eyes
And find someone standing there
People say I’m crazy
Just a little touched
But maybe showers remind me of
“Psycho” too much
That’s why
I always feel like somebody’s watching me

- “Somebody’s Watching Me” by Rockwell (1984)

conspiracy Freak with aluminum foil head

Sometimes, it’s difficult to tell the difference between paranoia and appropriate caution. I’ve written about the risks of speaking too loudly in public spaces before, and each time I do, I can’t help wondering whether readers will think I’m engaging in unrealistic fear mongering. 

So when our firm’s vice president forwarded me a link to a story I missed a while back, I felt a combination of horror and vindication. It seems my paranoia, if anything, has been understated.

Amy Webb, a reporter for Slate, calls herself “The Acela Spy.” Not only does Ms. Webb pay attention to the conversations around her—but she actively looks at the names on passenger tickets and chooses her seat accordingly.

“It’s astonishingly easy to become an Acela spy—even if you don’t really want to be a part of other riders’ business—as I have learned from years of experience. Until very recently, all Amtrak tickets were paper-based, and the tickets looked a lot like airline boarding passes. In addition to the train and destination information, they included the passenger’s full name in the upper left-hand corner. Also until recently, those tickets were wedged between the top of the cushion and the hard back of each seat, with the name showing for anyone who desired to look. (E-tickets on mobile phones are starting to replace paper tickets for some riders.)

It has been my practice to board the train, and then walk up and down the aisle to glance at the names on those tickets…Shortly after we leave the station and I’ve done my rounds, the mobile phones invariably come out. When they do, I take note of who’s talking, what’s being said, and the name I saw on the ticket.”

Are You Spying On Me PPT iStockPhoto

Those conversations are often rather damning. In one case, had she chosen to, Webb could have publicly identified two male bankers whose conversation would, at the very least, have made their next day at the office awkward.

“Soon, their conversation turned to a female co-worker who’d returned from maternity leave. Sales guy complained aggressively that while she’d been out of the office for so long, the software they used had upgraded. There was no way she’d ever get caught up, he argued. She had the audacity to put in for a promotion, after being gone for three months!

HR guy concurred. Women were a major distraction, holding back productivity and advancement at their bank. It was a shame they couldn’t legally fire a woman for getting—or even wanting to get—pregnant.”

Webb’s conclusion is very similar to the one I’ve offered several times, both on this blog and in The Media Training Bible:

“The problem is that trains—even in first class, where I’ve observed the worst offenders—aren’t private. They’re very public venues, just like Twitter. And just like on Twitter, sometimes we forget that we’re actually on stage as we reveal our own worst private selves to the outside world.”

I agree with Webb’s conclusions that conversations, in public and at normal volume, are ethically reportable. But the ethics of eavesdropping on unwilling participants—someone making an obvious effort to shield their work or whisper, for example—are less clear.

Either way, Webb has helped justify my paranoia. You will probably be well served if you imagine that she’s always seated next to you—at every restaurant, at every party, and on every airplane. 

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How To Answer Questions That Call for Speculation

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on March 13, 2015 – 5:43 am

This is an excerpt from The Media Training Bible, available in soft cover, for Kindle, and iPad.  

Reporters frequently ask media spokespersons to gaze into their crystal balls and tell them what the future looks like.

Some of those “speculation” questions are innocuous: if you’re a software designer and you’re asked what changes you think will emerge in the industry over the next five years, it’s okay to provide your analysis of where you think things are headed.

But many speculation questions are dangerous. Your answers can make a situation appear worse than it really is—and if you guess badly, your wrong answers can damage your credibility.

For example, imagine that the director of a nonprofit group lobbying for better safety regulations of toxic household cleansers is asked whether the state legislature is going to pass the bill she supports this year. If she answers “yes,” she’d better be right. That’s because the media will inevitably ask her about her incorrect prediction if the bill doesn’t pass, and her wrong answer might diminish her credibility with the public and the press for future stories.

Instead, she can use a variation of the ATMs to answer this question:

(A) I’m reluctant to speculate, (T) but I can tell you that (M) the majority of lawmakers I’ve spoken to have told me that they recognize how important this bill is to protect children from dangerous household cleansers and that they plan to vote for it. (s) We still need as much support as possible, though, so I’d ask everybody watching this to call their representative and tell them to vote ‘yes.’”

As illustrated by the example above, it’s usually best to deflect questions that call for speculation by saying something along the lines of, “I can’t speculate, but here’s what I can tell you…”

Apply the same technique for hypothetical questions. Your job is to share what you know, not to answer “what if” questions. It might be appropriate to answer a hypothetical question about a specific situation with a general answer about how you would approach your decision making in that case. But that approach often leads to even more questions intended to get you to be more specific (plus, your general answers might be applied to the specific situation), so be cautious and practice in advance.

Case Study: Treasury Secretary Speculates Incorrectly

In an April 2011 interview, U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner appeared on the Fox Business Network to discuss the possibility of the U.S. credit rating being downgraded:

Peter Barnes (Host): “Is there a risk that the United States could lose its triple-A credit rating, yes or no?”

Geithner: “No risk of that. No risk.”

Barnes: “So Standard and Poor’s is wrong, the United States will keep its triple-A credit rating?”

Geithner: “Absolutely.”

Four months later, rating agency Standard and Poor’s downgraded the U.S. credit rating for the first time in the nation’s history. Cable news channels played the video clip of Mr. Geithner’s overly confident (and incorrect) answer for days, and political opponents pointed to that moment as evidence that he should resign his post.

Mr. Geithner could have answered the question by saying something like this:

“Let me tell you what we’re doing to make sure we retain our triple-A rating…”

This is an excerpt from The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview, available in paperback, for Kindle, and iPad.

 

 


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How To Repeat Yourself (Without Ever Sounding Repetitive)

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on March 11, 2015 – 5:22 am

This is an excerpt from The Media Training Bible, available in soft cover, for Kindle, and iPad.  

We’ve all seen those politicians on television who keep reciting the same message points over and over again.

Such overt repetition tends to infuriate the audience. It’s easy to picture viewers rolling their eyes in disgust and shouting, “Answer the question!” at their television sets—if they didn’t already flip to a different channel.

As a result, the politicians not only fail to persuade the audience but also diminish their reputations in the process.

So it may surprise you that my advice is to articulate a message or message support in almost every answer you ever give.

I don’t mean that you should repeat the same words in every answer, but rather that all of your answers should convey the theme of at least one of your main messages.

If you filled in the message worksheets in lesson 93, you now have 21 different answers: three in the form of messages, six as stories, six as statistics, and six as sound bites. Those 21 answers allow you to answer 21 different questions in 21 different ways, all of which are “on message” but none of which are repetitive.

You may occasionally wonder whether it’s okay to abandon your message for an answer or two along the way. I’d encourage you not to. Here’s why: Let’s say a newspaper reporter asks you 10 questions during an interview. You articulate a message or message support in 7 of your 10 answers. Pretty good, right?

But what happens if the reporter chooses to quote one of your other three answers? It means your one quote in the story—that one critical opportunity to influence or educate your audience— will not contain one of your most important points.

I know that may sound obvious, but I can count dozens of exasperated clients who have asked me at some point, “Why did the reporter include that quote? It wasn’t even that important!” I always respond the same way: “If you don’t want it quoted, don’t say it at all.”

I often joke with my clients that you should even transition to a message when a reporter asks, “How are you?” I’m kidding, but barely. Most questions are opportunities to communicate a message or message support, so don’t waste any answers. Today’s wasted answer may become tomorrow’s quote.

Unless the interview is live, reporters will usually offer you a final opportunity to get your messages out. Journalists typically end their interviews by asking if they missed anything or whether there’s anything you’d like to add. Seize that opportunity. If you said everything you needed to say during the interview, restate a key point. If you forgot to state one of your messages, that’s the perfect time to do it.

Finally, remember to treat your communications with reporters before and after the interview as if they’re part of the “official” interview. Your interactions with reporters prior to an interview may help inform the questions they ask, and your follow-up emails may help the reporter remember to include a key point in the final story.

This is an excerpt from The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview, available in paperback, for Kindle, and iPad.

 

 


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How To Gesture During Media Interviews

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on March 10, 2015 – 5:02 am

This is an excerpt from The Media Training Bible, available in soft cover, for Kindle, and iPad

Many people tell me they were instructed by a previous media trainer never to gesture when they speak. A few were even taught—often by grade school teachers—that gesturing is rude.

That’s terrible guidance. Your goal during a media interview is to appear as natural on camera as you are in person, and almost everyone gestures naturally when they speak. Sure, a small percentage of people gesture too much, but that’s a rare problem.

According to body language experts Allan and Barbara Pease, “Using hand gestures grabs attention, increases the impact of communication, and helps individuals retain more of the information they are hearing.”

In other words, gesturing not only helps you look more natural but also enhances the impact of your words.

We see that regularly in our media training sessions. When we encourage trainees to incorporate gestures into their delivery, something amazing happens: their words get better. The physical act of gesturing helps them form clearer thoughts and speak in tighter sentences.

To gesture effectively, keep your hands “unlocked” at all times—no clasped hands, hands behind your back, hands in pockets, or arms crossed in front of you. Those “closed” positions can communicate arrogance or defensiveness, and they lower the audience’s ability to absorb and retain your information.

For seated interviews, keep your hands and arms unlocked and ready to gesture at any moment. When not gesturing, you can:

  • Keep your hands on your lap near your knees.
  • Nest your hands loosely within one another atop your lap.

Avoid clasping your hands or gripping your thighs, which can make you appear nervous (men should also be careful to steer clear of the defensive “hand covering groin” position).

 

Avoid closed body language, such as crossed arms.

 

For standing interviews, you have two good options:

  • Loosely nest your hands, one within the other, keeping them at navel level when not gesturing.
  • Rest your hands at your side, bringing them up to gesture (it feels strange, but looks fine to the audience).

If you’re having a tough time gesturing naturally, speak about 10—15 percent louder than usual. As parents know all too well, it’s impossible to yell at your kids while your hands and arms are frozen—an increase in volume helps to reanimate motionless hands.

Finally, some people wonder if they should still gesture if the television program on which they’re appearing will only use a tight shot of their face, neck, and shoulders. Absolutely. Viewers can always tell if a spokesperson is gesturing—even if they can’t see the movements—because the spokesperson’s face is more expressive as a result.

This is an excerpt from The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview, available in paperback, for Kindle, and iPad.

 

 


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The Proper Elevator Speech Formula: Why + What

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on March 9, 2015 – 4:02 am

This is an excerpt from The Media Training Bible, available in soft cover, for Kindle, and iPad.  

In the last lesson, you learned to begin most of your answers with the lead. But there’s one time you should use a slightly less direct lead: when you’re asked a broad question about your work, such as, “Can you tell me about your company?”

Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, spokespersons answer that type of open-ended question with a direct lead by saying something like:

“Well, the Association for the Advancement of Arkansas Education is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization with 25 employees working in four statewide offices to improve elementary and secondary education in Arkansas.”

OR

“Smith Toys is one of the leading companies in the United States making high-quality children’s toys in an affordable and sustainable manner.”

I’m guessing neither of those statements grabbed you. They’re not bad, since both conveyed real information, but they’re rather bland and uninspiring.

Worse, neither statement is particularly original. It’s easy to imagine that dozens of American companies manufacturing environmentally friendly toys could have answered the question in exactly the same way.

Those responses failed to get your attention because they answered a “what” question with a “what” answer.

Imagine if the spokespersons had answered the questions just a little differently, beginning with some context that explained why their work mattered. Their answers might have sounded more like these:

“Here in Arkansas, we rank 50th in the United States in high school graduation rates. That means our students are among the least prepared in the nation when entering the workforce and the most likely to live in poverty for the rest of their lives. The Association for the Advancement of Arkansas Education is dedicated to changing that and to making sure our students get the high-quality education they need to successfully compete in the global marketplace.”

OR

“You know how children’s toys always seem to cost too much and break within weeks of opening the box? Well, Smith Toys makes toys that are going to work for years after you open the package—we guarantee it—and we’ve even figured out a way to make high-quality toys that are both affordable and environmentally friendly.”

I’m guessing those versions grabbed your attention more than the first ones. That’s because both spokespersons formatted their responses as a “why + what” instead of just a “what.”

You can use the “why + what” format every time you’re asked an open-ended question such as:

  • What does your company do?
  • What is your organization’s focus?
  • Can you tell me about your product?

By themselves, “whats” just don’t work very well. Most people don’t care if you’re a 501(c)3 charity, how many offices you have in the state, or whether you’re a “leading” toy company. Those “whats” aren’t going to initiate a rush of support to your brand.

So when you’re asked an open-ended question, don’t just tell them what your company does. Tell them why it matters.

This is an excerpt from The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview, available in paperback, for Kindle, and iPad.

 

 


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Sorry, But You’re Not “Better When You Wing It”

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on February 23, 2015 – 2:23 am

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.

 

Men's and Women's Olympic Swimming.  National Aquatics Center

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.”

 

 

 

Yo-Yo_Ma by Sam FelderCELLIST YO-YO MA

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.”

 

Roy Halladay by Keith AllisonBASEBALL ALL-STAR ROY HALLADAY

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.

 

TigerWoods_thumb.jpgGOLFER TIGER WOODS

“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.

Like the blog? Read the book! The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview is available in paperback, for Kindle, and iPad.

 


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PR Fail: Look Behind You!

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 27, 2015 – 9:45 am

Late last week, New England Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick and Quarterback Tom Brady (below) tried to take the air out of accusations that they had intentionally deflated game balls during their AFC Championship Game win.

Unfortunately, it looked as if the Patriots’ PR staff didn’t consider the background those two spokespersons would be standing in front of while denying the charge. As both men spoke, an advertisement for Gillette’s “Flexball” razor served as their backdrop, an unfortunate coincidence noted by thousands of people on social media.

(There are two other possible explanations—one, the Patriots were under a legal obligation to use that background, and two, Gillette willingly took the risk to be associated with this controversy in return for the additional exposure.)

Tom Brady Gillette

 

The Patriots are far from alone in using an ill-considered background. In 2010, for example, MSNBC President Phil Griffin announced his network’s new branding strategy in a self-produced video—while CNN played in the background.

Phil Griffin

 

Last year, the former U.S. ambassador to Poland, Lee Feinstein, gave an interview to the BBC with what looked to be a sloppy dorm room behind him. I dubbed this “the worst webcam background I’ve ever seen.” 

Lee Feinstein Background

 

And in one of my all-time favorite clips that readers of this blog have seen before, then-Alaska Governor Sarah Palin pardoned a Thanksgiving turkey—while turkeys were being slaughtered behind her.

 

I gave some advice about choosing the right background in my book, The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need To Know Before Your Next Interview:

“Company representatives might stand on a bustling factory floor to show their business’s vitality. Marine biologists might remove their shoes and deliver an interview from the water’s edge. A health expert discussing the seriousness of diabetes might choose to do an interview from a local hospital’s emergency room.

Your background is even more important during a crisis. As a general rule of thumb, don’t display your logo during a crisis. Why help the audience remember that your brand is associated with bad news? That means you shouldn’t stand in front of any signs, buildings, or awnings that feature your company’s symbol. Also avoid wearing any clothing, caps, or pins that bear your company’s name.”

It’s easy to understand how these things happen: We become so fixated on the messages we want to deliver that we too often forget about the optics. So before your next interview, take a quick glance around you to make sure nothing in the background could conflict with your message.

Like the blog? Read the book! The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview is available in paperback, for Kindle, and iPad.

 

 

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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.

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    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.

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