Is This Man’s Tie An Unnecessary Distraction?

Written by Christina Mozaffari (@PMRChristina) on March 14, 2014 – 11:40 pm

Editor’s Note: This post, related to the missing Malaysia Airlines flight, is meant only to address what we can learn from one of the commentators involved in the coverage. For more about the crisis management aspect of this story, this article and this article are good places to start.

I’m hardly a fashionista. In fact, with a 16-month-old daughter and a second child on the way, I consider a non-work day in which I manage to wear clean jeans a victory.

That said, I am a media trainer, and part of teaching people about presenting themselves in interviews, panel discussions, and speeches is how to, well, present themselves.

In general, when trainees ask me what they should wear to an interview, I tell them they should always look clean-cut, of course, but to also think about the person they’re trying to reach and the situation. For example, it can be off-putting and out-of-touch to see an emergency official at a disaster scene in a suit and tie. Conversely, it would be strange to see a Wall Street executive appear on TV in a wrinkled t-shirt.

Take Greg Feith, for example, the former NTSB investigator who has been the go-to guest for NBC and MSNBC’s coverage of the missing Malaysia Airlines plane.

Greg Feith Tie

His insight into this tragic and disturbing story is incredibly valuable. His experience is relevant, and I’ve found what he’s been saying to be well thought-out and responsible given the all the unanswered questions in this story.

The problem is, I have to close my eyes when he speaks to hear a word he’s saying.

He wears a suit on-air, but his loud, outdated, and busily-patterned ties are a huge distraction from the important information he’s trying to communicate.

Greg Feith Tie 2

This isn’t to say you have to wear brand-new, high-fashion clothes for your television interviews. In fact, for some, a funky tie or a signature piece of jewelry is part of their charm. I once interviewed a gentleman who ran the school bus service in a California town. His tie had – you guessed it – a school bus print on it. That tie reflected his character and was appropriate for the story.

However, in this situation, with 239 passengers and crew members likely dead, muted garb is the rule. His bright tie doesn’t reflect the gravity of this story and introduces an unnecessary distraction to his otherwise solid appearances.

What do you think? Do Mr. Feith’s colorful ties distract from his content? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

Christina Mozaffari tweets at @PMRChristina.


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How Long Should Your Media Answers Be?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on February 25, 2014 – 6:02 am

This is an excerpt from my book, The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview. 

If you’ve ever been deposed in a legal case, your attorney probably instructed you to answer questions using the fewest number of words possible. In a legal setting, saying too much can come back to haunt you. So when you’re asked if you know what time it is during a deposition, the correct answer isn’t “half past one,” but “yes.”

No wonder attorneys often make the worst media guests. They end their answers abruptly, leaving the audience to wonder why their answers sound so artificially clipped and carefully parsed.

The attorneys who bring their best legal advice to media interviews—“Say only what you have to say, then stop”—are missing one critical ingredient. Unlike legal depositions, media interviews represent an opportunity to advocate more fully for your product or idea.

The proper advice is this: “Say what you have to say, briefly advocate for your product or idea, and then stop.” You can advocate using a combination of your messages, message supports, and/or a call to action.

As you read earlier, the average quote from media spokespersons on evening newscasts is just 7.3 seconds, an average of 18 words. But that doesn’t mean you need to answer every question in 7.3 seconds. Sure, it’s helpful if your answers are short and tight. But it’s even more important to ensure that each of your sentences expresses a complete thought and can stand on its own. That way, it doesn’t matter which sentence a reporter chooses—if everything you say reflects one of your main messages, a message support, or a call to action, then anything the reporter prints will be “on message.”

For example, you may remember this answer from a few lessons ago:

I would remind people that more than 18,000 women of childbearing age in Pennsylvania live at least 100 miles from the closest obstetrician, which places them at great risk. Having your doctor an hour away is like keeping your Band- Aids at a friend’s house—they’re useless when you need them most. It’s a life-threatening situation, and something has to change.”

That answer contains three sentences, but it doesn’t matter which of them the reporter chooses to quote. Any of the three would serve as an on-message response.

That doesn’t mean you have license to drone on. Aim to keep your answers to no more than about 30 seconds in length. But you’re allowed to give a more complete answer than you would be advised to deliver at trial.

Case Study: Bill Clinton Goes on Johnny Carson

Before he ran for president in 1992, Bill Clinton was best known for his 1988 nominating speech at the Democratic National Convention, which droned on for an hour.

Viewers who saw the speech all those years ago probably don’t remember a word he said, but they likely remember the television cutaways showing delegates of his own party nodding off. And they probably remember the restless crowd cheering when he finally uttered the words, “And in conclusion.”

A few nights later, Mr. Clinton appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Carson’s first question? “So, Governor, how are you?” Without pausing, Carson reached under his desk, pulled out an hourglass, and turned it upside down.

The audience roared.

If you enjoyed this excerpt, please check out my book, The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview.


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Why You Need A Media Message (Video)

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on February 11, 2014 – 6:02 am

Jibberwocky. Molaquin. Pretirific.

Those are made-up words. And believe it or not, nonsense words have something to do with the need to create media messages. I’ll explain how in the video below.

In this video media training tip, you’ll not only learn why you should have a message—but how to deliver an entire “on message” interview without ever repeating the same sentence twice.

Come join us for one of fun, fast-moving, and content-rich media and presentation training workshops! Click here to see our upcoming sessions.

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Interviews Aren’t A Dance: Don’t Let The Reporter Lead

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on February 9, 2014 – 6:02 am

Wikipedia tells us that “in partner dancing, the two dancers are sometimes not equal. One takes the Lead and the other is the Follow.” As you might have expected, gender often plays a role:

“The Lead (conventionally the male in a mixed-sex couple) is responsible for choosing appropriate steps to suit the music (if it is an improvised dance), and leading the Follow by using subtle signals to complete the chosen steps smoothly and safely.”

The majority of interview subjects approach media interviews as a dance. In their view—conscious or not—the reporter leads the dance through his or her questioning while the interviewee gamely goes in whichever conversational direction the journalist decides.

But good media interviews are not a dance. You are equal to reporters—not a companion who follows their lead.


We see this dynamic in our training sessions often. We might begin with a short lecture about the importance of remaining on message—and for the first few practice interview questions we ask the trainees, they remember to transition back to their main points.

But within a few questions, they forget about their messages entirely and just start answering our questions. We, the reporters, are leading the dance again, and the trainee has abandoned their interview strategy entirely.

It’s easy to understand why that happens. In everyday conversation, we have a more natural give and take, with each party switching turns taking the lead and follow roles. If someone asks us a question, we answer the question.

But media interviews aren’t conversations. They are strategic forms of communication intended to reach and appeal to a specific target audience. Spokespersons who forget that—and who lapse back into conversation mode—are turning the lead role back over to the reporter, voluntarily surrendering their right to be an equal.

Come join us for one of our fast-moving and content-rich media and presentation training workshops! Click here to see our upcoming sessions.

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Posted in Media Training Tips | 4 Comments »

How To Avoid Being Misquoted By The Media

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on February 5, 2014 – 12:07 am

In this video media training tip, I’ll offer a very simple technique to help you avoid being the victim of a media misquote.

Remember these three words: Click, clack, repeat.

You can see some of our other video media training tips here.


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Do A Few “Ummms” Actually Make You More Memorable?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 29, 2014 – 5:27 am

The conventional wisdom among media and presentation trainers is that saying “uh” or “um” during an interview or speech can prevent an audience from hearing your point.

In a recent post, I challenged that notion. I argued that verbal filler is a natural part of ordinary spoken communication. Michael Erard, the author of Um…:Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean, estimates that about 5 to 8 percent of the words that normal speakers say every day involve an “uh,” “um,” or some other speech imperfection.

In excess, those verbal imperfections can interfere with effective communication. But an occasional “uh” or “um” is unlikely to distract an audience.  

In fact, some fascinating research suggests that audiences actually remember more from speakers who do utter an occasional “uh” or “um.”


uh oh sign

Here’s a summary of the study from The Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois:

Could generations of speech coaches been wrong all these years? New research is showing that speakers shouldn’t discard those “ums” and “ahs” and other speech fillers if they want to be understood by listeners.

Duane Watson of the Cognitive Science group and Scott Fraundorf from his laboratory used a story recall task as part of an experiment that tested the mechanisms by which speech fillers affected memory for discourse. They used natural speech instead of “laboratory speech” and controlled for the extra processing time that fillers provide listeners. They discovered that the fillers actually facilitated recall for listeners.

“One finding that we had is that if you’re listening to a story or a speech, people remember the content better if the person says ‘uh’ and ‘um’ in it than if the story is completely fluent,” Watson said. “This is counter-intuitive, because if you go to a speech coach, they say don’t say uh and um.”

Woman gesturing with her hand while a business team is watching her

Why Does “Uh” and “Um” Improve Listener Recall?

“The task was for them to listen to it and then tell the story back,” Watson said. “We found that they’re better at it if uh and um is actually there. So we think that maybe those disfluencies are increasing the person’s attention.

“This is speculation, but if the speaker doesn’t know what they’re saying very well, you pay attention more because you think you need to work harder to get it.”

My Advice

Watson’s last line, about the speaker not knowing what they’re saying very well, concerns me. No speaker should ever be in that position. But as he says, that’s speculation, and we can still take a larger point away from his study without getting distracted by his final point.  

Here’s my advice: Don’t over-focus on a few uhs and ums along the way. If you do, you’ll probably under-focus on the flaws in your delivery that have an even greater impact on how the audience perceives you. 

Of course, there are times that speakers use too many verbal fillers and distract their audiences from hearing their most important messages. If you think that might be happening to you, here’s an exercise that will help.

Thank you to reader Art Aiello, who pointed this story out to me.

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I Want My Money! An Important Lesson From A Great Ad

Written by Christina Mozaffari (@PMRChristina) on January 26, 2014 – 9:42 pm

I am not a numbers person. But a well-told statistic tends to stick with me.

In our media training sessions, Brad and I emphasize the importance of using both stories and statistics to support your organization’s message. They’re a critical part of communications. But statistics are particularly important for data-driven audiences.

Still, it’s not enough to give even a data-friendly audience raw numbers. So what makes a well-told statistic? Context. A statistic expressed in a relatable manner will be memorable for your audience. They may not remember the number itself, but they’ll remember your central point. And in most cases, that will serve your purpose beautifully.

Recently, H&R Block launched a campaign with the best example of statistics in context that I’ve seen in a long time.


The reason this commercial works so well is that it places one billion dollars into a relatable context. One billion dollars is too much money for the average person to grasp — and if we divided that $1 billion by the number of taxpaying Americans, the number would be too small to make us care.

However, $500 on every stadium seat in America is something startling and memorable. We can imagine that amount of money and think, “Why am I not getting my share of that?” Mission accomplished.

In The Media Training Bible, Brad shares four additional ways to cite statistics:

1. Make numbers personal

Numbers are often best when reduced to a personal level. Instead of saying a tax cut would save Americans $100 billion this year, say the average family of four would receive $1,250 in tax relief.

2. Don’t rely on percentages

Instead of proclaiming that your company’s new energy-efficient manufacturing equipment will cut your plant’s carbon footprint by 35 percent, be more specific. Will that new efficiency save 20,000 gallons of oil this year, enough to fuel 36 company trucks for an entire year? Say so!

Book Cover Stacked

3. Use ratios

An estimated 170,000 people in Washington, DC, are functionally illiterate. But that number doesn’t tell you much, especially if you have no sense of the overall population. Instead, you might say:

“One in three adults living in Washington, DC, is functionally illiterate. Next time you’re on the Metro, look around you. Odds are that the person to your left or right can’t read a newspaper.”

4. Provide relative distance

If your car company is introducing an updated model, you’d be proud to announce that the improved version gets four miles more per gallon. But you’d get even more traction if you said, “That’s enough to get from Maine to Miami once per year—without spending an extra penny on gas.”

Christina Mozaffari tweets at @PMRChristina.


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The Nuns Were Wrong About Your Hands. Here’s Why.

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 19, 2014 – 6:02 am

I occasionally ask audiences whether anyone went to Catholic school. I follow up by asking those who did whether they were ever instructed that it was rude to gesture using their hands. Many of them nod their heads, chuckling at the memory from long ago.

It’s not just nuns (and certainly not all of them) who perpetuated the belief that gesturing with one’s hands is considered undisciplined, undignified, and unrefined. Many of our presentation training clients have been taught the same thing by other presentation trainers (although I know many great trainers who never teach that erroneous advice).

In this post, I’ll strip away the myths about gesture—and share with you what the experts tell us.

Angry Nun with Ruler

Researcher Susan Goldin-Meadow, author of Hearing Gesture: How Our Hands Help Us Think, tells us that “we have not yet discovered a culture in which speakers do not move their hands as they talk.”

It turns out that gesture is innate. “Even individuals who are blind from birth and have never seen others gesture purposefully move their hands as they talk,” Goldin-Meadow reports. In one study, “the blind group gestured at the same rate as the sighted group.”

Whereas many people once believed that speech and gesture were two different things that could be teased apart, the research suggests otherwise. Goldin-Meadow writes:

“Gesture not only conveys meaning but does so in a manner that is integrated with speech. Several types of evidence lend support to the view that gesture and speech form a single, unified system.”

look at that!

Not convinced yet? In their book Nonverbal Communication In Human Interaction, authors Mark Knapp, Judith Hall, and Terrence G. Horgan report similar findings:

“Gestures help speakers retrieve certain words or describe objects that move as part of their function, and thus serve a greater interpersonal function. Listeners may benefit more from a speaker’s gestures when these gestures add emphasis or clarity to speech, help characterize and make memorable the content of speech, and act as forecasters of forthcoming speech.”

The evidence is clear. Humans speak using their hands. Effective communication depends on it. If any trainers tell you otherwise, throw them out of your office.

There are, of course, some guidelines for the best way to gesture. You can see some of those here.

Come join us for one of our fast-moving and content-rich media and presentation training workshops! Click here to see our upcoming sessions.

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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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