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Never Say Goodbye (First)

This video of former NFL linebacker Shawne Merriman deciding to up and go in the midst of an ESPN2 interview has been trending considerably online. Merriman either remembers he’s late to a colonoscopy or decides he no longer wants to discuss this topic. He’s decidedly calm and verbally courteous, but at a certain point, he simply says adieu and exits stage left. At least he remembers to take off his earpiece monitors so they don’t yank him back after a few steps.

I don’t remotely blame him for what appears to be not wanting to talk about his difficult childhood. He didn’t ask for it. He doesn’t owe anybody an explanation.

If you have off-limit topics (which most humans do), I’d suggest going into any setting where you will be asked questions of any kind armed with some answers that indicate you respect the person who’s asking, but you’d rather not discuss. You may need a few versions since it’s unlikely the person will back down quickly. Another tool, once you have already undramatically declined to give details, is silence. Warning: the few seconds it takes to get a dogged questioner off course will feel like an eternity. Alternately, a pointed joke: “Do you have access to a thesaurus? I’ve run out of synonyms for ‘private’.”

But physically walking away is a bit like hanging up a phone. Even if you act nice while doing it, it’s a dramatic gesture that serves to draw attention to the very topic you don’t want anyone to discuss. If Merriman had said something like, “It was a tough time that I prefer not to think about today” and pivoted the conversation, no one would be talking about this interview today.

So his exit was either a skillfully executed buzz-generator, or – rather unfortunately – an unwanted, accidental one.

Forget all that and just wail

In a public forum, what looks off the cuff is rarely off the cuff. Those zingers you hear people delivering on TV? They’re almost definitely planned in advance.

Acting “natural” in as charged a situation as a media interview, an in-person appearance, or a video talk is about encapsulating a certain part of who you are and making sure that’s what gets across. It takes prep. It takes knowing what you want to convey to your audience. Once you’re clear on your messaging priorities and how to get them across (both of which a good media trainer can facilitate beautifully), the rest follows.

As the legendary alto sax player Charlie Parker said, “You practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail.”

You’re always on

We’re all familiar with the basic format of a broadcast interview: The host gives a brief introduction to a guest, greets him or her, then they start talking. At the end, the host thanks the guest and it’s over. Simple, right?

Except… you’re always on. If a reporter or any potential audience member can hear you – that goes for print, broadcast, Q&A, town halls, and anything of their ilk – consider it on record.

I have seen producers broadcast tape of what a celebrity said before or after an interview on another station.  I have heard hosts mention in live interviews what guests said when they were bantering before their mics were on. Political campaigns and respectable careers have been ruined by offhand, snarky quips delivered when – literally or figuratively – the red record light seems to be off.  Astoundingly, even long-time spokespeople sometimes forget this.

In the media, it’s the opposite of Dostoyevsky’s famous line, “Much unhappiness has come into the world because of… things left unsaid.” If you don’t want it public, if you don’t want it to be the single quote that defines you or the organization you represent, leave it unsaid. Enough said.

What should I wear?

In any high-profile appearance, whether that’s on camera or in person, your goal is to come across well and get your point across. That doesn’t mean walking away at the end with a brand new tiara and a huge bouquet of roses while weeping oversized tears of joy onto a banner emblazoned with the name of your home state.

It’s no pageant. Audiences don’t want you to be magazine-cover beautiful. They don’t want you to be young. What they want is for you to engage them. Looking credible buys you credibility. Though I wish we lived in a world that only cared about content, there’s a reason Thomas Fuller’s quip, “Good clothes open all doors,” is so widely quoted.

You can look as eccentric as all get out, provided that look helps support your content. Take this guy. Very quirky dude talking about a very quirky book = very quirky look. If you represent a corporation, you will want to blend in more so as not to distract from the company’s message.  Generally speaking,  your appearance should make a good impression, then get out of the way of what you’re saying. This is true whether your talk is being broadcast to millions or you are sitting down in front of one reporter for a print interview.

Some tricks of the trade: solid, jewel tones are good, except for diamond; transparent is only OK if you’re Lady Gaga.  Drab (sorry, neutral) colors work if you’re in a suit. It’s almost like dressing for a wedding. And make for darn sure your clothes won’t buckle under a clip-on mic or make noise rustling. This means, unlike at weddings, silk isn’t the beat choice  and taffeta is problematic.

A skillful media trainer will help you style yourself in a way that makes you feel more comfortable in your own skin while looking beyond believable.

Duking it out with a broadcast reporter

We see here in this MSNBC interview between host Thomas Roberts and his guest, Representative Marsha Blackburn (R, Tennessee):

-The host mic is hotter (louder) than the guest’s, so when they speak over one another it’s the host’s message we absorb. That’s almost always the case. A guest has to up his/her speaking volume considerably – without yelling – to trump a host on a tear.

-The guest wastes valuable seconds using filler to get her bearings. By the time she starts offering a rebuttal, the host has jumped back in.

-Some host questions are framed as actual questions, others as statements. It doesn’t matter; they all function as commentary. A guest who disagrees with the host of a show in this format, such as The O’Reilly Factor or Hardball with Chris Matthews, better be prepared with about ten one-sentence, highly memorable counterarguments. This type of interview isn’t structured as a conversation. It’s a verbal arm wrestling match.

Do I need to dumb it down?

If I started talking about potting down the mic, then throwing to Sat 1 (live radio talk), it would probably sound like gobbledygook. I might come across as snooty or out of touch. Plus, what’s the point of saying anything at all if it doesn’t convey an idea?

Similarly, in an interview, you don’t want to alienate people by using incomprehensible lingo. Being able to translate something specialized into conversational language requires real brains and a deep understanding of your subject. The truth: it is easier to rely on jargon.

Don’t. Respect your audience. Read More

What staying on message really means.

It’s easy to be cynical about the interview technique known as “bridging” or “the pivot.” To put it bluntly, that’s where you give a semi-answer to a question, then start talking about something that matters more to you or your organization. It’s widely taught, and often executed ham-handedly.

When I am the one doing the interview, I find it maddening. I’m trying to engage a guest, get into a substantive, hopefully fascinating talk, and they go off on scripted talking points. What kind of conversation is that?

According to Todd Rogers at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, audiences don’t form a long-term, negative impression of interviewees who redirect noticeably, but in my experience it’s still a missed opportunity for the guest. Here’s why:

Read More

I don’t like the sound of my voice.

Unless a quirky voice is part of your shtick (think Sarah Silverman or, back in the day, Bobcat Goldthwaite), the richer and stronger you sound, the more believable and memorable you are to an audience.

According to a study by Quantified Impressions, your voice is twice as important as the words you choose. It may not be fair, but if you sound wispy, raspy, child-like, shrill, or nasal, your likeability diminishes and your message is much more likely to be dismissed.

Let’s make sure your voice is an asset, not a liability or distraction. Read More