Meet the Press: A Lesson in Public Speaking

Posted by Ellen Harris on June 16, 2011
Meet the Press: A Lesson in Public Speaking

You're riding the inside lane of your career track. You've made a splash with the boss at a major consulting firm, you just received a fat year-end bonus to prove it, and now have your sights set-with your boss's tacit approval-on the next rung of the org chart. What, if anything, could speed you along even quicker? Becoming an expert in press relations-being, what the media calls, a great quote-can shoot you across the finish line with flags a-waving.

Take Debra Benton, founder of Benton Management Resources, an executive consultant in Fort Collins, Colorado. She became the media "it" girl after she had cold-called a columnist back in 2001. "I have research into executive charisma that might interest your readers," she told him. Indeed. When his column on her study ran, Time magazine called her for an interview. When that story appeared, The New York Times called. That piece filled half of the Times's Business section and prompted Diane Sawyer to interview Benton on the CBS Morning News. Then Warner Books contacted Benton and gave her a big, fat advance for what turned out to be Lions Don't Need to Roar. Some domino effect, huh?

How do you become a talking head? We went to reporters and marketing gurus for their best advice on Punditry 101. Cut and paste the following tips in your BlackBerry, so when reporters come calling, you can make them dance to your tune.

Speak English. "Don't go technical, and if you have to do it, explain it," advises Mike Hughlett, a business reporter for the Chicago Tribune. "Reporters often do stories in subject areas they don't know well. Remember that you're not just talking to a reporter, you're talking to his customer-the newspaper reader or TV viewer." Couching your comments in jargon will cause your quote to wind up on cutting-room floor.

Don't talk down. A writer asked a B-school professor to define a word he used. "I don't have time to explain it to you," the prof snapped. "You wouldn't get it anyway." The writer cut him from the story, told other reporters what an ass he was, and the jerk was blacklisted from future stories.

Drive your own agenda. Make sure you have three points you want to make, whether it's for a newspaper or a telecast. "Don't count on the reporter to do your job for you," says Joyce Newman of New York-based The Newman Group, which provides executive media training.

Make it snappy. "You need to come out of the gate with a grabber," adds Newman. "And close with a kicker." Pretend your words will appear on a bumper sticker or you're writing political slogans to get your message across.

Shorten the soundbites. The average length of a TV news soundbit is six seconds, points out Don Marsh, an Emmy Award-winning former TV anchor and National Public Radio host. If you talk in 20-word sentences, your voice will never make the airwaves.

Repeat yourself. "The more you say it, the more likely it will make the air as a soundbite or hit print," says Newman.

Correct yourself. Reporters have a vested interest in your looking smart, says Richard Levick, president of Levick Strategic Communications in Washinton, D.C. Why, after all, would they quote a dumb source? Stumbles and fumbles with your words rarely appear in print, so if you make a mistake, don't hesitate to back up and start over again. Your corrected comment is the one that will be quoted.

Start a relationship. In some circumstances, providing off-the-record and not-for-attribution background information can serves your interests in the press. But be sure to carefully distinguish between what the reporter can and cannot attribute to you.

Practice in front of a mirror. "Have a sense of what you look like before you go on air," says Marsh. "See if there's something to be improve upon-like not talking out of the side of your mouth like Dick Cheney."

Be an artist. "The more visuals you have to illustrate your point, the more compelling your message will be," says Marsh. In fact, the more visuals you offer, he more likely you are to attract TV coverage. Even print editors are always looking for artwork-charts or graphs-to liven up blocks of gray copy.

Don't fudge. We know you would never lie in front of the camera, but don't fudge the facts either. First, it's always easier to remember the truth if you feel nervous. Second, your body language will betray you. Third, when you window-dress the truth, it gets around the newsroom faster than the flu. You're done.

Stand up for yourself. "On radio, your only tool to sell yourself is your voice," says Newman. "Always stand up. When you stand and gesture, your voice seems bigger and you sound more authoritative." (Next page: Five Things You Should Never Say to a Reporter)

Five Things You Should Never Say To A Reporter:

1. "If I did it, here's how it happened."

2. "I'm saving the good stuff for Lou Dobbs."

3. "This is just between us—right, Borat?"

4. "I'm not wearing underwear."

5. "Welcome to America, Macaca!"

MBA Jungle, Feb./March 2007

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