Why Bridging and Staying on Message are Destined to Fail

There is a single word that explains why constantly bridging and staying on message are doomed as media relations tactics: convergence.

As the embedded interview to the left illustrates (if the interview isn’t visible,
click here to go to the TV network site), before convergence a spokesperson could get away with repeating the same thing over and over, especially when answering questions from a print journalist or providing a quote for a newscast.

Today, however, the rules have changed. A single article on a website can contain both the print article, which provides detail into the issue, and the actual unedited interview with the spokesperson. In this format, it becomes obvious that the spokesperson is avoiding all questions by stubbornly repeating the same thing over and over.

There are some lessons to be learned here:
  • The only remaining forum in which blindly bridging and staying on message are even remotely applicable is politics. If the spokesperson is representing a not-for-profit organization, a private or public corporation, or a government agency, he or she cannot get away with these outdated tactics. There are too many other places to find answers to questions.
  • If transparency is a value of your organization, your spokespeople must answer questions. The question-and-answer process is the only bridge that counts, because it bridges the gap between “truth” and “transparency.”
  • If you teach bridging or staying on message as primary tactics in any media relations course at any post-secondary institution, please stop. These are outdated paradigms in an information-driven world. Your students need better and, quite frankly, so does our industry.
  • If your media training consultant focuses on constantly bridging or is mired in staying on message, find someone else to work with. Your spokespeople and your organization deserve better.
Finally, if you provide media training that focuses on constantly bridging, please continue to do so. Those of us who have moved beyond that paradigm will be happy to chip away at your customer base.

Parallels to Excellence in Negotiation

I found this gem on YouTube. It’s a short video from a consultant on the topic of negotiation, and I got two things from it.

First, I got some interesting insights into negotiating effectively. Second, I kept drawing parallels between excellence in negotiation and excellence in media relations.

The consultant starts by saying that “the essence of negotiation is to have something to do with results, and at the same time to build some form of relationship with your client or the person you’re purchasing from.” As a spokesperson, and from a media relations perspective, how do you build a relationship with someone who asks questions for a living?

As you watch the video, keep in the back of your mind the difference between a “stay on message” perspective and one that advocates creating win-win outcomes with journalist.

As I’ve often said, there are many parallels between excellence in negotiation and excellence in communication.


Responding to Reporters in a Timely Fashion

In mid-2009 I had the pleasure of providing a two-hour media training workshop to a group of municipal managers and professionals as part of a one day regional conference. Toward the end of the session, one of the participants asked: “Why do I have to respond to reporters when their deadlines always seem so unreasonable?”

It is an excellent question, and one that I’ve encountered numerous times before. Before I could answer, however, another participant chimed in and asked her whether she ever has to rely on others for information. When she said “yes,” he asked her how she feels when someone else doesn’t get her the information she needs when she needs it.

Good point. And I thanked him for making it.

There are a number of reasons why you should try to help reporters by providing the information they’re seeking in a timely manner.

First, it’s important to understand the world of journalists. It is driven by extremely tight deadlines. If your boss asks you to do something by 2:00 p.m., it is often ok to provide that information at 2:02 or 2:05. If an editor or news director sets a 2:00 deadline, 2:02 might be too late. After all, when was the last time you saw the 6:00 p.m. news start at 6:05?

Second, there can be a huge risk to not responding on time. All a reporter has to do is say or write “the municipality did not provide answers to our questions” or “the organization did not return our telephone calls” to get your attention next time. Human nature being what it is, most people hearing or reading a comment like that think the worst of you and/or your organization.

Third, the reporter is going to write the story with or without your input. If you didn’t help the journalist by providing correct information, you simply cannot complain about what comes out the other side.

And fourth, you want to try to create symbiotic working relationships with journalists wherever possible. If you help a journalist file a story in time to go to a son’s or daughter’s high school soccer game that afternoon, you can rest assured that the journalist will be very careful about how he or she quotes you in that story and any future stories about your organization.

Boy-o Gets a Passing Grade

I have an interesting opportunity in front of me. I get to grade the media performance of one of my children.

As a parent, I live for moments like this.

Our son Andrew plays for the University of Western Ontario baseball team. He is a pitcher, and he pitched a heckuva game over (Canada’s) Thanksgiving weekend.

After the game, he was interviewed by a journalist and an article appeared on the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) website.

When I texted him to tell him I was going to blog about his performance, he LOL’d and replied I should “blog about how (he needs) to use a thesaurus for the word ‘great’.”

Yes, he did overuse that word in his first quote. But I didn’t even notice the first time I read it. Chalk it up to an excited 22-year-old and/or the blindness of an extremely proud parent.

I was more interested in who he talked to through the interview. He complimented his opponents (some of whom he has played with or been coached by) in one quote. He paid tribute to his teammates by thanking them for putting in such a strong defensive performance.

I had two small concerns. First, he might not want to let the University of Toronto know that they are too aggressive at the plate. And, considering the final series was the following weekend, it may not be a good idea to point out to his next opponents that his team was “definitely the hottest team in the OUA going into the playoffs.”

But at least he didn’t revert to the media relations advice of one of his favorite movies of all time, Bull Durham. You remember that classic scene:
  • We gotta play ‘em one day at a time.
  • I’m just happy to be here. Hope I can help the ball club.
  • I just want to give it my best shot and, the good Lord willing, things will work out.
Overall, I give The Boy an 8 out of 10.

Now … if only the rest of the marks could be that good.

The Polarization Model at Work

The YouTube link below demonstrates how someone can use open hostility to change the opinions of others in their favour.

Within my media training program, I teach a polarization model for handling hostility that can arise during media interviews and public meetings. The goal is to help my clients understand how to use someone else’s hostility to their advantage.

Normally I’m preparing spokespeople to deal with journalists. In this case, it’s the spokesperson who gets hostile, and the journalist who manages the situation brilliantly.

The story begins with a radio interview at Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) studios with a band called The Boxmasters, who feature drummer Billy Bob Thornton. The CBC’s producers were told not to mention at any time during the interview that Mr. Thornton has had a life outside of music, most notably as a successful screenwriter and actor. Two small mentions of this previous life are made during the interviewer’s introductory comments. Mr. Thornton becomes increasingly hostile during the interview (with fireworks erupting at about the 7:00 mark for those who like to skip ahead) and basically remains hostile for the remainder, despite the best efforts of interviewer Jian Ghomeshi.

There are a couple of lessons here that all spokespeople can learn from when dealing with real or perceived hostility, whether from journalist or someone at an explosive public meeting.

First, keep your cool. Interviewer Jian Ghomeshi is brilliant. I suspect his heart was beating a mile a minute, but you’d never know it. He was able to maintain civility and politeness throughout the exchange. Pause and think before you talk.

Second, try to find common ground. Mr. Ghomeshi negotiates with Mr. Thornton a number of times in a series of attempts to get the interview back on track. “If we can call a truce,” Mr. Ghomeshi says at about the 10:00 mark, “then I can ask you about music.” This puts the interviewer on solid moral ground, which will not be lost to those observing.

Third, when all else fails, recognize that people (even those closest to the person displaying hostility) will draw their own conclusions about what they’ve witnessed. The rest of The Boxmasters looked uncomfortable with the exchange. From the looks on their faces during Mr. Ghomeshi’s introduction, they knew what was coming, and they tried to contribute to the interview early on.

However, it would have been an interesting ride to the airport. The remainder of The Boxmasters’ dates in Canada (including their opening gigs for Willie Nelson) were abruptly cancelled.

Finally, remember that the more reasonable you are, the less reasonable they become in the eyes of others. This can be a powerful force in changing opinion in your favor. It won’t always happen as quickly as in this short YouTube clip, but it will happen if you give it a chance.

More Mehrabian Myth

I received an e-mail from Martin Shovel at Creativity Works recently with a link to the YouTube video I’ve posted below. It’s an interesting animated take on the Mehrabian Myth, which is something I’ve written here about a number of times, and something I almost always discuss during my presentation skills and media training workshops.

As I learn more about face-to-face communication, my faith in a balance of message and personality is constantly reinforced.

We need to achieve two goals whenever we communicate face-to-face. We need to convey our message; we need to convey our personality. Each of us achieves those two goals every day of our lives in relaxed conversation, which makes relaxed conversation our best possible communication style.

In a business presentation, this doesn’t mean you should be unprepared. You should set objectives for the outcomes you would like to achieve. You should have a structure. You should use notes to keep yourself on track and on time.

But you should always have a conversation that is as interactive, two-way and receiver-driven as you can make it. Be sincere and honest. Minimize your PowerPoint (if you use it at all). Encourage and answer questions throughout your presentations, especially with smaller groups of up to 50 participants.

Focus less on your “performance” and more on helping the audience understand, and your effectiveness will increase accordingly.

Enjoy the video!

Body Language: You can cross your arms!

A few years ago, I conducted media training for an organization that was potentially facing a strike. I was asked to provide one day of training for management-level employees who would manage strike sites as representatives of the organization. Prior to the start of my portion of the agenda, the company’s director of human resources spent about 45 minutes talking to the group about the logistics of managing the strike.

Later, when we discussed body language in broadcast interviews, I crossed my arms and asked if this was appropriate body language for someone delivering a presentation or being interviewed on television. Everyone said it was inappropriate; I looked closed.

I turned to the HR director and asked if she would ever stand in front of a group and present information with her arms crossed. She said she would never do that. I asked the group if she would ever do that, and they all said that she was far too professional to ever do something like that.

However, that was exactly what she did. I had been sitting at the back of the room at the time, with my video camera on a tripod, so I turned on the camera and recorded her after she crossed her arms while talking to the group. When I played back the tape, everyone was surprised that they hadn’t noticed she had committed what is often known as a body language “sin.”

The point I made to this group was that, because the HR director was communicating effectively and being herself, they did not even notice the body language. It was natural for her. Her body language was consistent with who she was and what she was saying.

Every individual is unique. Each of us has our own way of standing, talking and conveying our messages. If people express themselves with their hands when they are in conversation, they should express themselves in a similar manner when the microphone is on or the camera is rolling.

We need to “be ourselves” when engaged in a broadcast interview or presentation of any type. This is how we convey our personality, and this builds the trust that makes our message believable.

(Originally published in 2005)

Body Language: Gestures Are Essential

When seeking body language advice for presentations and television interviews (or sales calls and job interviews, for that matter), the best place to begin is with the work of psycholinguists.

Wikipedia tells us that psycholinguists study “the psychological and neurobiological factors that enable humans to acquire, use, and understand language.” It has been a recognized field for about 50 years.

In her book Hearing Gesture: How our hands help us think, psycholinguist Susan Goldin-Meadow points out that no culture has been discovered in which people do not move their hands as they talk. In other words, if you’re reading this, there is an extremely high probability that you gesture in conversation — even if you’re not aware of it.

As Dr. Goldin-Meadow discovered, a person speaking does not even have to be sighted to use gestures. In her book, she describes an experiment in which children and teens blind from birth participated in a series of conversational tasks. All of the children used gestures. “The blind group gestured at the same rate as the sighted group,” she writes, “and conveyed the same information using the same range of gesture forms.”

Regardless of our culture or language, we all use gestures to help us think and communicate.

Most of us intuitively know that gestures help us communicate. “Several types of evidence lend support to the view that gesture and speech form a single, unified system,” Dr. Goldin-Meadow writes. “The gestures that speakers produce along with their talk are symbolic acts that convey meaning.” This is why we get more out of face-to-face meetings than telephone conversations.

But the evidence also indicates that gestures make it easier to think. “When the act of speaking becomes difficult, speakers seem to respond by increasing their gestures,” Dr. Goldin-Meadow writes. Her hypothesis is that gesturing reduces demands on a speaker’s cognitive resources.

Attempting to reduce or eliminate gestures (i.e. being told to reduce your gestures by a psycholinguist conducting an experiment or, potentially, by a presentation or media training consultant trying to get you to convey the “right image”) adds to your cognitive burden. It makes it more difficult to think of what you’re trying to say at times when, during presentations and interviews, you don’t need the added pressure.

In other words, if you want to increase your ability to think on your feet during presentations, or in your seat during television interviews, bring your gestures with you and let them happen naturally.

Or, as Dr. Goldin-Meadow was quoted as saying on page 14 of the November 25, 2003, edition of the Chicago Sun-Times:

“At the very least, we ought to stop telling people not to move their hands when they talk.”

(Originally published in 2005)

The Mehrabian Myth

When it comes to the use of body language in presentations and broadcast interviews, most of us have seen some sort of statistic that indicates:
  • 55% of the overall message is how the person looks when delivering the message.
  • 38% of the overall message is how the person sounds when delivering the message.
  • 7% of the overall message can be attributed to the words the person uses.
If you take these numbers and explanations at face value, they seem to imply that you can watch a foreign movie without subtitles. By simply observing how two actors converse, you can listen to how the words sound, watch the actors’ gestures and get 93 percent of the message.

However, this is not the case. You will recognize emotion, but if you don’t understand what is said, you comprehend significantly less than 93 percent of what transpires between the actors.

The numbers 55, 38 and 7 first appear in a 1971 book entitled Silent Messages, written by Albert Mehrabian and based on his research at Stanford University. But the way these numbers are now commonly misused bears little resemblance to what Professor Mehrabian originally intended.

Mehrabian uses two equations (on pages 44 and 45) to describe the results of one section of his research, in a chapter titled “The Double-Edged Message”:

Total liking = 7% verbal liking + 38% vocal liking + 55% facial liking
Total feeling = 7% verbal feeling + 38% vocal feeling + 55% facial feeling
The bottom line is Professor Mehrabian’s assertion that words, voice and body language must be consistent with each other. If the receiver of information senses an inconsistency, he or she relies on more than the words spoken to get the overall message.

In other words, if you use body language to be someone other than who you are in a presentation or broadcast interview (i.e. by trying to create the right image to get as much as possible out of the 55%), the audience will sense this inconsistency and will be less likely to believe what you’re saying. As Mehrabian writes, “when actions contradict words, people rely more heavily on actions to infer another’s feelings.”

This emphasizes the importance of “be yourself” as a fundamental principle of presentations and/or broadcast interviews. You certainly want to be on your best behavior; there are certain parts of your anatomy you should not scratch or pick at when delivering a presentation or during a TV interview.

Quite frankly, if you use gestures when you’re engaged in a conversation on the telephone (and virtually all of us do), you should bring those gestures to your presentations and broadcast interviews. Let them happen naturally. They are an integral component of who you are as a human being, and therefore fundamental to the concept of “be yourself.”

Using gestures naturally is the best possible way to ensure consistency between the words spoken, how they sound when they’re spoken and how you look when they’re spoken. In that scenario, total liking and total feeling will be as close to 100 percent as possible.

And your effectiveness at influencing others will be enhanced.

Keep Your Marbles During Your Next Presentation

This post examines the concept (and folly) of constantly bridging to your messages during a job interview.Read more...

Please ... No 30-Minute Answers

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P-A-S: The Most Important Step

P-A-S (pause, answer the question and stop talking) is the most important step to understand when it comes to communicating effectively during the question-and-answer process.Read more...

Responding to Reporters in a Timely Fashion

There are a number of reasons why you should try to help reporters by providing the information they're seeking in a timely manner. Read more...

Parallels to Excellence in Negotiation

I found this short video from a consultant on the topic of negotiation on YouTube. As you watch it, keep in mind there are many parallels between excellence in negotiation and excellence in communication.Read more...

More Mehrabian Myth

This post links to a YouTube file with an interesting animated take on the Mehrabian Myth.Read more...

An Excellent Example of Balance

This post links to a BBC radio program in which the spokesperson did an excellent example of answering a journalist’s question and finding places to weave in, not drive home, messages designed to influence specific audiences.Read more...

How It Should Be Done

This provides insight into how a spokesperson got it right in announcing an important decision.Read more...