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Keep Foot out of Mouth: Media Training 102

December 16, 2011

Brad Svrluga

Last week I offered Media Training 101, which was the first half of a summary of what I learned at an exceptional session we hosted last week for our CEOs and Ambassadors as part of High Peaks University. The session was hosted by Clarity Media Group’s Bill McGowan and Lucy Cherkassets, and they were terrific. Go back and read that post first, if you haven’t. I’ll wrap up my summary of the session here today with a few general learnings and then Bill’s 5 No-No’s of talking to the media. Here goes:

Bill spent some time talking about how to try to manage the flow and cadence of an interview to your advantage. A lot of people fall into the trap of thinking too little, and talking too much. He offered some good advice on avoiding these traps.

First, Bill made the excellent observation that most journalists – and most smart people for that matter – tend to ask long-winded, overly explanatory questions. The trajectory of a single question, particularly in a focused, one-on-one setting, tends to go something like this:

Many of these meandering questions can take up to half a minute. Makes you wonder who’s supposed to be the interviewee sometimes! Bill’s point is that in a world of tough questions, you can do yourself a real service by recognizing that the question almost always comes twice, or is dead simple to guess at right away. So take advantage of that, and when you know what the question is going to be, stop listening and start thinking. You can usually get at least 5-6 seconds of thought in, which is an eternity when you think about how that time would sound as silence, if you started thinking only after the question was finished. And frequently you can get a fair bit more time than that. Use it wisely.

Second, as for talking too much, Bill emphasized that brevity is best. But in our efforts to sound smart and thoughtful, we often end up saying the same things twice and/or rambling on and on. But in an interview, you want to give the journalist those juicy little quotable nuggets. So keep it brief and make it easy for the nuggets to be found. If the interviewer wants more, she’ll ask for it.

Furthermore, Bill suggested that the vast majority of big PR blunders – those horribly regrettable, foot-in-mouth statements – come at the end of talking too long, continuing after the answer has been provided. So shut yourself up before you get into trouble. As he put it – know where your answer’s finish line is before you open your mouth.

Bill then wrapped up with his Five No-No’s of talking to the media. I’ve added a sixth, below, that came out of our Q&A:

  1. Don’t answer “What if. . .” questions.  There’s rarely upside in getting into deep speculation. Journalists love to talk about things like “what if Google launches a competing product,” or “what if the government changes regulations about X.” Your best bet is to deflect it, acknowledging that you’re always paying attention to the dynamic environment, but focus on discussing what you’re actually doing, not what might happen.
  2. Don’t discuss what you don’t know.   You’re not obligated to have an answer to every question. And you’re far more likely to get yourself in trouble if you stray outside of your comfort zone. So don’t do it. Either gracefully say you really don’t know enough to offer a helpful answer, or perhaps suggest that there is someone else in your business who is better positioned to answer that specific question.
  3. Don’t predict, project, or assume things about others.  Similar to the “What if” questions, there’s just not much upside.
  4. Don’t put words in other people’s mouths.  Stick with speaking about yourself, your company, and your views. Even if you know what others have said, there’s not much benefit in engaging in “He said/she said” talk.
  5. Don’t respond to heresay. Journalists will frequently try to bait you with things they’ve heard in the marketplace. You are in no way obligated to respond, and responding to those questions can lead to accidentally answering, or implying things you didn’t intend to.
  6. Neither speak negatively about the competition nor deny its existence.  Never take direct shots at the competition or any individuals. Never tear the competition down. It WILL come back to bite you. But don’t ignore or deny its existence, either. Be thoughtful, and acknowledge generically that there are others doing interesting things in the marketplace. But then talk primarily about what you are doing and why. You can speak generically about the others by saying things like “There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on in this space, and we looked long and hard at all of the players. But we saw a real opportunity in X, which we think nobody has effectively addressed. And that’s what we’re after.”

It was a terrific session, and I know all the folks on our team learned a lot. Hopefully some of that translated well here.

If I had to sum up what I learned in one thought, it’s that we should remember that an interview is something that we can exercise a lot of control over, if we’re thoughtful about it. And if we do, we’ll be much happier with the results. Finding time to think before answering, working hard to limit our answers to just the basics, rather than rambling on, having the confidence to defer and deflect questions that would not serve us well to answer – all of these things are in our control. Focus on them effectively, and you’ll serve yourself, and your company, much better.


“But What I Meant to Say Was. . .” Media Training 101

December 9, 2011

Brad Svrluga

It was the first day of classes Wednesday night as we opened up High Peaks University, our new series of pizza & beer seminars on topics that are hot on the minds of founders and CEOs. Our HPU series will continue on a roughly monthly basis, and is offered to our portfolio company CEOs, our Ambassadors, and some select additional members of the broader NYC tech community. If class #1 is any indication, this program is going to be a lot of fun, and I’m going to learn a ton.

For opening night, we chose to tackle the question of how to talk to the media. We hear from a lot of entrepreneurs that while they increasingly finding themselves talking to the media, speaking on panels and generally having great opportunities to advance their company’s message, they don’t really know how to make the most of those opportunities.

So we brought in Bill McGowan and Lucy Cherkassets of Clarity Media Group to do a media training session. And they hit it out of the park. These guys are seriously experienced in media training, having coached and advised the likes of Jack Welch, Roger Goodell, and leadership at some of the most important and exciting technology companies out there – Facebook, Google, Groupon, Square, Spotify, Gilt Groupe, and many more. Bill taught the seminar, and his style was casual, engaging, entertaining, and clear – just what we hope for in our faculty at HPU.

Bill is a multi-Emmy-winning TV journalist from a past life, so he comes to this stuff really knowing what he’s talking about. His thoughts are well worth sharing more broadly, so I’ll offer the highlight nuggets in some combination of notes and thoughts in this and a follow-up post. To begin, here are a few of Bill’s primary rules of the road for startup company media training:

  1. Always Be Branding.  Don’t fall into the “pronoun-itis trap.” If you’re talking about your company, use your brand, not just “we.” When you’re building reputation and brand equity, you’ve got to constantly be hitting people over the head with your brand. Mark Zuckerberg has the luxury of just talking about what “we’re” doing. You don’t. If you’re talking about your company, make sure to use your brand name every minute or two.
  2. Be a Storyteller. People want to hear stories, not recitation of facts. Think about the anecdotes that can bring your products and your business to life. And get in the habit of keeping notes on the best ones. If you have a compelling customer experience, jot it down. If there’s an interesting moment of inspiration in a product discussion, share that as you talk about that product’s launch. As Bill said, “good stories are catnip for journalists.”
  3. Have a Key Message Checklist. And stick to it.  Bill was super clear that every founder/CEO should have in her pocket at all times a clearly thought out list of the handful of bullet points that she would want to communicate about her company in any media opportunity. If you don’t have that list, you’re going to miss opportunities, and end up merely answering the questions you are asked. Answering questions is all well and good, but it misses the point that when somebody creates a media engagement situation for you, they create an opportunity for you to broadcast your message to the world. Be prepared, so you don’t let the opportunity slip away.
  4. Don’t Prepare Backwards. Very related to #3, and one that I found particularly interesting. Bill pointed out that what most people do when they are about to do a media interview or speak on a panel is prepare by trying to anticipate the questions they will be asked and then scripting their answers. “Backwards!,” Bill says. Refer to your Key Messages. Think about what you want this unique audience to hear, given the context. Be super clear about these points. Then listen carefully to the questions and figure out how to fit what you want to talk about into them. As Bill said, “a media interview is not Q&A. It’s a chance to talk about what you think is important.” This strikes me as a great point, but one you also need to be careful on – taken to the extreme, nobody wants to sound like a politician on this stuff. We’ve all suffered the pain of, for example, hearing Herman Cain think that a question about our Pakistan policy creates an opportunity to talk about his 9-9-9 plan. So be careful how you do it. But as Bill pointed out, there is no rule that says you have to only answer the specific questions.
  5. Plan for the Worst. While preparing backwards is not a good idea, you should do some worst case scenario planning, and prepare for those questions that you desperately don’t want to be asked. As Bill pointed out, any good journalist will know what they are, and will ask them. Their job, at some level, is to expose you and make you uncomfortable. So don’t get caught off guard. Be aware of what might be coming, and have a plan.
  6. Don’t ever get on the Phone Cold. This is one I’ve broken a bunch of times. Bill feels strongly that you should never ever just answer a call from a journalist and say “Sure, happy to talk. Fire away.” It’s always credible to say you’re in the middle of something and buy yourself at least a few minutes. Do it. But most entrepreneurs get so excited by having the opportunity to be heard that they dive headfirst into what might turn out to be a shallow pool (see #5, above). Your best bet, in Bill’s mind, is to say “Hey, I’m tied up right now. Can you give me an idea what you’d like to talk about and then I’ll call you right back?” Then put the phone down, pull out your key message checklist, and get focused. When your head is clear, call them back.

So there’s a start. This was a lot for me to chew on when I heard it the other night. I’ll share more – and specifically some of Bill’s “No-No’s” – in an upcoming post. But in the meantime, a huge thanks again to Bill & Lucy for providing this incredible education to us. I’d encourage anyone who needs help on this stuff to reach out to Clarity Media Group – they’re awesome.

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