Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh: A tale of two media training approaches

The one good outcome from the testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Justice Brett Kavanaugh last week is that I now have an easy way to describe the difference between my approach to media training and that of my competitors.

A composite photo of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Justice Brett Kavanaugh being sworn in durng testimony at the US Senate Judiciary Committee
Dr. Blasey Ford answered every question posed by the committee. She paused and thought, answered the question asked (and only the question asked), and stopped talking as soon as the answer was provided.

Pause-answer-stop is the first skill I teach my clients. As Dr. Blasey Ford demonstrated, it is a wonderful defensive strategy for avoiding being quoted out of context, and it enables the person implementing that basic strategy to communicate effectively and credibly.

And it works. Dr. Blasey Ford was transparent. She was respectful. She communicated clearly. She maintained her credibility and, most of all, her dignity.

Justice Kavanaugh came out swinging. Yes, someone falsely accused of sexual assault would be upset. But once that emotion was expressed in an opening statement, if I had accepted an engagement with Justice Kavanaugh, my advice would have been to pause and think after the question is asked, to answer the question asked and only the question asked, and stop talking.

I wouldn’t have taught him how to bridge to something more important than what was being asked (a common technique taught during traditional media training), nor would I have ever counselled him to be belligerent to the point of attempting to control the interview with a question like: “Have you ever drank to excess, Senator?”

I would have taught Justice Kavanaugh my proprietary defensive strategies, at least one of which Dr. Blasey Ford implemented during her testimony. And we would have dealt with the inevitable question: “Have you ever drank to excess?”

As one of my clients often says: “If you can survive Eric, you can survive anyone.”

While my wife and I were watching his testimony, I turned to her and said that he was in for a long, long week because of his belligerence and his inability to answer the question and stop talking. I told her that he’s going to be quoted out of context by everyone, and that his credibility would be in question. And that prediction has come true. Justice Kavanaugh has been quoted out of context all week, and his reputation is no better off today than it was a week ago.

The next time you’re looking for media training, keep this comparison in mind. Who do you want your spokespeople to emulate?

Do you want them to strive for the credibility and poise of Dr. Blasey Ford? Or do you want them to try to control the interview, tell others what’s important, talk too much, and be constantly quoted out of context?

The choice is yours.

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Media training consultant Eric Bergman in front of his motorcycle near Lake Ontario with the Toronto skyline in the background
As Canada's most experienced, credentialed and effective media training consultant, Eric Bergman provides services to clients globally from his base in Toronto.

Contact Eric if you’re interested in having spokespeople be more like Dr. Blasey Ford than Justice Kavanaugh.



The illogical logic of not answering questions

I was sitting in a client's office, waiting for him to finish a short meeting with a staff member, and was flipping through some back issues of Marketing magazine when I came across an article entitled: “Talking the right talk. Media training helps your brand be the focus in an interview.”

A spokesperson in a media scrum during media training.
The journalist writing the article described how she had sat through a media training session arranged for a young jewelry designer who had won an award for designing a right-hand diamond engagement ring. The designer's employer believed the award would be a good way to generate free publicity. But before unleashing the young designer on unsuspecting reporters, media training was arranged.

In the article, Lazarus listened to a consultant provide the following advice during the media training session: “Get your message out, don't let a reporter interrupt you, try not to speak too quickly and try not to get off track with what you are there to talk about.

“They are going to ask you a question, you are going to answer with your key message, they are going to ask you another question, and you are going to have a second or third key message.”

Maybe it's just me, but I just don't understand this logic.

The company has good news to share. They are cranking up the media relations machine to get reporters interested in their story. They're hoping the editors will respond by sending out a reporter, which will then result in “free” publicity for the firm.

When the reporter begins asking questions (which is, after all, what reporters do for a living), the spokesperson is going to ignore their questions and keep driving home key messages.

It sounds like an interesting way to develop relationships with reporters. You get us interested so we'll ask questions. When we ask them, you rudely ignore them and keep parroting key messages that would look better in an advertisement than a feature article. I wonder what will happen the next time the organization (or its agency) sends out a news release. If you were the editor, what would you do? I'd delete it in less time than it takes the average traditional media training consultant to say “key message.”

Presentation lessons from Jack the Ripper's walk

During a trip to London, England with my family, I had the pleasure of participating in what's known as a Jack the Ripper walk. Not only was it fun, it was an excellent reminder of presentation effectiveness.

At a designated spot overlooking the Tower of London, we met our affable Cockney guide, Pete. He was a character, our Pete, and he would have looked out of place in most boardrooms, training rooms and classrooms.

But the communication skills he demonstrated were exceptional, and should be envied and emulated by anyone who has to prepare and deliver presentations to others. We can all learn from “our Pete.”

wall in london separating east from west
Pete used statistics sparingly
After he gathered his flock, he led us to our first stop—the remains of the old Roman wall that has traditionally divided London's east-enders from the rest of the city. "In 1888, half the children born on the east side of this wall didn't survive until their first birthday," Pete told us. "It was said that, for every 100 yards you traveled east, life expectancy dropped by a year."

I’ve often said that statistics should be to presentations as spice is to a meal—used sparingly. Too much ruins the main course, the story.

Pete told stories well
To illustrate his love of history, he told us a story of traveling to Hadrian's Wall as a school boy. (Hadrian's Wall is the roman wall that has traditionally separated England from Scotland.)

It was not a pleasant field trip, Pete informed us. It was raining. It was cold. He was miserable.

He was walking along the wall when he came to some Latin graffiti scratched into its side. He got out a piece of paper and his pencil, and rubbed the inscription so he could bring it to his Latin teacher.

When the Latin teacher read the inscription, he smiled. "You didn't enjoy yourself at Hadrian's Wall, did you," the teacher said. "No, sir," Pete replied.

"Apparently a man named Devinius wasn't enjoying himself either."

Pete clearly stated outcomes up front
Within a minute or two of gathering us together, Pete told us he hoped we would gain two things. First, he wanted us to learn more about life in late 19-century London, the city of his birth. Second, he wanted us to better understand why he’s so proud to call London his home.

We gained both, in spades.

Pete knew that pausing is important for him and us
Pete paused to think before speaking. This enabled him to choose his words carefully so that each word out of his mouth added value.

Pete paused after he spoke. This allowed us to think about what he’d just said. He allowed us to process one thought before giving us another. He didn’t try to overload us with information. The entire presentation was two-way and receiver-driven, while adhering to the principle of “less is more.”

Pete used visuals sparingly, and well
When he brought us to a new location, he would introduce it and give us time to look at it. “This is not where one of the murders happened,” he told us in one case. “But if we went there now, you’d all be disappointed because it’s a parking lot. This is what London would have looked like in Jack’s time.”

He would pause to allow us to look around and let our imaginations work. When we started coming back to him, he continued his presentation.

He showed half a dozen pictures from his smartphone for emphasis. But again, he would tell us what we were going to see, then showed it. When he showed the picture, he moved the phone from person to person around the group, letting us absorb it. During those times, he never said a word.

Pete answered questions clearly and concisely
While he was always polite, he thankfully kept his answers short. This enabled many of us to ask a lot of questions. We learned from each other’s curiosity, which only added to the educational experience for everyone.

Pete demonstrated excellent presentation and communication skills. He provided lessons of value that could be applied to every boardroom, training room, meeting room, conference hall and lecture hall on the planet.

So, if you’re ever in London, look up our Pete and join him on his walk.

For the price of a movie ticket and pop, you’ll gain insight into parts of London that most people don’t see. You’ll begin to share Pete’s love for his city.

And, if you watch Pete at work, you’ll gain insight into communicating effectively with others during all types of presentations from one of the most unlikely but effective of sources.
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Media training consultant Eric Bergman in front of his motorcycle near Lake Ontario with the Toronto skyline in the background
Eric Bergman has helped his clients shape their presentations strategically and tell their story effectively for more than 30 years. If enhancing presentation success is important to you or your organization, contact Eric to learn more.


The Ten-Pushup Rule Improves Communication

pushup team
During my media training and presentation training programs, I often introduce a slightly tongue-in-cheek training tool I call “the ten-pushup rule.” The rule immediately underscores the value of succinct answers.

The rule is simple. The person answering a question gets a maximum of ten words for the answer. Any question; ten words. Since question-and-answer sessions are recorded during training sessions, it’s easy to keep track.

For every answer over ten words, the person answering is told at the start of the exchange that he or she will be required to do ten pushups per word at the end of the exchange.

This is an amazing tool; I’ve witnessed its positive impact thousands of times during media training and presentation skills training.

(Only one person has ever actually done the pushups—a particularly fit CEO who was training for a triathlon and took a little break with fifty self-imposed pushups.)

When there is a word limit on answers, the person’s behaviour immediately changes. He or she listens more carefully, which never ceases to amaze me. Think about it. When there’s a limit on the length of the answer, people focus more attention on what’s being asked. Their listening skills improve.

The person answering the question communicates more effectively. He or she has no choice but to exactly and precisely meet the needs of the person asking. This creates a two-way, receiver-driven exchange that adheres to the principle of less is more—all of which are important to helping others understand.

The person answering the question doesn’t have time to anticipate where questions are going. He or she deals with one question at a time. This prevents anticipating where the person asking the questions is ultimately going (which I often tell clients really only works if you are capable of reading minds).

Finally, clear and very concise answers can potentially provide a layer of protection. For example, providing succinct answers during interviews with print journalists—with whom the greatest risk is being misquoted or quoted out of context—limits the context and, in my experience over the past 25 years of media training, significantly reduces the risk.

I have used the ten-pushup rule as a training tool thousands of times. It has never failed to improve someone’s communication skills.

Limiting the length of answers will feel unnatural, certainly, but short answers can be significantly more effective in helping people grasp an idea, sort through technical information, or just generally better understand what you're trying to say.

Try it. During your next work-related conversation in which it seems the other person doesn’t understand, self-evoke the ten-pushup rule whenever they ask a question. Pause, and find a succinct answer to what the person is asking. Match the answer precisely to what’s being asked. (Of course, if you’re unsure of what someone is asking, seek clarification.) Answer the question asked, and only the question asked. Stop talking.

In the vast majority of cases, there is an inverse relationship between understanding and pushups. Whether you’re answering questions from a colleague trying to understand or many people during an important presentation, the fewer the pushups you’re required to do, the better the individual or members of the group will understand what it is you're trying to say.



When to not answer questions during media interviews

As a general statement, I believe that media training should teach spokespeople to manage exchanges with journalists to win-win outcomes.
answering questions is at the heart of media training


We all know the organization wants to either protect itself or enhance its brand, or both. It should legitimately be attempting to use the exchange to influence specific audiences.

But we have to recognize that journalists ask questions for a living. It's probably why they became journalists in the first place. (If they like making a little more money than they like asking questions, chances are they're one of my colleagues in PR.)

Therefore, if a spokesperson wants to help the journalist's "win" (not to mention be polite and build a better relationships by communicating more effectively), answering questions clearly and concisely is the secret to success. Doing so enables the journalist to create a story that is relevant to the audience, interesting to read, watch or listen to, and factually correct.

There are three acceptable answers to questions posed by journalists:

  1. Yes, I have the answer; here it is.
  2. No, I don’t have the answer; I’ll get it for you (or find someone who can provide it).
  3. Yes, I do have the answer; I cannot discuss it.
The third option—knowing but not answering—can be evoked in situations for which:

  • The case is currently before the courts.
  • Union negotiations are under way, and a news blackout has been imposed.
  • An emergency has occurred, and next-of-kin have not yet been notified.
  • Answering the question would breach securities legislation
  • Answering the question would compromise employee, customer, member, client, patient or other confidentiality
  • Answering the question would breach another aspect of privacy of information legislation
  • Answering the question would divulge sensitive competitive information
  • Answering the question would compromise national security
When asked a question that cannot be answered directly, the answer is simple:

  • "I'm sorry. I cannot answer that question. Doing so would divulge sensitive competitive information."
  • "I'm sorry, I cannot answer that question, because doing so would breach securities legislation."
The situations above are legitimate reasons for not answering questions, but they are not barriers behind which an organization can hide.

If your organization is tempted, it's important to discuss the fact that there are two courts in our social-media-driven land.

In a court of law, the premise is that you're innocent until proven guilty. In the court of public opinion, the premise is reversed; silence can be (and often is) construed as guilt.

Bottom line? Answer whenever you can. When you can't, don't. But say why.

The fundamental skill of answering questions effectively

After more than 25 years of examining the concept and teaching it successfully, I am completely convinced that the most important thing we can teach presenters and spokespeople alike is to pause, answer the question, and stop talking.

First of all, it offers protection during media interviews and hostile exchanges during all forms of presentations, when being quoted out of context or having words twisted is an issue.

PAS image green inside
If you've ever given evidence at a trial or examination for discovery — and you were coached by a lawyer prior to giving that evidence — you were undoubtedly told to pause and think about the question asked prior to ever opening your mouth. You were then told to answer the question asked and that question only. Then you were told to stop talking. (Although a lawyer may tell you to "shut up," the net result is exactly the same.)

Does your legal counsel tell you to pause-answer-stop because he or she wants you to reduce or eliminate your credibility as a witness? No, the lawyer wants you to protect yourself and protect your credibility.

Does the lawyer want you to pause-answer-stop so that you can put the case or organization at risk, which will then translate into increased billable hours? No. Although that's a bit tougher to answer (especially the part about more billable hours), the lawyer tells you to pause-answer-stop so you can protect the organization.

If pause-answer-stop offers protection in a court of law, wouldn't it offer similar protection in a court of public opinion when someone is answering questions from a print journalist, or when a presenter is answering questions from a hostile community group, a semi-hostile management team, or a board of directors?

It can. And it does. If you wish to reduce the risk of being quoted out of context by print journalists, the simplest solution is to reduce the context. Stop talking.

Communicate More Effectively
But beyond that, pause-answer-stop enables someone to communicate more effectively. By asking more questions, the person or people receiving the information can better educate themselves about the topic in question to create better understanding.

Some years ago, we decided to put ceramic tile in our entranceway and kitchen. We were undecided about whether to do the job ourselves or to hire a contractor.

One evening, I went to my local Home Depot to do some research. I had the good fortune of encountering a very confident young man who had obviously installed a lot of ceramic tile. How did I know he was confident? He did not feel compelled to talk endlessly whenever I asked him a question.

In fact, he simply answered each question and stopped talking, waiting patiently for the next question.

In the 15 or 20 minutes that we chatted, I easily asked more than 100 questions. My son was with me and, as we were walking out of the store he remarked: "Dad, that was amazing. I can't believe how much I learned. I know exactly how to install tiles and what needs to be done. You asked great questions."

Actually, I didn't ask great questions. I was simply given the opportunity to ask a lot of questions -- which I would never have gotten if the person answering did not pause-answer-stop.

We ended up hiring someone to install the tiles, so some could argue that he lost a sale and didn't achieve his organization's objectives. However, that's short-sighted. The reason? Based on that experience, this local Home Depot is my first stop whenever I'm even thinking about any kind of improvement to our home. I don't know who's coaching them, but I have been pleasantly surprised by the ability of a number of their staff to answer questions clearly, concisely and effectively.

The same applies to other situations. Want a reporter to trust you? Want the management team or board of directors to trust that you'll deliver? Want to be more transparent? Teach yourself the same simple tactic.

Pause. Answer the question asked and only the question asked. Stop talking.

Bridging the Gap Between Truth and Transparency

During a presentation to the World Public Relations Forum in May, 2016, I stated my view that public relations professionals have an opportunity to carve out a new area of practice globally and become more trusted advisors to clients. To do this, PR professionals need to bridge the gap between truth and transparency, and virtually eliminate the focus on bridging to messages.

Three topics were covered during the presentation. First, a number of terms were defined. Second, the presentation provided examples of how it is possible to be truthful, but not transparent. Third, the presentation demonstrated how the skill of answering questions clearly and concisely builds better understanding and closes any gap between truth and transparency.
Image of the lions gate bridge as an analogy to bridging truth and transparency

The four terms defined during the first portion of the presentation were: lying, deception, spin and transparency. According to philosopher Sissela Bok, author of Lying: Moral choice in public and private life, lying occurs when someone makes a statement that they believe to be untrue at the time they said it, even if that statement ends up being true at a later date. Deception occurs when someone creates an impression from the facts that they themselves do not believe, even if the facts are true.

The best definition of spin I’ve ever seen was from a paper by John Mearsheimer to the American Political Association. He defined spin as arranging facts in way that portrays the individual or organization in the most positive light. A resume, for example, is a perfect example of spin. If the facts are correct and the impression left by the facts is correct, there is nothing wrong with spin.

The big definition was transparency, which I believe boils down to three words: ask me anything. If someone stands in front a group and answers 1,000 questions clearly and concisely in two hours, can that person lay claim to transparency? Of course. They're saying: "I have nothing to hide, so ask me anything." There are some questions that cannot be answered—such as questions that would breach client or patient confidentiality. But if spokespeople pay lip service to questions asked—whether from a journalist, an employee, or a stakeholder at an external meeting or presentation—and use those questions as a premise to talk about what's important to the organization, can they lay claim to transparency? Probably not.

The bridge between truth and transparency is the question and answer process. As humans, we instinctively ask questions to protect ourselves from lies, deception and spin. This trend will only accelerate in an interconnected world driven by technology.

In the second section of the presentation, a number of videos shown to demonstrate that it is possible to be truthful but not transparent. An example I often use to explain how truth and transparency can exist in a mutually exclusive universe is of a real estate agent showing a customer a potential home. The customer asks a simple question: “How far is the nearest school?”

The real estate agent replies by saying: “Talk of school often reminds me of school taxes. Did you know that this is one of the lowest assessed areas in the region? Imagine all the money you'll save for your children’s post-secondary education.”

What would the customer’s next question be? Most likely: “How far is the nearest school?”

The real estate agent then replies by saying: “School time is important, but so is after school time with your family. Did you know this property is adjacent to a conservation area? In fact, you will be able to open your back gate and walk right into it. It’s like having all of the beauty and tranquility of the country and convenience of the city.”

Is the real estate agent being truthful? Yes, if the taxes are low and the conservation area is outside the back gate. The agent cannot be faulted for lying or deception. He or she is focusing on perceived benefits of the house to leave the customer with the best possible impression.

But what impression does this leave with the customer? How does not answering a simple question impact the relationship? I believe most people would be left with the impression that the nearest school is 50 miles away.

The presentation concluded with a number of examples that demonstrate the value of answering questions clearly and concisely. Not only does this approach create engagement, understanding and buy-in, it enables the organization to bridge the gap between truth and transparency.

It is saying: Ask me anything. I have nothing to hide.