Uh-oh impromptu comments, ineffectual walk-backs, untimely attempts at humor and unmet promises. Reminders by high-profile newsmakers of classic communication no-no’s.
Media training stresses the importance of being prepared before speaking, knowing what to say and what not to say and resisting the temptation to be “funny.” Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney’s “quid-pro-quo” admission and subsequent effort to retract it and Congressman Adam Schiff’s ill-considered parody of President Trump’s conversation with Ukraine’s president proved why. So does British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s failure to deliver on his Brexit promises.
Mulvaney and Schiff are experienced political professionals. They should know better. Johnson tried to seize the moment with a big promise, which so far he has been unable to keep. However, the point of this blog isn’t to dwell on the newsmakers, but rather to offer a quick refresher course on how to avoid stepping into a big pile of goo.
Speaking opportunities don’t come with guarantees of success. They are better understood as gambles. When you accept a speaking opportunity, you are gambling that you will make a good impression and deliver an effective message. Thoughtful and thorough preparation will improve your odds.
Preparation begins by identifying the point you want to make. Sounds simple, but think of all the speeches, press conferences and impromptu interviews you’ve witnessed that left you wondering what the speaker was trying to say. Speech prep is no time for hubris. You have been given a podium because someone believes you have something to say. However, make sure your remarks satisfy what the audience came to hear. They don’t have to agree, but they shouldn’t feel like you wasted their time.
Once you have settled on a key message, the next step is to craft a compelling way to express it to make it easier for your audience to grasp and remember it. Your key message is the main takeaway from your talk, so make sure it’s quotable and won’t get lost in a jumble of words.
Next comes designing the architecture of your remarks. That requires mastery of your topic so you can marshal facts or arguments to support your key message in plain language and a sequence that will be clear to your audience. It also involves coming up with a strong, attention-grabbing beginning and a powerful closing.
Anticipate what your audience will want to know and what questions audience members may ask. Accomplished speakers answer their audience’s question without them being asked. The reward is often more sophisticated actual questions that allow a speaker to elaborate on their key points.
Knowing what to say and how you want to say it should be combined with equal mastery of what you don’t want to say. In the heat of the moment, especially in exchanges with the news media, you can find yourself taking the bait of a question that leads you off message and into land mines.
A finely worded, beautifully orchestrated set of remarks can turn tinny fast if the speaker hasn’t practiced delivering his or her remarks. Writing remarks and speaking them are vastly different. Practicing will lead to editing that smooths your sentences and adds natural voice cadence to your delivery.
Practicing in front of a spouse, friend or colleague will give you valuable feedback on how your comments are received. This is a good way to discover whether your key message is compelling, your speech architecture is clear and your supporting facts are convincing.
Practice what you plan to say, as well as how to deflect from what you intend not to say. This can be a lot harder than planning what you intend to say. Not answering a loaded question or resisting an invitation to speculate requires a level of maturity, but also careful thought. You have to be mindful not only of what you’re not saying, but also how you’re not saying it.
Rehearsing in front of a mirror or, better yet, on video can reveal voice tics that can be off-putting and postures that can be distracting. Being aware of and eliminating the uhms, change rattling and swaying can enhance your speech and help fortify strong rapport with your audience.
The greatest benefit of practice is increased self-confidence. A self-confident speaker lays a foundation for greater rapport with an audience. Self-confidence based on thorough preparation and deliberate practice is earned. Self-confidence without preparation and practice is an invitation for missteps.
Walking Back Comments
Walking back a misstatement or ill-considered remark is a politically correct way of describing communication damage control. Issuing a statement indicating you didn’t mean to say what you said isn’t going to get you off the hook, especially if what you said is on video or taped. Offering an interpretative clarification isn’t any better.
As many high-profile people have painfully discovered, comments – spoken, written or in tweets – are largely exempt from erasure. And the internet has a long memory and a huge archive.
There isn’t any fool-proof, fail-safe way to “walk back” a misstatement. The remark stands, regardless whether you own it or not. An apology, while often appropriate, isn’t an eraser, either.
The only guard against misstatements is not to make them. The best insurance policy to avoid misstatements is preparation and practice.
Getting a chuckle is a great way to break the ice with an audience. It also is a great way to tumble into a manhole. The best media training advice: Don’t be cute. Don’t assume you are funny. Leave comedy to comedians.
Trying to inject humor into a serious situation is like playing Russian roulette with a loaded pistol. Your chances of getting shot are a lot larger than hitting the jackpot.
Only a fool makes promises he or she can’t deliver. Making problematic promises can reflect and be interpreted as a sign of self-delusion. Ironically, grand promises are viewed with heightened suspicion. Audiences feel they are getting a snow job.
Unachieved promises made with the best of intentions aren’t excused from wrath. They intensify cynicism and can damage reputations.
Leaders make bold statements, which often including promises, such as this famous refrain by Winston Churchill: “We shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be; we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender...” The difference is Churchill was rallying countrymen in preparation for war. As it turned out, what he promised came true.
If you must include a promise in your remarks, make sure it is a promise you will honor and can keep.
Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at email@example.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.