key message

Talking on Your Feet in Impromptu Moments

To avoid being caught off guard, you should prepare for impromptu speaking moments by staying engaged in meetings, thinking in your head of the questions you would ask or the comments you would make and practicing talking on your feet. Your dog won’t mind.

To avoid being caught off guard, you should prepare for impromptu speaking moments by staying engaged in meetings, thinking in your head of the questions you would ask or the comments you would make and practicing talking on your feet. Your dog won’t mind.

If you’ve ever watched “Whose Line Is It Anyway,” you know how funny improvisational humor can be. But when you are forced to make impromptu comments at a company meeting or in a public setting, funny usually isn’t your goal.

“Speaking off the cuff is a different kind of skill from prepared speaking. However, it can be just as important as a prepared speech – perhaps even more so,” says speech coach Allison Shapira.

The same rules apply. Don’t meander into your message. Be sensitive to your body language. Make a single, solid point. Know when to stop. 

The same cautionary notes apply, too. Be wary of jokes. Avoid sliding into jargon or gibberish. Don’t say the first thing that pops into your mind. Remember brevity is better than boring.

Easier said than done, you say, especially if you are caught off guard by a request to speak. True, but the possibility of being called on should disabuse anyone they are just spectators at a meeting. As Shapira advises, “Be present.” Pay attention. Stay off your iPhone. Engage in the topic.

A trick to keep your mind alert is thinking about a question you could ask. Thinking about a question can get you into an answering-frame-of-mind. Even better, train yourself to think about what you could say, whether asked or not.

CFM customizes each media training it conducts and routinely provides realistic impromptu scenarios to sharpen speaker skills when talking on their feet.

CFM customizes each media training it conducts and routinely provides realistic impromptu scenarios to sharpen speaker skills when talking on their feet.

Silent participation can be read by others as disinterest, timidity or lack of anything worth contributing. Those aren’t the traits that lead to job promotions. 

Shapira says speakers can prepare for formal presentations and impromptu opportunities. Leaders, experts or people in the middle of a controversy should definitely develop and practice impromptu speaking skills.

Media training, especially for crisis communications, can prepare speakers to deal with surprise questions and unexpected issues. Think of a request to make an impromptu comment as roughly the same as an ambush interview. You may be caught off guard, but don’t be caught unprepared.

Practice the skill of condensing what you say to a single key message and offering two or three supporting points. This approach requires discipline and focus, which happen to be exactly what you need when speaking without prepared remarks.

Experienced speakers, especially ones who have the scars from previous impromptu boo-boos, may venture into light humor and even storytelling (especially if a story is the request). However, be careful. If someone asks for your opinion, giving them a story may not seem responsive – and may not convey the real point you want to make. Self-deprecating humor has its place, but probably not when responding to a question in business meeting.

Speaking clearly is a requirement for effective communication in writing, presenting or speaking. You can practice clarity when you write emails or memos or when you create a PowerPoint. Clarity requires diligent editing, self-restraint and a genuine concern for your audience. If you want your audience to read or hear what you say, make it easy for them to know what you are saying.

The stakes may be higher than you realize. Your ability to talk on your feet can earn your esteem in the eyes of others, including bosses or critics.

“Every day, you can build trust with your colleagues or clients,” Shapira says. “How you communicate in those impromptu interactions – your confident voice, your conversational tone, your concise answer – builds trust.”

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

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 garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

There Are No Throwaway Questions in Interviews

The last question in a media interview could be the most important. It certainly isn’t a throwaway question. It might be an ambush.

The last question in a media interview could be the most important. It certainly isn’t a throwaway question. It might be an ambush.

Wary reporters have taken to a tactic of asking an out-of-the-blue question at the end of what otherwise might be a routine interview. Whatever the purpose, such questions can send well-rehearsed spokespeople skidding off script, blurring their key message and making the wrong kind of “news.”

For that reason, media training these days includes “ambush interview” techniques and how to combat them.

Ambushing spokespeople is one way reporters are responding to rote, opaque or superficial statements. Those of us who coach spokespeople are responding by adding training to address what can be a very disorienting – and potentially disheartening – end to an interview.

It is important for spokespeople to remember there are no throwaway questions in an interview. Each question is a live-stakes interaction and should be treated with respect – and awareness.

Ambush questions tend to occur when entities or spokespeople are evasive, non-responsive or arrogant. It is a reporter’s way to get-even or level the playing field. Instead of regarding ambush questions as impertinent or a trap, spokespeople should view them as reporters trying to do their job.

The best way to avoid being ambushed is to say something when being interviewed. A well-prepared spokesperson should have a key message centered on action, not evasion. Reporters may still push for more detail or question the motivation for action, but that’s where solid preparation comes into play. A spokesperson should have practiced to parry with a reporter or a press conference full of reporters.

Former President Bill Clinton, no stranger to high-pressure interviews and ambush questions, stumbled over NBC correspondent Craig Melvin’s direct question about whether he personally apologized to Monica Lewinsky. While his interview with Melvin was nominally about the new book the former President has co-written with James Patterson, Clinton should not have been surprised about Lewinsky questions. In the shadow of the #MeToo movement, he absolutely should have anticipated a question about whether and how he apologized to Lewinsky.

In reality, Clinton ambushed himself by failing to prepare or not preparing well enough. It is a common mistake that can keep a crisis grinding on for another news cycle or rekindle an old ember into a fresh fire.

Whether it is the first question or the last question, each question can have a purpose – and maybe an underlying motivation. Spokespeople need to protect themselves and the organization they speak for by:

  • Knowing their subject
  • Mastering their key message
  • Anticipating questions
  • Preparing for obvious and not-so-obvious questions
  • Practicing

You are less likely to be surprised if you go into a media interview with something newsworthy to say – and say it in a clear, plainspoken way. The trickier you try to be, the more you invite in-kind behavior from reporters. If you try to brush them off, don’t be surprised if they try to ambush you.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

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 garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

 

 

Structures to Make Stories Familiar, Yet Fresh

Storytelling is powerful, but sometimes storytellers are stymied and need help getting started. Here are seven plot structures that audiences will recognize.

Storytelling is powerful, but sometimes storytellers are stymied and need help getting started. Here are seven plot structures that audiences will recognize.

Storytelling is a proven way to make your point in a memorable way. While we learn to listen to and tell stories as children, many adults forget the basics. Author Christopher Booker has provided a refresher course.

Booker says storytelling boils down to seven basic plots. Master them and you can become a spellbinding storyteller.

Instead of reading his book, The Seven Basic Plots, which veers off topic to denounce soap operas, the metric system and feminism, Quid Corner, a British financial resource blog, has reduced his concepts to a series of easy-to-access infographics.

To be effective, storytelling must be authentic, not the sum total of a formula. However, some basic plot structures can help a stymied storyteller get started.

According to Booker, the seven plots are overcoming a monster, rags to riches, voyage and return, the quest, comedy, tragedy and rebirth. The Quid Corner infographics offer advice on how to use each basic plot to tell a story or make a presentation.

You can think of the infographics as paint-by-the-numbers storytelling and treat them accordingly. But before scoffing them into insignificance, they are useful mini-guides to creating a recognizable story architecture. Many stories fall flat because the audience gets confused, loses track of the plot and misses the point of the story.

In the “rags to riches” plot structure, for example, someone overcomes major obstacles to achieve success. This doesn’t have to be only about Horatio Alger heroes who with fortitude go from impoverished to wealthy. This story line is one we see, in one form or another, a lot. A child is diagnosed with cancer, doctors are stymied, then the child receives an experimental procedure and defeats cancer. A man is fired because he is an alcoholic, his family leaves, he becomes homeless, then he seeks help, sobers up, gets a job and regains his self-respect. These are compelling narratives with a familiar plot.

All of the plot structures Quid Corner illustrates can be used in a similar fashion. You don’t need a real “monster” to trace Booker’s plot line of overcoming one.

The real value of Booker’s synthesis of plot structures – and Quid Corner’s infographics – is to give storytellers an outline of how to tell their story in a way that is at once familiar, yet fresh: What elements to include, a sequence to follow and a tie-in between the rags starting point and the riches finish line.

The structure of the story is critical so you don’t baffle listeners, but instead give them a familiar path to follow to the fresh point you want your story to make.

 

Disciplined Repetition and Relentless Consistency

If you want to get your point across and remembered, don’t talk louder, apply disciplined repetition and relentless consistency to what you say in a media interview, speech or briefing.

If you want to get your point across and remembered, don’t talk louder, apply disciplined repetition and relentless consistency to what you say in a media interview, speech or briefing.

Getting your point across in an interview or controversy takes more than talking louder. It requires disciplined repetition and relentless consistency.

As an issue manager or a crisis spokesperson, you cannot expect people to be sitting on the edge of their seat waiting to hear your key message. Disciplined repetition increases the odds that your key message will actually be heard and remembered.

Relentless consistency helps to guard against message migration, which is what can happen when a message is shared from person to person like in the game called Telephone.

My former boss, Ron Wyden, insisted on repeating his key message at least three times in a press interview, speech or question-and-session session. He contended, with some empirical evidence to back him up, that if you make your point once, only some people will get it. When you mention it a second time, the point gets wider notice because it sounds familiar. On the third mention, most people will have absorbed the point – and many will have stored it away. Alert reporters will get the clear signal this is what the speaker wants to get across.

This is not a reflection on the collective intelligence of audiences or reporters. It is a fact that we retain less of what we hear than what we see. Disciplined repetition recognizes this human fact.

The discipline to repeat key messages involves overcoming the natural sense that you are belaboring your point. You are belaboring your point on purpose so it stands out and sticks.

Disciplined repetition also involves practicing how to say the same thing more than once without seeming to have a script. This is where sound bites play an important role in forming the core of a message that can wrapped up in various ways. Here’s an example:

The Federal Communication Commission’s decision to eliminate net neutrality will mean telecommunication companies can put big guys in the fast lane and shove little guys into the slow lane.

Regardless what the FCC or telecommunications companies say, ending net neutrality may result in different users forced onto different and sometimes slower lanes of the internet.

If net neutrality hadn’t existed, a startup like YouTube may never have been able to compete financially with Google for access to the fast lane of the internet.

Relentless consistency reinforces key messages and avoids confusing audiences. Too much information can bog down audience comprehension, burying a key message under a heap of facts and extraneous material. The desire to share “all the facts” or provide “useful context” only succeeds in overloading your audience and blurring what you really want them to remember.

Sticking to your message over multiple interviews or briefings keeps your message prominent and is a cue of what you view as most important to know. It also reduces the chance that a reporter or stakeholder will leave the room thinking one of your side points was your main point.

The best example of this was my client who, with the best of intentions, refused to stick with a key message, choosing instead to follow the lead – and sometimes take the bait – of reporters. The result were muddy interviews that often didn’t even wind up in the final stories, especially for TV news.

One of the best aids for relentless consistency is a great visual image – an illustration, map or chart. Visual images have more impact than words alone because people see them as you are talking. If the images are well conceived and well designed to reinforce your key message, your chances of making a clear impression are amplified.

You can count the number of times in this blog I used disciplined repetition and relentless consistency to see preaching in practice.

 

The Too-Much Answer

The spokesperson's role isn't to gush information, but to deliver a key message with words that a reporter can quote and an audience can grasp.

The spokesperson's role isn't to gush information, but to deliver a key message with words that a reporter can quote and an audience can grasp.

Eager spokespersons sometimes share too much information when answering questions, obscuring the key message they intended to highlight.

Spokespersons who turn into gushers when asked questions typically fail to know their mission, which is to deliver a message, not act like an encyclopedia.

Saying the right thing with just-enough language requires discipline. That usually comes from media training and experience. The kind of experience when your key message is omitted from a story and replaced by something less important, trivial or wrong.

Don't blame the reporter, who has to make sense of what you say and turn it into a short clip for TV or radio or a couple of quotes for a print or online article. If the reporter can't decipher your central point in your flurry of words, blame yourself for creating the confusion.

There is a fine line between a tight response and a terse response. A terse response can come across in the interview, and later on air, as evasive. A tight response, if delivered confidently and conversationally, can convey a sense of command by the spokesperson, increasing their believability. The only way most spokespersons gain that confidence is through practice. You need to now what you need to say and practice how to say it effectively.

Media trainers encourage chiseling key messages into sound bites. That may sound contrived, but the idea is to zero in on a message and the best way to express it. Not only will that help to ensure it is quoted, it will make the message more comprehensible.

In this regard, the spokesperson role is more like a playwright and an actor. You start with a goal, then think like a playwright how to present it – the words, the scenery, the staging. The actor's responsibility is to make the words come alive with his or her voice and body language.

Another critical aspect of media training is the art of bridging – how you take a question and turn it back to your key message. Instead of learning strong bridging phrases, some spokespersons think out loud and wander toward an answer, which may not be all that well thought out. The ill-considered answer too often is a launch pad for additional questions that pull the interview far away from your key point, maybe even into regions you sought to avoid.

Spokespersons are chosen because of their knowledge of a subject and/or their job title. However, their key message can be swamped by over-sharing or feeling they must get everything on the record. Digressions, windy explanations and technical jargon exasperate most reporters, at best, and confound them, at worst.

Transparency for a spokesperson involves telling the truth in a way that is meaningful and can be heard. Too much information is often the enemy of the truth. It buries what is important under the weight of interesting, but non-essential facts.

The best spokesperson is the one who knows what to say – and what not to say. The best spokesperson thinks about connecting with his or her audience through 12 seconds on air or two paragraphs in print.