The late ABC Anchor Peter Jennings noted, “I find writing the evening news sometimes very challenging because I realize that what we’re trying to give folks in the evening is black and white when so often I want to give them gray.” That same frustration is only exacerbated these days for media and communicators alike. Bottom line: There is a place for nuance. It’s just a small place.
Attention spans have shrunk to the size of a Nike Swoosh. But one reason why the conservative right is so successful is that they give audiences one side and one side only. It’s simplistic, but it’s clear.
While I’m not advocating simplifying issues devoid of nuance, what I am suggesting is that to help your CEO or spokesperson learn the game that gets ink, you must help him or her develop a million-dollar tongue.
A large part of that involves delivering concise sound bites the media will use.
I love poetry and nuance and subtlety. It saddens me that the place for it in the media is almost as extinct as the White Rhino. I’ve frequently said to my clients that the art of sound bites is like taking War and Peace and turning it into a haiku.
Learning to speak “sound bite” is like learning a new language. Here are some ways to do that without selling your soul (or losing your message):
Speak so you can’t be edited.
I media coached a former Jesuit priest for CBS’ “60 Minutes” who was protesting the sexual harassment he had endured that led him to leave the priesthood. The show was called “Is the Catholic Church above the Law?” I played Mike Wallace. He got Morley Safer. He said the interview was easy after what I put him through. He was positioned positively. It could easily have gone the other way—except for one thing: When I taught him to only speak phrases that couldn’t be truncated and spliced to change his meaning, the six hours of taping that was edited down to five minutes turned in his favor.
Does this take lots of practice? Yes. But it can be done. The harder you are on your CEO or spokesperson, the better it is for him. Better you making him sweat and swear than Mike Wallace. By the way, the case went all the way to the Supreme Court and he won.
Create modular sound bites.
I was media coaching a CEO of an up-and-coming company positioning itself to go public. The company was targeting business shows on MSN, CBS, CNN and wanted to attract investors. We created sound bites to include facts about the company’s financial well being, about the internal health of the company and employee happiness, and the ways that they were innovators in their field. Plus the company was growing fast, adding new stores nationwide at record speed, while staying in the black.
We took those same stories and angled them for the company’s other two audiences: consumers and trade. And we worked the CEO’s passion for fly-fishing into the mix, which brought out his sweetness.
Pro tip: Work with your CEO or spokesperson not to memorize talking points, but to make them modular—to flex his ideas into different shapes and sizes for different audiences. Make him human and lovable by establishing some key stories about his personal life, which exemplify how well he leads her people—which is what we really want to see. We need more leaders and fewer protectors of the bottom line.
Move people with your good spirit.
Words are less important than you think, likability more. In the Gallup poll taken during each presidential election since 1960, the candidate who scored highest in the likeability category has won every election.
Making your CEO likable is crucial to his success in the media.
I was working with a CEO of a popular magazine who had a brilliant mind, was a talented athlete, but wooden.
As soon as I encouraged him to speak of his youngest daughter, his whole demeanor softened. His VP of PR cooed, “Oh, you just got soooo handsome.” It was true.
Once I coached him to speak from that place of the pride and love he had in his daughter he could talk about the difficult situation in his industry that directly impacted his magazine—formerly a stumbling block—with ease and grace.
The more open your CEO or spokesperson is, the more powerful he is. Practice having him remain open and loving when you grill him with tough questions.
That may sound ridiculous, but when we speak as if we were addressing a beloved child it’s pretty hard for the media to retaliate with the same vehemence than toward a man holding a sword ready to strike.
Spending time with your CEO or spokesperson to hone his sound bites, body and facial language to suit any situation will help make rich poetry in troubled times.
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