You may marvel at people you see on the news whose presentations seem effortless, whose quotes are compelling and who inspire confidence. Yes, some people are naturally better communicators than others, but most of the really good communicators have mastered their technique through a lot of practice. And, chances are they really aren’t completely comfortable either. Even accomplished spokespeople can cringe when they look back at themselves on TV, read their quotes, or hear themselves on the radio.
Having trained more than 100 spokespeople in my career I have identified a few common problems that can be alleviated with good coaching. Training can also unlock emotional energy and passion that can mobilize others to want to join you.
The most common challenges?
First and foremost, is lack of clarity on what your message really is. If you’ve ever witnessed someone’s speech fall flat or seen them get caught up in process or history or endless details and never actually get to the point, it’s probably because they weren’t crystal clear on what their key message is. Taking this one step further, the key message may have been clear enough, but without a call to action that “sings,” the message can evaporate once your audience leaves the room.
Second, people can be easily distracted from their message by trying to answer a question asked by reporters or audience members. Often this ends up with a lot of extraneous information that the audience doesn’t care about, and doesn’t get back to your core. Rule number one in my trainings is: “it’s not the question that’s important, it’s the answer.”
The third biggest challenge is just plain nerves. Stick a microphone in someone’s face or switch on a bright light and even the smoothest presenter can go to pieces. People worry so much about making mistakes that they simply freeze up or just ramble on with no message in sight. I don’t mean to say that you shouldn’t be on guard and cautious — a little nervous energy is good for projecting your excitement on your subject. But you can’t let the nerves take over — that is key. Feeling (and being) in control of the interview or presentation helps you project confidence that your audience will respond to, control the message, and nail the interview.
When I train spokespeople, I work with them to focus on the following key things:
Message: What is the message you want to get across and how should it be spoken or worked into a quote for maximum effectiveness? Forget that elegant paragraph you have in your press release or on your website. It may read well but chances are high it will fall flat when you say it out loud. We work together to re-work these statements so they are clear, concise and compelling. Sound bites, not sound paragraphs, are what we are aiming for — short powerful emotive phrases that will stick.
Bridging: Ever felt like a question led you down a messaging path you weren’t prepared for? We work on bridging back to your core message, regardless of the questions that are asked. By practicing bridging techniques and preparing for tough questions, we will make sure you stay on message and on point.
Context: Where is the interview happening and what subjects will likely be covered? Are you releasing a report or making some news that will prompt interviews? The training is geared to what you will actually be doing. When some of our international clients prepare for a report release, for example, they may need to prepare to present their findings in settings as varied as the UN Headquarters press room or during a radio interview. Techniques and content may vary format to format, so working on framing and language that suits the setting is critical to ensure you succeed.
Questions: I try to learn as much about the content as possible, look at news coverage on the topic and the organization to explore nuances and vulnerabilities to work with you and identify those hot spots that may come up. What are you worried about and why? Is there something negative out there that may come up? Good preparation, which involves my prodding questions and developing a response to the hardest question you might be asked, are crucial to ensuring you maintain calm and control in the conversation.
The Rules: Everyone should learn the “basic rules of engagement” for working with the media and the tenets of making an effective presentation. What do reporters expect? How do different media scenarios vary? Clearly a radio talk show with call-ins is different from a television stand-up interview.
Practice, practice, practice: Arguably the most important part of my (and any) training is rehearsing. Practicing interviews in front of the “lights,” using an “interviewer” and duplicating the scenarios you’re most likely to encounter contribute to your sense of control when the real thing comes along. We work together to improve content in action, the length of your quotes, your body language and more — often this involves recording, playing back, and analyzing your practice runs. In group trainings with co-workers, participants can coach and support each other and build confidence in their performance.
For me, what’s critical in all of this is to keep it positive. You should leave feeling affirmed. Critical to my own success is that you leave the training session feeling confident and ready. I aim to make the trainings entertaining — on the training end this is a huge plus and helps your natural-self shine through as you learn from your trainer and colleagues.
Do you have anything coming up that you need to practice for? Big interview? New report coming out? Speaking on a panel? Let’s work together to make sure you’re ready to own your messages and take control of your performance.