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Monday, August 11, 2003

On the Record: Managing Your Sound Bites
August 11, 2003

Many leaders will be called upon to speak with the media. Are you ready when the lights go on and the microphone is in your face? Here are four secrets to making a compelling case.

August 11, 2003 Issue

Cheap, Fast, and In Control: How Tech Aids Innovation

On the Record: Managing Your Sound Bites

Why Budgeting Kills Your Company

What Do YOU Think:
Are We Facing an Attitude Shortage?

by Gary Genard

In today's media-saturated environment, managers and other company personnel not normally considered spokespersons sometimes find it necessary to speak on the record. So it makes sense to be prepared. In fact, careful preparation spells the difference between an excruciating experience and one that lets your reputation, along with the credibility of your company, soar.

Whether you're being interviewed for a newspaper article, a radio talk show, or a television appearance, following this four-step, quick-study guide can make the interview a success.

Control the agenda
One of the most common mistakes made by executives interviewed in the media is that they allow themselves to remain in a responsive mode throughout the interview. This is virtually an invitation to failure. Allowing the interviewer to set the agenda of topics, to which you simply respond, is akin to playing defense all the time. It's far more profitable to play for the win, with a game plan to get you there.

To do that, you must control the agenda of the interview at all times. Interviewers can ask whatever questions they like—there simply isn't any rule that says you are required to answer those questions. During an interview, savvy interviewees know how to speak to issues of importance to stakeholders, while giving the impression that they are responding directly to the questions asked. Know ahead of time the three critical points you want to make in the interview and use your conversation with your interviewer to make them.

Speak in ways that create visual images in listeners’ minds.
In other words, advocate rather than respond, and answer topics, not questions. Learn how to "bridge" from the question you are asked to the response you want to give. It can help to think of the bridge as a pathway from the boggy terrain the interviewer has prepared for you to the firmer ground where you would like to stand.

In your practice sessions, have colleagues pose the questions you are hoping you won't be asked, then practice bridging to the points you want to make on those issues. The more skilled you become at bridging, the less related the question and answer will have to be, and the quicker you will be able to get to your safe haven. The best practitioners of this art are politicians and government spokespersons, and you can learn a lot from them. Here's a case in point.

In June of 2001, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice was asked on Meet the Press about President Bush's decision to end live-fire training exercises on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques. Members of the president's own party were accusing him of playing politics with the decision. Rice was asked about this charge, and this is how she responded:

The secretary of the Navy, in a press conference about this, I think, made the case best. And let me just note that he said that effective training on Vieques is more and more difficult to do. He said that it is time to look for a feasible alternative, and the Navy will have time, in the time between now and 2003, to look for that feasible alternative.

If you slowly lead up to the point you want to make, the listener or viewer may never hear it at all.
Notice how Rice finesses the issue of live fire by hinting that the Navy was ready to find other alternatives. By focusing on the future, she effectively ends the discussion about playing politics now. Little time is spent on the "unsafe side of the bridge"—the interviewee's response immediately begins giving information consistent with her objective for the interview.

Use stories, visual images, and personal examples
Reporters and other media representatives need to make their interviews interesting for their readers, listeners, and viewers. You can help. In the process, of course, you'll be increasing three of your own critical "-abilities": Your likeability, credibility, and believability.

Claims and assertions made without evidence are, at best, only opinions. At worst, they may make the speaker come across as pontificating. Enliven your point of view—and enhance your credibility—with anecdotes, personal experiences, and statistics that prove your point (although you must remember to present the statistics in human terms). Speak in ways that create visual images in listeners' minds, using simple, concrete language and, where possible, similes, metaphors, and analogies.

Employing these techniques will not only humanize you, but they will also imbue you with both authority and interest. They will help your important points stay in people's minds by making those points memorable.

Like it or not, in the world of media, perception is stronger than reality.
Listen to these two spokespersons, both commenting in the New York Times on a snowstorm last February that blanketed the East Coast. The first is Paul V. Sullivan, the deputy commissioner of Buffalo's Street Sanitation Department. Sullivan manages snow removal for the city, and he was asked about Buffalo's reputation for being the butt of snow jokes. His response, incidentally, is a marvelous example of putting a positive spin on a negative situation for one's organization:

We do get snow, but we can handle it. A lot of people are negative about the snow. They say Buffalo is the snow capital of the world and that we lost four Super Bowls. But the snow can be a lot of fun.

That's much more memorable than typical bureaucratese, such as:

This city has 112 snowplows, and I'm confident that we do our job efficiently and well.

And here is Todd Miner, a meteorologist at Pennsylvania State University, a primary source of good weather data in the U.S.; because of Penn State's status in the weather world, its meteorologists often are asked to speak to the press. Miner grew up in Buffalo and recalled twenty-five-foot snowdrifts during a blizzard in 1977:

I was six years old, and we were off from school for two weeks. It completely shut the city down. Those images made the top of the national news, and people were seeing these pictures of two-story homes completely buried by snowdrifts. Johnny Carson came out with jokes that Buffalo still had snow in July.

Is it any wonder that particular quote made it into the article?

Reprinted with permission from “The Four Secrets to Delivering the Right Sound Bites,” Harvard Management Communication Letter, July 2003.

See the latest issue of Harvard Management Communication Letter.

Gary Genard is president of Genard & Associates, an Arlington, Mass.-based coaching and consulting film specializing in public speaking and media training. He can be reached at hmcl@hbsp.harvard.edu.

Related Stories in HBS Working Knowledge:
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The Power of Posture

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Loosen Up Your Communication Style

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