AMERICAN WAY

By Marion Winik

The second I saw my wide eyes and tight jaw on tape, I was worried, very worried. But before I could adjust, the floor producer nodded her head and held up her fingers: three, two, one. As the camera rolled, the interviewer smiled brightly and began to speak. "Hi, I'm Tom Alderman and I'm here with Marion Winik…." I felt a sudden, total blankness, as if I had forgotten not only everything I knew about my recent book, but also the use of the English language.

I had just one afternoon to absorb everything I needed to know about doing media interviews. About to be shipped out on a book tour to promote a controversial personal memoir, I was scared to death. Responding to my alarm, my publisher sent me to Tom Alderman, founder of a media training and presentation skills firm. Alderman has been helping clients in business, government, and entertainment home their communications skills for almost twenty years. Compared to the costs of abject terror, $2,000 for a half-day, one-on-one session like the one I had in Los Angeles seems like a deal. You're coached through a program specifically tailored to your needs, and, lest you forget everything you just learned, you take home a videotape of the interviews.Alderman, a veteran broadcast journalist, had read my book, and developed lists of questions likely to be asked of me in various environments. He could play anyone from Oprah to a professorial public-radio type, and did a mean Geraldo Rivera as well.

When Alderman yells at you, which he might on occasion, it's not because he wants you to lose your lunch; it's because he knows American audiences. Studies show that ninety-three percent of what a listener gets out of any communication has to do with the demeanor, appearance, and likeability of the messenger (explaining Ronald Reagan's two terms in office); only seven percent is the message itself. Which all adds up to a booming media training business and hundred's of clients for Alderman.

Among them was Robert Fulghum, author of five national bestsellers, including All I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten. What Fulghum took away from media training was this: You've got three minutes and you've got a book to sell. Laid-back doesn't cut it. The TV interview only looks like a conversation; in fact, it's a carefully controlled pitch.

Fulghum was resistant at first. "Having spent lots of time in public, I felt reasonably self-confident and successful. And unwilling to give up my uniqueness for something phony and pre-packaged." But the critique Alderman offered changed Fulghum's mind. "Just getting an objective view of how I was doing was a big help," Fulghum says. There are very few people who will give you specific, objective feedback, like, "The lights are glaring off your glasses, and we can't see you eyes."

Fulghum has since changed his spectacles. He no longer sits back and ponders before answering a question. "I put a lot of energy into my posture; I respond immediately; and most important, I understand that taking responsibility for the exchange, controlling the conversation, is not interfering. In this situation, it's my job.

Media training has benefits even for those masters of directed communication, corporate lawyers. Frederick Kranz, an Orange County, California, trial attorney, acted as media spokesperson for computer-peripherals manufacturer Epson when the firm was sued by ex-employees who maintained the company had violated their privacy by intercepting and reading their e-mail.

"In speaking for Epson, I had to defend a position viscerally contrary to how most people react," Kranz explains. "As a trial lawyer I was used to pointed, manipulative questions - but now I was answering them, not posing them."

Kranz learned that he didn't have to answer those questions. "You say what you want to say - you don't have to respond to what they've asked you." In short, he mastered the stratagem Alderman calls the Bridging Technique, or the Fred Astaire Sidestep. As Alderman likes to tell it, Astaire was asked tine and again which of his dance partners was his favorite. He always gave the same answer. "Oh," he would say mildly, even conspiratorially, "I really couldn't tell you that, but what I can tell you is that everyone of them had her own unique quality of grace and dignity that made her unforgettable." And he would go on to talk about Leslie's smile and Ginger's carriage, and so forth.

Dr. Stephen Auerbach, a California urologist, was the Upjohn media spokesperson for a new medication for impotence. Convincing millions of men with sexual difficulties to insert a needle into their private parts was no simple task. Auerbach's training focused on developing a sound bite: a ten second statement that gets the key messages on the table without frightening people, turning them off, or using language unacceptable for television. In this case, a tall order.

In media training, Auerbach learned to use Alderman's Alignment Technique to sympathize with the concerns of a dubious or mock-horrified interviewer before contradicting. "They say, 'My God, that must hurt like hell!' And I say, 'It does sound scary, doesn't it? Anyone would be frightened. But, in fact, the pain of the injection is no more than a pinch, and is nothing compared to the emotional pain of the problem.'"

As Auerback, Kranz and Fulghum point out, the lessons of media training have applications outside the television studio. Auerbach finds himself using the Alignment Technique in the examining room. Kranz maintains that he learned more about the art of communication in one half-day session than he has in decades as a trial lawyer. As Fulghum sums it up, "It isn't really just media training, it's life training. You get the chance to see yourself not just as the camera sees you, but as other people see you. And choosing to present one dimension of your personality rather than another isn't being phony, it's being effective."

Tom Alderman's Tips for Success

1. Sit up straight. Like your mother told you, posture is important. To project confidence, keep your spine erect, lean slightly forward, and smile as much as possible whether you feel like it or not. Remember, likeability is as important as credibility, if not more so.

2. Be prepared. Condense your message to three major points and express them as concisely as possible. Plan the examples or anecdotes you will use to illustrate them. Less is more. Don't bury your listeners beneath a mountain of words; you can control the conversation as effectively with silences as with nonstop chatter.

3. Make your conclusion first. Once you get on air, time truly flies. You may not have time to build up to your point, so use the "inverted pyramid" style found in newspaper stories: Start with the most important information; then give the examples and supporting data.

4. Deflect curveballs. If a question throws you for a loop, politely acknowledge it and then return to your primary agenda, your message points. Try, "I don't know if I can answer that, but what I can tell you is…"; "If you're asking whether (insert a question you prefer to respond to), then…"; or "I understand how people might worry about that, but… ." You see politicians do this all the time.

5. Don't be cool. Emotion and energy come across on camera. A flat tone and reserved, businesslike demeanor might be impressive in face-to-face encounters, but they make you look like a cold fish to television viewers.

 

Marion Winik, a contributing editor to American Way, is the author of First Comes Love and Telling. She is a frequent contributor to National Public radio's All Things Considered.