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Candidates' style versus substance: a media trainers' scorecard

Humanize Your On-Air Appearance

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From the 2006/2007 Edition, “Media Training Guidebook”/PR News



Mike Schwager, President, Worldlink Media Consultants

Most media training workshops relate primarily to messaging.  The better ones help participants identify and learn to communicate essential communications objectives clearly, effectively and proactively.

In my 20 years of training executives, politicians and authors about how to get their messages across, the one key area that has been more challenging to teach concerns presentational style, and more specifically, the “likeability” factor.

One of the most egregious examples I like to use to illustrate this problem is then Vice President Al Gore's performance in the debates with George Bush during the 2000 presidential campaign.  Gore, who came into the campaign as the probable favorite, ruptured support among independent and undecided voters not based on what he said, but on how he said it – on how he projected his personality.

To many people’s surprise, he was perceived as arrogant and snooty, compared to Bush's earthiness and plainspokenness.  This in spite of the fact that in many instances, Gore was seen as being on the side of the more compassionate perspective on issues.

If it were not for this performance problem, Gore may have edged out Bush in an election result that was the narrowest in American presidential politics.

While it is true that personality traits are inherent in the individual and not always conducive to pliability, the effects of the worst traits can be mitigated, at least in structured settings such as debates or television interviews.  Here are some points to consider:


Most human beings consist of both light and shadow.  Those of us who’ve done some work on ourselves have learned about our darker sides.  Often stemming from negative belief systems and unresolved conflict formulated in our formative years, tools are available to begin the process of healing these more negative aspects of our emotions.

Whether that healing process is well underway or less so, we can use our intelligence to keep them contained, at least in a debate or interview setting.  Some careful introspection and feedback from family and friends will allow us to identify the more extreme negative emotional patterns, and to consciously counter them with more positive substitutes.

For example, if one is an interrupter, the common-sense solution is not to interrupt.  Here, during the training session, work must be focused on the art of listening.  If we consciously intend to listen to the interviewer, or to the debate opponent, waiting for this person to complete his or her thought before responding, allows us to be perceived as considerate.

If volatility and extreme reactivity is part of our nature, learning the art of unattachment from another person’s positionality, allows us to address the opposing point-of-view without being perceived as hostile, or uncentered.  Opposing points-of-view must be addressed with rational and intelligent argument, explaining their lack of common sense, workability and potential adverse impact on human lives. 

On all counts, avoid insults or invectives.  If your interviewer or debate opponent insults you or your organization, you can simply reply, “I take exception to the way you’ve characterized me, my intentions and my company.  Then, go on to explain your good intentions and actions, and the positive trackrecord of your company.  This way, you’ve put the spotlight on the other person’s poor behavior, and highlighted yourself as a person who takes the high road.

Equally important – never get personal with the interviewer or your debate opponent.  Deal with issues, with arguments, with the validity and sense of the statement put to you – but never hurtle diatribes at the person him or herself.  You simply will be seen as an ogre, and unlikable.

Humanize yourself and your organization.  People don’t want to hear cold statistics or facts with the simultaneous absence of expressions of humanness.  Use statistics sparingly only to emphasize the strength of the point you’re making.  Make more use of anecdotes.  Tell a story.  Make the story human.  If you’re illustrating the work of your company, talk about people, about your customers, and about your employees.  Cite examples.  Let the audience know about your work within the community, about charities you support, and why you support them.

A smile is worth a thousand words, and remember to smile when appropriate.  Also, use the first name of your interviewer, or opponent.  When you transmit a smile, or use someone’s first name, you’re energizing the empathic cord between you and your audience.  You become more likeable.

Use humor when appropriate.  Humor instantly can relieve the heaviness of a moment, and illustrate to others that you can lighten up and put things into perspective.  However, for some of us, humor doesn’t come naturally, so don’t apply it if it isn’t natural for you to do so.

Admit mistakes.  If you or your organization has done a misdeed, ‘fess up.  Admit the mistake.  Apologize for it. If someone has been hurt, express remorse.  Let your audience know you or your organization will learn from the mistake and never repeat it.   Many people are inclined to forgive, if given the opportunity.  Give it to them.  You’ll be seen as a better person for so doing.

Remember, you’re not really talking to your interviewer or debate opponent.  They’re just vehicles for your message.  You’re really talking to the thousands or millions of viewers or listeners on the other side of the television set or radio.  Remember that before you begin. 

Be yourself, but be your best self.  If you’re smart, don’t come across like a know-it-all.  If you’re impetuous, slow down and learn to think before you speak.  If you’re not a warm person, be conscious of ways to project more humanness.  Smile.  Use first names.  Use anecdotes.  If you’ve made a mistake, admit it and apologize.  Don’t overreact, and don’t get volatile. 

Think of someone you love or respect.   As you’re talking to an interviewer, think of someone you’ve been close to who you love and care about.  The interviewer will feel that positive emotion.  If you’re in a debate situation, think of someone you respect.  That respect will be felt by the debater, and possibly lessen the intensity of his or her opposition.  Most of all, the energy will be picked up by the audience – the people you’re really trying to reach.

Be strong, but allow some of the vulnerability you’ve been afraid to reveal, to present itself.  People will like you better for it.

Mike Schwager is a media trainer and publicist, and president of Worldlink Media Consultants, based in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.  As a media relations professional, Schwager specializes in such areas as:  publicity, writing (op-eds, articles, speeches), media interview training, crisis training, creative strategic planning, cause-related marketing, radio & television production, and celebrity networking. 

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