Meet the Press

A Crash Course in Candidate Media Training

by Kevin Geddings and Scott Anderson

So your candidate has an opportunity to be on the six o’clock news.  Here are some quick pointers to make the most of a great free press opportunity.

1.) Remember who the audience is.  The “audience” is always the average TV viewer – it’s not the most knowledgeable person watching.  Try to use a slowly delivered 5th-grade vocabulary when on-camera.  Popular television and radio news programs rarely feature sophisticated language or detailed discussions for a reason. Audiences want simple “punchy” responses to questions and brief statements.  Network newscasts are written on a 6th grade level.

2.) Audience Interest.   You’ve probably heard for some time that the average person has a 15-minute attention span.  It’s actually much shorter than that unless the subject matter is particularly riveting (violence, sex, etc.)  So, it’s often necessary to use your concluding sentence as your first sentence.  By beginning your response with your conclusion, the listener or viewer is more likely to accept your basic point before they fade.  Few things matter more than brevity in a successful media appearance.

3.) Posture.  Comfortable is important, but so is presence.  Keep your shoulders straight and don’t slouch.  Slouching works for Jack Germond, but not the rest of us.  Use changes in voice inflection and dramatic pauses to make them pay attention to you.  Lean into the camera if you feel comfortable doing so.

4.) Speak slowly.   Take the time to really listen to Larry King, George W. Bush or Barbara Walters – their speech delivery is very slow.  Viewers and listeners rarely put any effort into viewing or listening.  Often they’re doing other things, which limit the amount of mental capacity they can dedicate to what you are saying.  Make it easy for them – talk slowly, don’t slur your words together and repeat key points.

5.) Smile often.  It sounds almost too simple, but you can improve your public speaking performance by just smiling more.  A smile is perceived as an indication of sincerity, truthfulness and self-confidence.   Although it might not be appropriate to give a goofy smile during a serious question, it’s entirely appropriate and necessary to find a reason to smile during even the most policy-intensive speeches.

6.) Enunciate each word completely.  Occasionally, we all have a tendency to trail off while we’re speaking.  A microphone is cruel to subjects who do this because everything is captured and conveyed.  Each and every word you speak must be stated completely, fully and slowly for maximum impact.  Try to pronounce each and every consonant, especially the ones at the end of a word.

7.) Gestures.  Use hand and facial gestures if they are comfortable for you, but don’t force their use.  Keep them within a 6” square around you heart.

8.) Exaggeration is a necessity on TV.  Every move of your eyebrows, mouth and other facial muscles needs to be exaggerated by 25 per cent to be effectively conveyed from the podium or on television.  Unless it feels as if you are exaggerating, you’re not exaggerating enough.  This requires practice in a mirror and with video record and play back.

9.) Preparation.  The ultimate key to any successful public speaking or on-air performance is preparation.  Asking who the interviewer is on the way to the studio virtually assures a below-par performance.  Take 15 minutes before the interview or before you travel to the TV station to practice answering the questions you’re likely to be asked.   Think about your responses and frame the shortest possible responses.  Write down your three-sentence message statement – the message you want to convey through the interview.

10.) Make-up and clothes.   The strong lights and one-dimensional nature of television and podiums makes make-up a necessity for both men and women.  If offered, always accept some powder, lip-stick, rouge, etc.   If not offered, bring some with you for a light application before you go on the air.  For men, the darker the suit, the more seriously you will be taken,  Burgundy colored ties with very simple patterns are preferred with a blue or gray tab collar dress shirt.  White shirts and wild ties distract the viewer from your mouth and therefore from your message.   For women, dress in neutral colors and avoid large patterns and big jewelry.  Also avoid open to shoes and bright lipstick.

11.) Get to know the people behind the camera.  When arriving “on-set,” introduce yourself to the camera operator(s), set manager, production assistants, etc.  These people can help you look good on TV.  Talk to the interviewer off camera to get a better sense of where they’re headed with questions.  Being nice never hurt anyone appearing on TV.

12.) Post-mortem.  Always review your performance on video and audio tape a day or so after you’ve been on TV or radio.  Jot down a few notes of things you’d like to do better and note over time which criticisms you seem to be consistently making of yourself.

Kevin Geddings is President of Geddings & PhillipsCommunications, LLC, a Democratic political advertising agency based in Washington, DC.  Scott Anderson is a senior associate with the firm.