The Weekly Media Trainer: Part 4

By George Merlis Thursday, April 9, 2009

Last week I wrote about formulating an agenda for an interview or news conference.  I suggested that the best approach was to go into one of these sessions with a limited agenda of four, perhaps five major message points. Today, let’s focus on making those points quoteworthy.

As a print reporter and, later, a television news producer, I categorized answers into one of three categories:

Can’t use that.
Could use that.
Gotta use that.

Your mandate is to express your message points in “gotta use that language;” language that makes the reporter think: “I couldn’t say that better myself.”

To that end, it’s important to liven up your message points with what I call Grabbers.  A Grabber is a word device that turns a “can’t use that” or “could use that” response into a “gotta use that” answer.

There are five basic categories of Grabbers:
Word pictures
Startling facts or statistics or “st” words
Famous quotations or paraphrases of famous quotations
Analogies -- either metaphors or similes

Let’s look at examples of each:

Word pictures: A spokesman for the U.S. Marshals Service on the condition of Bernard Madoff’s government-seized $2.2 million yacht: “This boat was extremely well kept, extremely clean.  It looked like somebody took a bottle of 409 and scrubbed it every day.”  Another example: North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue on South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford’s refusal to take federal stimulus funds: “As bad a driver as I am, I’ll drive a truck down there to pick up his share.  I know how to put those dollars to good use.”

Startling statistics or “st” words: Dr. Alan Stern, then the principal investigator of the New Horizons NASA mission to Pluto: “New Horizons is the first mission to the last planet.”   Using a “st” word -- first, last, biggest, smallest, best, worst -- tells the media that what you are saying is news. In our media training session, Dr. Stern got two “st” words into a single sentence, and he used that grabber to great effect -- it appeared in dozens of news stories.  A few months later astronomers meeting in the Czech Republic made news by declaring Pluto was not really a planet.  So I sent Dr. Stern an e-mail asking him what he was saying now.  His wrote back, “I have not yet begun to fight.”  He was quoting John Paul Jones, the father of the American Navy who, invited to surrender his burning ship by his British opponent, issued that defiant reply. (And went on to sink the British vessel.)  And that brings us to our third form of grabber:

Quotations or paraphrases: Dr. Stern’s example was a direct quote.  But you see lots of paraphrases of quotations as Grabbers.  Sadam Hussein’s vainglorious boast that the first Gulf War would be the “mother of all battles,” spawned hundred of “mother of all....” examples.  “Mother of all baseball games,” “Mother of all legislative fights,”  “Mother of all boxing matches,” etc.   John F. Kennedy’s famous “Ask not....” line from his inaugural address is easily paraphrased to meet any number of situations.  Four years ago I read this one from Professor Paul Lucey of the University of Hawaii about the proposal to return astronauts to the moon: “Ask not what astrobiology can do for the moon.  Ask rather what the moon can do for astrobiology.”  Another great quote I’ve seen used directly in many situations is Einstein’s quip: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

Analogies (metaphors or similes): The difference between metaphors and similes is the use of the word “like.”  “Miller, the champagne of bottled beer” is the grievously inaccurate metaphor.  “As bottle beers go, Miller is like champagne,” is the simile for the same delusion.  In a recent interview a Japanese geisha used this simile about foreign tourists who harass her with cameras on Kyoto’s streets: “We are not like a Mickey Mouse in Disneyland.”  And Stephen M. Davis of the Millstein Center for Corporate Governance at Yale got off a good metaphor about a new effort some firms are making to tie executive compensation to corporate performance:  “These are green shoots, to use a gardening analogy.  It remains to be seen whether these are annuals or perennials.”  Not all analogies work.  Brazil’s earthy president, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva unleashed this particularly egregious example in an interview about trade talks:  “We are moving forward with real seriousness towards finding the possibility, like the G Spot, of an agreement.”

Comparisons: Last week I cited a noteworthy one from President Obama’s March 24 prime time news conference.  Urging patience in the economic crisis, he said of the U.S. economy: “This is a big ocean liner -- it’s not a speedboat -- it doesn’t turn around immediately.”  That was a particular good Grabber because it was both a comparison (speedboat vs ocean liner) and a word picture.  I suspect, like most good grabbers, it was crafted well in advance of the Q and A session, an arrow placed in the interview quiver that could be fired when the right question came along. (Word picture alert!)

What if the right question doesn’t come along?  How do you deploy your agenda if reporters don’t ask you the “right” questions?   Next week, I’ll deal with the art of transitioning from off-base or even hostile questions to your message points.  How, in other words, to put the interview train on the track to your destination. (Another word picture alert!)

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