Warren Buffett: A Media Master


In my media training workshops, I always encourage my clients to read newspapers and magazines with new eyes and listen to broadcast interviews with new ears. In addition to absorbing the facts of a narrative, I urge them to analyze how those facts are most effectively presented. In other words, how good soundbites work.

I do this all the time and recently I was reminded, while watching Charlie Rose on PBS,  that investor Warren Buffett is not only a canny businessman, but he is also very good with soundbites. Recently, Charlie Rose interviewed Warren Buffett for a full hour, discussing his acquisition of Burlington Northern Santa Fe and the U.S. economy in general.

I don’t know if Buffett has what I call the "Harry Truman gift" -- that is virtually every point he wants to make comes out like a polished verbal gem (“The buck stops here.” / “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” / “It’s a recession when your neighbor loses his job, it’s a depression when you lose yours.”)  Or perhaps the Sage of Omaha is more calculating; maybe he -- like the late comedian Milton Berle -- rehearses his ad-libs. Most of us fall into the Milton Berle, rather than the Harry Truman category; we are not genetically gifted with the ability to compose great soundbites on the fly. But there is nothing wrong with composing them in advance and deploying them in an interview.  For one thing they make your message points more effective. For another, good soundbites make you a “good interviewer,” and the media will come back again and again to solicit your views.

A November 18, 2009 New York Times story reported Goldman Sachs would support business and management education for 10,000 small businesses. The story said GS would be working with Buffett, the bank’s largest investor, on the program. Buffett told the Times he was not committing any of his own money to the program but rather would offer “advice from the 35,000-foot level.”  That works as a soundbite or a pull quote because it is such a compelling word picture.

Here are some more "Buffettisms". They are all great word pictures:

“Chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.”

“Derivatives are financial weapons of mass destruction.”

“I don't look to jump over 7-foot bars: I look around for 1-foot bars that I can step over.”

“In the business world, the rearview mirror is always clearer than the windshield.”

“Only when the tide goes out do you discover who's been swimming naked.”

“Should you find yourself in a chronically leaking boat, energy devoted to changing vessels is likely to be more productive than energy devoted to patching leaks.”

“Wall Street is the only place that people ride to in a Rolls Royce to get advice from those who take the subway.”

“According the name 'investors' to institutions that trade actively is like calling someone who repeatedly engages in one-night stands a 'romantic.' "

Quotes can be effective in creating soundbites. But who would have expected American’s most celebrated investor to be quoting a Hollywood sex goddess?  Here it is: “Why not invest your assets in the companies you really like? As Mae West said, ‘Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.’”  A paraphrase of a familiar quote -- especially if it’s a funny one -- works well, too: “Beware of geeks bearing formulas.”

Comparisons, real or implied,  make for good soundbites. Here are some of Buffett’s gems:

“It's far better to buy a wonderful company at a fair price than a fair company at a wonderful price.”

“Price is what you pay. Value is what you get.”

“Time is the friend of the wonderful company, the enemy of the mediocre.”

“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.”

As an investor, Buffett frequently flies in the face of conventional wisdom.  Here are some good quotes that challenge conventional wisdom:

“A public-opinion poll is no substitute for thought.”

“The investor of today does not profit from yesterday's growth.”

“Risk comes from not knowing what you're doing.”

“Wide diversification is only required when investors do not understand what they are doing.”

“If past history was all there was to the game, the richest people would be librarians.”

And, finally, I urge clients to leave comedy to the comedians, but by comedy I mean joke-telling. More often than not jokes don’t work but gentle humor can work -- especially the self-deprecating kind. Here’s a perfect example by Buffett:  “I buy expensive suits. They just look cheap on me."

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