Saturday, September 4, 2010

How to pause on TV

Brain freezes happen.

As a reporter covering the Midwest campaign loop for the 1980 U.S. President election, I had writer's block for nearly 2 hours after a Ronald Reagan speech. Obviously, this was before the 24/7 news cycle or I would have been looking for a new career the next day.

Having coached dozens of executives and others for public appearances and on-camera interviews, I watched - like all of us - the recent awkward "silence" of AZ Gov. Jan Brewer during a live TV debate. (CNN covered it well here).

Two points from my end as a presentation coach.

1. The instant recovery. We are human. We make mistakes. We shouldn't expect perfection, even from polished politicians. (But, we do.) The trick is to be armed with a standard line when you stumble (and, you're going to stumble) or when asked a tough question. With a rehearsed line embedded into your brain, you can easily "fall back" to the defensive position, and use a trusted phrase to fill the "dead air," and give yourself a chance to recover .
Also, set your clock. The "trigger" for "dead air" is at three seconds. Practice this timing, so your brain knows when to bring up the instant "back-up" line.

There are straight-forward recovery lines such as: "Let me try this again." Or, when asked a tough question: "That's a good question. Let me make sure I understand exactly what you are asking."

But humor is better in the "brain freeze" moments because it quickly eases the tension and can evoke sympathy and empathy. "Well, that was a warm and fuzzy moment, wasn't it?" Or, "In the replay, I know this is going to sound better."

2. The longer recovery. Gov. Brewer did not have an immediate line at the time of her brain freeze. But, she did try to recover on a subsequent radio interview by confessing "It was the longest 16 seconds of my life." Fortunately for Gov. Brewer, the news media stayed interested in her (it is, after all, a governor's race in AZ) and she had opportunity to explain herself.

As much as we all want everyone to "move along" and forget a past mistake, some folks (like the news media and opponents) won't let go. The clip is now permanent and if it's good enough, it will make it to the Daily Show.
To win the "final word," you need to evoke poise, confidence and, again, a bit of humor. Also, gently insinuate that there are bigger issues to discuss by asking questions and putting others on the defensive.

If you don't take immediate control, then opponents have room to question your character and intellect.

The key is to not be defensive, not admit you made a mental mistake, nor dwell on the mistake. Address it with a quick reply, and transition to your message. It's not: "Look, I know I stumbled and had a brain freeze. We make mistakes, don't we? Can't we get on to the real issues?"

To appear you're in control and have collected your poise, it's: "I'm glad I can show that I'm human. (Or, with a grin on your face: "I'm glad you enjoyed my warm and fuzzy moment.") But did you catch the point I was making? We need to (create jobs/improve the economy/etc.)?"

And, it doesn't hurt to have staff providing the news media context and background about, say, how great leaders like to reflect on matters before making big decisions.

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