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Media Training: Stop Talking, Already!


Edward Everett was one of the most famous orators of his time. Standing before an audience of thousands in a Pennsylvania field on a cold winter's day in November 1863, he delivered one of the impassioned speeches that made him famous. His two-hour speech reportedly captivated the crowd.

The poor fellow who was scheduled to speak after him had only prepared a two-minute speech.

The man was Abraham Lincoln, and the speech was the Gettysburg Address.

Less is more.


Most interviewees are experts in their fields. They have a lifetime of acquired learning in their subject, and could easily pontificate for hours about even the smallest detail. Their expertise rarely fails to impress at dinner parties, and they are regarded as wise counsel amongst friends.

But in the setting of a media interview, they almost always say too much.

Perhaps they feel the need to demonstrate the depth of their knowledge in an attempt to build their credibility. Conceivably they think that giving a reporter extensive background is helpful. Or maybe their nervousness uncontrollably propels them to chatter endlessly. Either way, they've lost total control of their message, and are inevitably disappointed by their quote in the next day's paper.

An interview isn't about demonstrating knowledge - it's about organizing knowledge. Instead of downloading raw information to a member of the press, interviewees should prepare no more than three main message points (single sentences) prior to the interview. During the interview, questions should be answered directly - but quickly - before segueing to a prepared message.

In general, try to keep your answers to 30 seconds or less; complicated questions can occasionally require up to a full minute. By doing so, the audience stands a much better chance of actually remembering your most important points. Remember - even the smartest audience won't be able to recall everything you said. But they will remember the highlights - if they remain unburied by nonessential verbiage.


Another reason to "talk short" is that it limits your risk of saying something you'll ultimately regret. As an interview continues, most interviewees become more comfortable. That's a good thing. But too often, they become victims of what I've dubbed, "The Seven Second Stray."

The Seven Second Stray is the often inevitable moment when a comfortable interviewee makes a slightly sarcastic or flip remark. The spokesperson may have been on message for the other 59 minutes and 53 seconds of an hour-long interview. But I can almost guarantee that the reporter will ultimately use the less-than-favorable seven seconds. Why? Because it's unscripted, off-the-cuff and probably more dramatic than everything else you've said.


Before he became president in 1993, Bill Clinton was best known for his 1988 nominating speech at the Democratic National Convention.

His speech droned on for more than an hour. Television cutaways showed delegates of his own party nodding off. When he finally uttered the words, "And in conclusion," the delegates cheered wildly.

A few nights later, he appeared on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show." Carson's first question? "So, governor, how are you?" Without pausing, Carson reached under his desk, pulled out an hourglass, and turned it upside down. The audience roared.

Less is more.

Brad Phillips is the founder and president of Phillips Media Relations. He was formerly a journalist for ABC News and CNN, and headed the media relations department for the second largest environmental group in the world.

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