Sooner or later, you’re going to get caught in the spotlight: You excel on a big project, and you’re invited to claim your accolades in front of a group. You lead a team or organization to success, and the media ask how you did it. You write your first bestselling book or win the lottery, and reporters ask you dumb questions like, “Are you thrilled?” Or, heaven forbid, you witness an accident or a robbery, and the evening TV anchor asks how sure you are in identifying the victim and the get-away car.
Don’t blow it. Don’t miss your chance to make your 15 minutes of fame count toward career equity.
The most important thing to remember is that you’re not talking to the person in front of you. Yes, you read that correctly. In all these situations mentioned above, the immediate person engaging you in conversation or an interview—asking a question or presenting an award—is not your real audience. You’re talking to everyone else “out there” listening in on the conversation.
Those are the listeners who count where your career matters. Keep these guidelines in mind when communicating while you’re in the media spotlight.
Forget Chatty Cathy
It’s easy to get caught off guard and make a mistake that can cost your career, put your organization in the crosshairs, or at best make you look foolish and incompetent. Chatty Cathy will try to engage you in casual conversation, friend to friend. After a few moments, you forget that you’re talking in front of a group and may reveal things you shouldn’t. Know what you intend to talk about—and what you don’t intend to talk about. Then stick with those parameters. Never relax in such situations. At the moment you’re relaxed, you’re in danger. Sure, look relaxed. Sound relaxed. Just don’t let your brain relax.
Remember That Negative Words Trump Positive Words
Never repeat negatives.
Response: “Inaccurate and misleading? No, I had no reason to believe they were inaccurate and misleading? Why would I? No one ever told me anything about it. Not in any meeting I attended did anybody ever complain that what our department sent was misleading or inaccurate in any way. If there’s ever a complaint, we’re always the first to hear it. So if anybody thought that our reports were inaccurate in any way or misleading them to a false conclusion, I feel certain that we would have received questions and emails. So no, I did not hear any comments at all that employees in our division felt there was anything inaccurate or misleading at all about the reports that they received.”
After reading that long response, what’s the key phrase that stands out in your mind? “Inaccurate and misleading,” right? Negative words always trump the positive. Every sentence in the response denies wrongdoing. Yet what you recall is “inaccurate and misleading.” The lesson here? Never repeat the negative.
A better response:
Question: “At any time during previous meetings and discussions were you aware that the reports being sent to headquarters were inaccurate and misleading?”
Response: To the best of my knowledge, all the reports were completely accurate. If there are ever any complaints, we’re typically the first to hear of them. We’ve heard none. To my knowledge, all the reports were accurate.
Stay on Message
Even if you’re not in an adversarial role, you should have key points to deliver during your time in the spotlight—whether at the awards ceremony, the boardroom podium, or the industry tradeshow. You may want to thank key people, emphasize the critical skills a project required, highlight the complexity of some critical success your team has had. But all those messages may get lost unless you intentionally prepare talking points and stay on message.
Winging it is for the wanna-bes.
For example, your boss summons you to the front of the room before a large group of people, says a few kind words about your performance, and gives you a congratulatory handshake. You give an aw-shucks, thank-you-very-much response and sit down.
Lost career opportunity. Your message is not just “thank you” to the boss. Your opportunity is to say a few words about the project, your team, what they did to deserve the credit, and what the overall contribution is to the company. You know what message you want to deliver; the boss, the introducer, the host, or the reporter does not. Wherever they start, bridge back to your key points. Stay on message.
Make good in your first 15 minutes of fame, and you may launch 15 years of career opportunities. It happens.
Dianna Booher, an expert in executive communications, is the author of 46 books, published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Her latest books include Creating Personal Presence: Look, Talk, Think, and Act Like a Leader and Communicate with Confidence, Revised Edition. As CEO of Booher Consultants and as a high-caliber keynote speaker, Dianna and her staff travel worldwide to deliver focused speeches and training programs to address specific communication challenges and increase effectiveness in oral, written, interpersonal, and organizational communication. www.booher.com