Media Training: Why Nobodys Listening to You


Many spokespeople approach media interviews the same way they would a major speech. They think at length about what they want to say, jot down a few notes, and try to memorize a few key points.

But they rarely practice how they're going to deliver their messages. It's often a fatal mistake.

Here's a shocking truth: how you say something during a broadcast interview is more important than what you say.

Research has borne this out for decades. UCLA Professor Albert Mehrabian's landmark study in the 1960s examined how people derive meaning from communications. The release of the findings, still taught in virtually every university's Communications 101 class, is still regarded as a watershed moment in communications. Dr. Mehrabian found that:

7 percent of meaning is derived from word choice. 38 percent of meaning is taken from verbal cues, such as volume, pitch and pace. 55 percent of meaning results from non-verbal cues, including body language, eye contact, gestures, and appearance.


Do these statistics mean that the media ? or audiences ? are hopelessly superficial? Well, let's put it another way. Think about traveling to another country where the residents speak only a local tribal language. Even without words, you could still learn some very important things about a person ? such as whether you like or trust them, whether they are warm or cold, welcoming or distant, smart or dumb.

The same is true during media interviews. Audiences will quickly determine whether or not they like you or trust you in seconds. If they don't, they will effectively tune you out and disregard your message.

So it's not so much that they're not listening to you, but that they'll listen only once you pass the non-verbal test.


How can you improve your non-verbal communication skills? Here are three tips you can use immediately:

1) Maintain Strong Eye Contact ? Before every broadcast interview, ask where to look. Sometimes it's at an interviewer, others it's off to the side of a camera, and sometimes it's directly into the camera. Regardless, make sure you maintain eye contact through the entire interview. It may feel strange to speak naturally to a lens. But since your eyes will appear much larger on a 27" television set, any movement will be distracting to the viewer. Worse, they may think you slick, unconfident, or untrustworthy.

2) Smile ? Unless you're a representative for an airliner that just crashed, it's usually a good idea to smile during an interview. Remember ? you shouldn't sublimate the things that make you charming in your everyday life. If people react positively to your smile or natural laugh in real-life, use that trait to your advantage during an interview.

3) Dress the Role ? If you're a spokesperson for a populist grassroots political group and show up in a three piece suit, you will confuse the audience. Clothes communicate messages, and you should consider carefully what your clothes are saying. Gold cufflinks scream "elite." Two-toned men's shirts may communicate "stuffy." Conversely, an ill-fitting collar reflects carelessness.


When a verbal message and non-verbal message are in conflict, the audience will notice and hold it against you. When preparing for an interview, role play questions with a colleague, spouse, or even just a video camera. Keep practicing until what you're saying and how you're saying it appear in synch.

The first President Bush leaned this the hard way.

Things were not looking good for him in the autumn of '92. Despite a whopping 89 percent approval rating the previous year, Mr. Bush couldn't shake his reputation for being out of touch with the American people.

He didn't help himself during a very public trip to a grocery store when he expressed amazement at the bar code scanners that had become commonplace. He further fed his aloof reputation when he revealed having no clue what a gallon of milk costs.

But the real whopper came during the second presidential debate. In a town hall format in which Mr. Bush needed desperately to look like a populist, he instead kept glancing at his watch. He told the audience he wanted to be president ? but his body language told the world he wanted to be anywhere but with actual voters.

Immediately following the debate, numerous pundits said his poor performance would cost him the election. They were right.

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.

For more information and to sign up for free monthly media relations and media training e-tips, visit

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