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Would-be President John Edwards – Some Communications Thoughts

Posted on: July 29th, 2012

Presentations: Would-be President John Edwards – Some Communications ThoughtsMedia interviews

As an executive coach, I humbly offer some communications advice to North Carolina’s political rising star, US Senator John Edwards. As sharp as he is, Sen. Edwards, should be wary that his drive to control messages in his presidential campaign may leave him looking slick and lacking in authenticity.

When Sen. Edwards announced his run for the White House, NY Times columnist William Safire called Edwards “overly rehearsed, with tightly organized pitches substituting for direct answers. He seemed programmed…”

Washington post columnist David Broder, while praising Edwards, also said, “He inexplicably froze on an unexpected question asking the identity of the philosopher most influential in his life. He filibustered for an agonizingly long time and finally said he couldn’t answer.”

I noticed it too. The “most influential philosopher” question by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos stopped Edwards cold. For a few awkward seconds, it derailed the fluent former trial lawyer’s message express. How could such an innocuous question plus other equally tame queries about personal influences and preferences (last-read book, favorite rock band, etc.) catch such a smart man so off-guard?

Before I bore in on this stumble – and it is only a stumble – let me stipulate that Sen. Edwards often did well during his announcement period. He was comfortably focused on NBC’s Today with the always assertive Matt Lauer, and his parade of media interviews consistently delivered his vow “to be a champion of regular people” in the White House. On the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s birth, Sen. Edwards gave an impassioned speech. But the criticisms by Broder and Safire are telling. They suggest an Achilles heel in Edwards’ communications style, in my opinion.

I believe the man who would be president is in danger of falling into the media training trap. The very philosophy now helping executives, professionals, and politicians deliver targeted messages can also set them up for a fall, and Edwards needs to be careful. The fundamental tactic in this training is to steer interviews toward key messages, but it can occasionally convert thoughtful people into repetition robots. Worse still, a media trainer can overwhelm the “student” with suggestions about how to gesture, posture and dress, plus rules of engagement (you have certain “rights” when you talk to journalists). It’s enough to reduce you to a blithering idiot. Even the great communicator Ronald Reagan suffered this fate. He was famously so over-coached for a debate that he could scarcely talk like himself. His poor performance forced handlers to allow Reagan to once again be Reagan, and all was well.

I recommend the following steps for Sen. Edwards to avoid appearing programmed and too smooth.

Continue steering media interviews. It’s a good thing. There’s no incentive to being a passive target for troublesome questions. Remain on the offense. However…

Talk conceptually. While its wonderful to speak in tight messages and catchy quotes, take the pressure off yourself by simply trying to convey the essence of what you want to say. Feel free to use the words that naturally come to you.

Convey themes. In long-form interviews it is impractical to drive home the same message points over and over. Relax, address the questions, and try to overlay overarching themes. Watch Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld do it in his news conferences. His predecessor William Cohen was also good.

Answer questions. Your credibility rests on it. Just be sure you have first-rate answers.

Anticipate blindside questions. Brainstorm surprises, but when someone – as Stephanopoulos did – still catches you off-guard and your mind goes blank, if your key message doesn’t work, just tell the truth as it comes to you. It might not be pretty, but it will be real.

Be genuine. Actor Michael Caine once warned a group of acting students that a camera will seek out and find any falsity in a performance. Senator, while you look marvelous on camera, we can see the wheels turning and gears grinding and there is a calculated quality that is vaguely discomfiting. Do your best to be yourself.

All of this will take time. Consider President Bush in formal settings, and compare him with his performances in the campaign trail documentary “Journeys With George.” The former can be stilted while the latter affable, loose, funny, and quick. He too is a work in progress.

Communicating authentically in high-pressure situations is a challenge for many, impossible for some, but it always resonates with the audience.

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