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SOCK It to Them in the Media

By Allan Bonner

In a recent media training session with a senior member of cabinet, time came to simulate interviews with one of my trainers. I played good cop asking the politician to consider what he wanted to say in the 5-8 minutes he’d have.

The client and staffers talked a bit about policy and goals. It was an unfocused discussion. I took a few notes on what the politician and his staff thought they should say.

At the end of the interview I asked the politician to review his own performance:

“Good relationship with the journalist”
“I felt positive about it”
“I’m comfortable with what I said”
“Strong performance” (from staff).

I pulled out my notes and observed that in the eight or so minutes he had to speak, he didn’t get out one single message that he’d planned to. Jaws dropped. I then parsed this observation more finely—either your strategy was incorrect and those messages should not have been delivered, or your strategy was correct and you missed executing it.

I’ve developed an acronym to show how to develop a good media clip. It’s SOCKO.

I know this acronym evokes a crash or blow in the cartoon strips, but it does not at all stand for punching reporters who ask you tough questions. SOCKO does imply impact, but of the emotional or intellectual kind. A SOCKO is a true, memorable, clear, short statement that encapsulates your position and makes the recipient say “Ah” or “Oh” or “Hum”.

SOCKO also stands for Single Overriding Communications and Knowledge Objective. Each is worth a few sentences in turn.

Strategic

A message is strategic because you thought about it, practiced it and rehearsed it. It is your considered opinion on what to say about a topic. You’ve pondered what others will say in response, and your rebuttal—a semantic chess game. Rehearsal is out loud with staff and with audio and video recording equipment. Does anyone really think Richard Nixon thought about the implications of saying, “I am not a crook”? How about George Romney’s "When I came back from Viet Nam, I had just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get when you go over to Viet Nam" (often paraphrased as “I was brainwashed on Viet Nam”). Or how about John Kerry’s “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it”?

Overriding

Media operate twenty-four hours a day and thus work at three times the speed of real life. Reporters need your clip right now. They do not want to waste much time on context, background, disclaimers and parenthetical statements. Get on with it.

I ask clients to imagine all they know about a topic. It’s lots. Reporters and the public can’t absorb it all. Now I ask clients to imagine all they know about a topic in the shape of an iceberg. What’s the fifteen percent that’s floating above the surface? That’s probably the best clip. You can then move on to the next most important fifteen per cent, the next and the next again. Just like real icebergs with portions chopped off, they right themselves and another important fifteen per cent pokes above the surface. Proficient communicators figure out how to combine chunks to sound like new clips, when they’re really reiterating previous sound bites put together in slightly different ways.

So, a good clip is the overriding message you want to get out, and the overriding aspect of what you want to talk about.

Communications

There’s about a fifty per cent difference between oral and written communication. In this article, I don’t have intonation, volume, pausing, pacing or any other tools I have when speaking. But, when I’m speaking, I don’t have fonts, italics, headings, bold, drop initials or any of the graphic tools that editor Alan Locke uses to hold your attention.

Most candidates spend a lot of time with the written word—bills, reports, letters and so on. They have to be reminded to shift gears when they speak.

Good oral communication features stories, imagery and metaphors. Sentences are shorter. For TV, part of the clip is your positive body language, eye contact, engagement and open gestures. For radio it’s pausing and variety in volume, pitch and tone. In print it’s what makes a good headline or picture. In all cases it’s a polished, condensed version of normal speech.

Many lawmakers think that speaking as if they were a paragraph in a complex contract sounds precise and thorough. It doesn’t. Even in legal journals the advice is to avoid being “hyper-correct”. Studies of Judges and juries show that witness testimony is discounted if it has a bunch of jargon and unnecessary big words.

So pursuant to the above, I entreat you to peruse your verbosity and expunge polysyllabic utterances. Keep it simple and conversational.

Knowledge

A knowledgeable person has facts, figures, data and trends at her disposal. How often does a political speech or clip in the media say something new? Not often enough. This takes research and work. So does deciding how to cite figures. A number can be expressed as a percentage, a fraction, whole number or show the change over time. Numbers can be expressed graphically with bar charts, graphs, dispersions, scatter diagrams or box plots. Choose wisely.

Whatever the choice with numbers, research shows that anecdotes and images trump numbers. Numbers are hard to remember and understand, but a story is memorable.

Objective

So what’s all this work in aid of? What’s the objective? In print the objective is a headline, picture, cutline (underneath the picture), call-out (a quote called out of the copy and made larger or bold to create a nice graphic look in a magazine or newspaper). For radio it’s a sentence or two on the news or talk show that people remember. On TV it’s the same, but it also could be your doing something that looks newsworthy. That’s often called a photo opportunity, but try to avoid clichés, such as cutting a ribbon or “grip and grin” shows of your shaking hands with someone, not looking at her, but grinning like a mad fool at the camera.

In all cases you want to be remembered by the audience. You also want to be interesting and helpful enough to keep the reporters coming back for more.

Allan Bonner has coached 8 heads of government and several dozen
cabinet level politicians. He is the author of several books
on communication and can be reached at
Click here to contact this Author.


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