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Shock & Awe Answers

BY IN BLOG On 22-01-2010

(This entry was originally posted on January 22, 2010)

CaptMurphyIn 1949, U.S. Air Force Captain Edward A, Murphy, right, came up with his famous Murphy’s Law, “Anything that can go wrong will.” (The facts behind the legend are here.)  With a nod in Captain Murphy’s direction, I have come up with my own law for media interviews:  “Anyone unprepared for tough questions will get them.”

My law is completely unscientific and unprovable, just like Murphy’s, but both come from real world observation. Captain Murphy  came up with his law after observing a particularly inept technician.  I crafted mine as a cautionary note for media training workshops and watching countless spokespersons fall apart when they were asked unanticipated tough questions.  If an interview subject prepares for nightmare questions and gets none, there is no down side.  But if the she does get them, she’ll be prepared to gracefully answer them.

In media training workshops I ask participants write a list of nightmare questions and then we collegially figure out how to respond to them.  In the next round of practice interviews, I ask the nightmare questions.  And when the interviews are over, we critique how well the participants deployed their responses.

What should that answer contain? I recommend the interview equivalent of General Colin Powell’s “Shock and Awe” tactics: overwhelm the negative in a question with multiple positives. How many positives?  Three is the ideal number. Vincent Covello, a social scientist and risk consultant with whom I once worked, did research that indicated three positives overwhelm a negative. Why three?  I don’t know the neuromechanics, but there is something about the troika that appeals to our brains.  Comedians will tell you that jokes work best when using threes, as in the ubiquitous,  albeit unlikely,  trio of priest, minister and rabbi who populate bars that exist only in standup routines.

To illustrate how this works, let me cite a real world example.  I do a lot of media training for NASA and inevitably in those workshops someone — if not everyone — comes up with some variation of this tough question:

“Why spend money on space exploration when there are such pressing needs here on earth?”   Sometimes this is phrased “Why WASTE money on space exploration when our classrooms here on earth are overcrowded,” or “Why spend money IN space when (pick your problem):

There are homeless in America?

People are going to bed hungry?

So many Americans are out of work?

You could use the funds to find a cure for cancer?

Leaving aside the wise-guy response (you can’t spend money IN space…. all expenditures for space exploration are right here on planet earth), participants needed to come up with three positives for a shock and awe response.  In this case workshop participants have, over the years, supplied me with an embarrassment of riches.  Taking multiple effective responses and merging them, we find that not only are there three cogent points, but the last point has a subset of three more points.

Here are the elements of that response:

NASA’s budget is approved by the people’s representatives in Congress.

NASA’s budget is less than one percent of the total federal budget.

NASA’s budget is an investment that pays society a variety of beneficial dividends.

Subset; The dividends:

The space agency creates a lot of science and technology jobs; the kind of jobs America needs in order to stay competitive in an increasingly technology-driven world economy.

NASA’s missions have broadened our knowledge of our planet, our solar system and our universe.  In fact they have rewritten astronomy and physics textbooks.

Spinoffs of technologies developed for NASA have improved our daily lives by enabling powerful computer microprocessors, by giving us global positioning satellites, by supplying life-saving accurate weather predictions and by creating the means to build medical imaging devices that give early warning of cancers and other dread diseases.

This three-part answer, with its three-part subset is a shock and awe response to the negative “waste” or “spend” money on space.  For media purposes we can’t get all of this to fit our ideal soundbite length of 30 words, spoken in ten seconds and comprised of three sentences.  But with some condensation, here is a soundbite version:

NASA’s budget, less than one percent of federal expenditures, is an investment in high-tech jobs; knowledge of earth’s place in the universe, and spin-offs that make life easier and safer.

Following up on the soundbite portion, the respondent can then cite any or all of the specifics.



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George Merlis

George Merlis is the founder and president of Experience Media Consulting. He is an award-winning veteran print and broadcast journalist who has been doing media training, presentation training and crisis communications consulting for more than two decades. He has been day city editor of the nation's largest-circulation afternoon newspaper and executive producer of two of the three network morning news programs, Good Morning American and the CBS Morning News. He also served as executive producer of Entertainment Tonight.