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The Fundamentals of Media Mastery III — Your Agenda and Grabbers

BY IN BLOG On 03-04-2009

In an early news conference during his first term in office, President Obama was asked why it took several days before he expressed outrage about the notorious bonuses received by AIG executives after the government bailed out the insurance company.  He answered,  “I like to know what I’m talking about before I speak.”

Knowing what you’re talking about goes a long way in media mastery.  If you recall our first Fundamentals posting, I listed the Five Commandments of Interviews.  The first commandment was, “Thou Shalt Be Prepared.”   Being prepared involves two elements: having an agenda for an interview and knowing what’s going on in your world.  The first gives you control, the second insures you keep that control and that you won’t be surprised by any questions a reporter throws at you.

Let’s deal with knowing what’s going on first.  Whatever industry, art, agency or area of endeavor you are in, there is one always reliable source for finding out the latest:  Google news (http://newsgoogle.com)

Go to that URL and use the search box to type in relevant key words or phrases.  Google’s search engine culls the output of tens of thousands media sites every day, ranking most recent stories first. If you are likely to be interviewed with any frequency, you may want to subscribe to Google news and sign up for e-mailed alerts.

Now about that second part of preparation: your agenda. If you go into an interview or news conference without an agenda, you surrender control of the session to the reporter or reporters.

An agenda is made up of two elements: agenda points and verbal devices that make the agenda points come alive; I call them grabbers.  Let’s deal with the agenda points first.

Media training clients always ask how many agenda points they should have for an interview or news conference.  My recommendation is no more than four or five.  If you have seven, nine or eleven agenda points, you’re going to waste a lot of mental energy trying to remember them all and you’re setting yourself up for frustration because you’re unlikely to get all of them in.  One of your agenda points should always be a URL where the reporter — or his readers or listeners — can go for further information.

Once you build your four or five point agenda, you need to make it come alive, to make it quoteworthy.  To do that, we use grabbers, word devices that make an idea come alive.  As a print reporter and, later, a television news producer, when I conducted an interview, I mentally placed all answers into one of three pigeonholes:

 Can’t use that.

Could use that.

Gotta use that.

In an interview, your mandate is to express your message points in “gotta use that language;” language that makes the reporter think: “I couldn’t say that better myself.”  You want to be directly quoted on your agenda points because, even with the best of intentions, a reporter is filtering what you say when she paraphrases you.  Also, giving reporters good quotes makes their job a lot easier and makes you a much more attractive interview subject.  Grabbers do that for you.

There are five basic categories of Grabbers:

Word pictures.

Startling facts or statistics or “st” words.

Famous quotations or paraphrases of famous quotations.,

Analogies — either metaphors or similes.


 Let’s look at examples of each:

 Word pictures: A spokesman for the U.S. Marshals Service on the condition of Bernard Madoff’s government-seized $2.2 million yacht: “This boat was extremely well kept, extremely clean.  It looked like somebody took a bottle of 409 and scrubbed it every day.”

Startling statistics or “st” words:” Using an “st”-ending word — first, last, biggest, smallest, best, worst — tells the media that what you are saying is news. In a media training session some years back, Dr. Alan Stern — then the principal investigator of the New Horizons NASA mission to Pluto — came up with:  “New Horizons is the first mission to the last planet.”   Two “st” words in  In a single 10-word sentence.  He used that grabber to great effect — it appeared in dozens of news stories.  A few months later a committee of astronomers declared Pluto was not a planet and demoted it to the category of dwarf planet.  I sent Dr. Stern an e-mail asking him what he was saying now.  His wrote back, “I have not yet begun to fight.”  He was quoting John Paul Jones, the father of the American Navy who, taunted by British sailors as he was about to close in battle with them, issued that defiant reply. (While Jones went on to take the British vessel, the astronomy battle is less conclusive, it rages on with Pluto’s status still being debated.)  But Dr. Stern’s use of Admiral Jones’ historic line brings us to our third form of Grabber:

Quotations or paraphrases:  Dr. Stern used a direct quote.  But a lot of Grabbers are paraphrases of famous quotations.  Sadam Hussein’s vainglorious boast that the first Gulf War would be the “mother of all battles,” spawned hundred of “mother of all….” examples.  “Mother of all defeats” was one used by many spokesmen within 100 hours of the beginning of the “mother of all battles.” Others I’ve seen include “mother of all legislative fights,”  “mother of all boxing matches,” etc.   John F. Kennedy’s famous “Ask not….” line from his inaugural address is easily paraphrased to meet any number of situations.  Four years ago I read this one from Professor Paul Lucey of the University of Hawaii about the proposal to return humans, including scientist-astronauts, to the moon: “Ask not what astrobiology can do for the moon.  Ask rather what the moon can do for astrobiology.”  Another great quote I’ve seen used directly, and not paraphrased, in many situations is President Harry Truman’s “The buck stops here.”  And there’s this Albert Einstein quip, which can be applied in many situations: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

Analogies (metaphors or similes):  The difference between metaphors and similes is the use of the word “like.”  “Miller, the champaign of bottled beer” is the grievously inaccurate metaphor.  “As bottle beers go, Miller is like champaign,” is the simile for the same delusion.  In a recent interview a Japanese geisha used a good simile to express her annoyance at foreign tourists who harass her with cameras on Kyoto’s streets: “We are not like a Mickey Mouse in Disneyland.”  And Stephen M. Davis of the Millstein Center for Corporate Governance at Yale got off a good metaphor about a new effort some firms are making to tie executive compensation to corporate performance:  “These are green shoots, to use a gardening analogy.  It remains to be seen whether these are annuals or perennials.”  Not all analogies work.  Brazil’s earthy president, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva unleashed this particularly egregious example in an interview about trade talks:  “We are moving forward with real seriousness towards finding the possibility, like the G Spot, of an agreement.”  I advise clients to avoid sexual and scatological analogies; you WILL be quoted, but the Grabber will overwhelm, rather than illuminate, your message point.

Comparisons: When the Mars rover curiosity was launched, engineers at NASA’s JPL came up with this comparison: The Mars exploration rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, are the size of coffee tables, while Curiosity is the size of a Mini and weights as much as a Jeep. This is a particularly good grabber because in addition to being a comparison, it contains two word pictures — the coffee table and the Mini.

Next post deals with the art of transitioning from off-base or even hostile questions to your message points.  How, in other words, to put the interview train on track to your destination. (Another word picture alert!  Sorry, after three decades of teaching people how to craft Grabbers, I just can’t help myself.)


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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.