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When Are Notes Appropriate?

BY IN BLOG On 16-02-2010

(This post was originally written in February, 2010)

Former Alaska Governor and Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s appearance before the Tea Party convention in Memphis [in 2010] brings this question to mind: When are notes appropriate in an interview?  Now Gov. Palin appeared before a live audience and she had written three message points on the palm of her hand.  During a Q & A session with a 100 percent supportive audience, was photographed referring to those notes before she answered a question.

The fact that she used notes in the first place and wrote them on her hand in the second  subjected her to a cascade of ridicule.  In my case I was reminded of a Geology 101 final in college where I noticed the center of our football team copying the names of the geological eras off his palm (and somehow failing the test anyway!)


In media training workshops, I urge participants to use notes when doing a phone interview but to avoid them in a face-to-face interview, because the reporter will put in his story that you had to refer to your notes.  This is exactly what happened to domestic diva Martha Stewart when she granted The New Yorker her very first interview after being accused of insider trading.  The interview, with legal correspondent Jeffrey Toobin, was face-to-face and he mentioned that Ms. Stewart kept referring to index cards with message points on them.

I also recommend against using notes during a television interview, because they can undermine your credibility and credentials.  However, I believe notes are a legitimate aid in two isolated and unique circumstances:

To get quotes right

To convey complex concepts or statistics.

For instance, if you want to highlight a point with an historical quote, there’s nothing wrong with saying, “I’m quoting Thomas Jefferson, who had it right, but I want to read his words exactly as he wrote them…..” and then looking down at notes with the exact quote.

Similarly, it’s okay to say, “There is a lot of room for error here, so I want to read you these numbers…” and then doing just that.

Your notes should be on an index cards and after reading them put the cards aside — otherwise you may keep glancing down at them or fidgiting with them.

In other words, on the rare occasions when you are going to use notes when face-to-face with a reporter, tell her why you’re using them, make no secret of your use and then put them aside after you’ve deployed them. Interview notes don’t belong on the palm of your hand — to most people they evoke the same cheating-on-the-test image they did for me.  And certainly, if you need notes they ought to be about complex matters, specific statistics or the exact wording of a quote or document and not about general themes.  Ms. Palin’s notes were “Energy,” “Tax,” “Lift American Spirits,”  general themes, not specific details.



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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.