Avoid Word Salad

Hecate has another excellent post up about media relations: in short, look into the camera. Not off to the side, not at the person holding the camera, but into the camera itself, because that’s where the eyes of the people you’re talking to will be. As she says, this kind of thing is easy to miss unless it’s pointed out to you, which is why practice – even just a few sessions of practice with some friends and a computer or smartphone – will help.

I’d like to add to that by saying that using dictation software is an excellent way to see how you will come across when your words are quoted in print. Dragon Dictation is available for free for iPhone and iPad (making it another great iPad resource for Pagans). If you’re trying to get ready to present yourself in public, spend a few mock interviews with the dictation software turned on. No, it won’t capture what you say perfectly, but it probably will get all those “ums,” “ers,” “likes,” and “y’knows,” along with half-completed sentences that spill into three others and sort of wander around like Siamese zombies looking for more fragments to eat in hopes of getting themselves an actual brain until the questioner interrupts you again. See if the way you come across in print is going to help or hurt your case.

Take Sarah Palin, for example. She almost, sort of, makes sense when you see her televised or hear her speak on radio. But when she’s quoted in text, she looks like a complete idiot, because it becomes obvious that she isn’t using complete sentences. She isn’t even trying to use complete sentences in any way similar to print communication; she relies almost entirely on tone of voice and subtle gestures to punctuate and provide relational information about her word salad. This also makes her hard to refute, since it’s almost impossible to quote her accurately, especially when trying to reassemble her words into an argument or even a sentence. (I don’t recommend using this defensive tactic, though; mostly, you’ll look like an idiot, and that will backfire faster than you can say “polytheism.”)

I’m not saying that you have to sound like you’re reading from a perfectly-prepared script. Speaking is different from writing. But you should know, ahead of time, that you can speak clearly enough to be represented accurately in print and to make the kind of impression you want on audiences who encounter you first through the written word.

The ability to put together sentences on the fly, to remember where you are in your sentence (this sentence no verb!) even as you’re developing your argument, and most of all, the ability to end a thought and a sentence coherently and accurately are not easy abilities to master. If you develop some skill with them, though, that will put you head-and-shoulders above other amateurs and make a much more positive impression on your audience, both readers and viewers.

What I learned from being interviewed

During the Pro-Choice Lobby Day that I attended this week, I was approached by an individual with a video camera who asked if he could interview me, and I said yes. I learned a lot, very quickly, from that experience about what to expect when interacting with “the media,” or pretty much anyone who wants to interview you.

Know your goal.

I can’t express how grateful I am for Hecate’s introductions to dealing with the media. I had to think on my feet here, and I’m still not positive I did a good thing by giving the interview, but very simply, my goal was to provide a contrast to the anti-abortion protesters behind me, and to present at least a few pro-choice arguments while looking and sounding more reasonable and approachable and compassionate than they did. That’s not a huge challenge when the folks behind you have a megaphone and bloody signs, so I figured I could probably do that.

Know the risks.

How badly could you hurt the group or cause you’re trying to champion if you screw up? Consider all the possibilities: maybe you won’t be able to answer a question, maybe you have a giant piece of spinach stuck to your teeth and look like an idiot, and maybe you’ll get completely flustered and melt down. Plus there’s the ever-present risk of giving in to the framing and shooting yourself in the foot or repeating back a line that the interviewer “feeds” you and giving them a tiny clip that will get replayed endlessly to make everyone in your group a laughingstock. Think about all these cases, no matter how well prepared you are. Think about the worst possible outcomes, because they might happen.

Weigh the potential harm against the potential good.

The guy who interviewed me insisted (perhaps too much so) that he was “independent” and not trying to be biased. He clearly wasn’t with a big news corporation (although as O’Keefe has shown, that doesn’t mean he was harmless), and I was foolish enough not to ask him more about the details of his intended project before I let him start interviewing me. Given the low goal I’d set myself, though, I weighed the harm as relatively low, since I’m just this chick, you know? Planned Parenthood and NARAL and everyone else can swear I’m not with them, and be telling the truth. So my biggest concern was not giving him an easily-twisted clip of me repeating anti-choice statements or seeming to validate their arguments.

I don’t know how well I did at that because I can’t review the tape, but I know I didn’t fall into several obvious traps and pitfalls that he set up for me. I’m a total noob at this, so that doesn’t mean I didn’t blunder into a more sophisticated trap while I avoided the basic ones, but he didn’t seem to be all that experienced an interviewer, either. I reframed questions constantly, and he didn’t do an aggressive pursuit of his original framing or try to get me to commit to something in that framing. I know that I surprised him a couple times by how well-prepared I was on particular points, and that may have helped me out. Again, preparation (yours and theirs) is something to consider in the risk/benefit analysis.

Once you see a videocamera, assume you are being recorded from then on. Constantly.

The guy who interviewed me had one of the cameras with the flip-out screens for him to look at. He started out with it held in his hand just below his shoulder level with the screen out, with his arm braced against his body. After several questions, he stopped, and seemed to review the recording for a few minutes, then folded the screen in and stood talking with me more casually. He tried hard to give me the impression that the interview was over and this was just us talking, but I noticed that he had the camera braced very steadily against his thigh and tilted upwards so that the lens was full on my face. I’m quite sure he was still recording every moment of that, and I’m very, very glad that I didn’t let myself slip too much into a more casual, less guarded way of talking.

Also, one of the anti-abortion protesters did another sneaky thing. He took a picture of me standing there and then offered to email it to me. I said no, thank you, politely. If I’d given him my email, he’d have my name, and a lot of other info, and be able to inundate me with his position, or, god knows, put me on one of those “wanted” posters and spread my name and photo all over anti-choice websites.

The media person is not your friend.

As the above indicates, the media, just like cops, may want you to believe that they’re on your side, they’re friendly to you, they’re trying to help you out. In rare cases, there may be a grain of truth to this. But if they’re doing their job, the media are using you. Period. Get that set in your head now.

And you know what? You’re using them right back. You have a goal. (If you don’t, you shouldn’t be talking to the media.) Giving an interview is a battle of wits and words where you try to use the journalist to achieve your goal more than you let the journalist use you to achieve his or her goal. As noted, it is extremely rare for your goal and the journalist’s to be in alignment, especially when Pagans or Wiccans or people on either side of a highly divisive social issue are talking to the media. Functionally, you can assume that the journalist’s goal of getting a “good story,” that is, an attention-getting one, is best served by you looking ridiculous or otherwise attention-getting, and, rumor to the contrary, there is such a thing as bad publicity.

Overall, what mattered most to me was that I had prepared for what I expected to be extremely short meetings with politicians, so I had multiple key words and key points stuck in my head (accessible, affordable, safe) and key phrases that helped me stick to my framing. I had also practiced answers to some of the “gotcha” questions. (Q: “Wasn’t Margaret Sanger racist?” A: “I think WEB DuBois and Martin Luther King Jr. were better judges of what’s good for the African-American community than I am or than any of those [white] folks over there.” That question would have totally flummoxed me if I hadn’t been minimally prepared for it, and the journalist didn’t aggressively restate and pursue, as I said.)

The real question now is how to follow up on this. The guy didn’t ask me for my full name or contact info, although I did ask him for his after the fact. He gave me a business card, and said that the name and email were correct even though the job (legislative assistant for communications purposes to a Republican member of the House) was one he had quit. Googling doesn’t get me much more information. What do you think? Should I try to contact him to find out what he’s going to do with the video?