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Colin Powell’s 15 Lessons on media handling

 In Learning from Luminaries, Politicians

Colin Powell, former United States Secretary of State, lists 15 lessons on handling the media (on pages 132-133 of his book, It worked for me). He shared these Lessons with a person named Cal, whom he was mentoring, in the following manner:

“Cal, with respect to the press:

1. They get to pick the questions. You get to the pick the answers

2. You don’t have to answer any question you don’t want to.

3. Never lie or dissemble, of course; but beware of being too candid or open.

4. Never answer hypothetical questions about the future.

5. Never reveal the private advice you have given your superiors

6. Answers should be directed to the message you want the readers/viewers to get. The interviewers are not your audience.

7. They’re doing their job. You’re doing yours. But you’re the only one at risk.

8. Don’t predict or speculate about future events.

9. Beware of slang or one-liners unless you are consciously trying to produce a sound bite.

10. Don’t wash dirty linen.

11. Do not answer any question containing a premise you disagree with.

12. Don’t push yourself or be pushed into an answer you don’t want to give.

13. If trapped, be vague or mumble.

14. Never cough or shift your feet.

15. When there are second follow-up questions, you’re in trouble – break right, apply power, gain altitude, or eject.”

Powell shared other lessons including “Never shift in your chair, grab your ear or touch your face; Never pause to think of what to say. Start talking while you are thinking.  You can always just repeat the question”.

My thoughts about Powell’s lessons are these:

Overall, they are great lessons.

Regarding Lesson #3, being too open or candid can be the result of not taking enough time to organize your thoughts. Master speaker, Bob Carr (Foreign Minister of Australia) in my 2008 Choice Voice interview with him suggested, that to organize your thoughts, begin a response with, “On first thought . . .” (and then tell what’s top of mind). Then you can add as appropriate, “Giving it more thought . . . “ (if another idea bubbles up in your mind). An audience will give you more license with your response when you start in this manner.

Carr also suggested that if it is a tough question you start with, “Tough question”. He also maintained that no one marks you down for being thoughtful.

Regarding Lesson #11, a good sentence to have a the ready is, “I don’t agree with the premise of your question.”

Regarding Lesson #13, my view is that it is fine to be vague but I would avoid mumbling as that will form a negative impression. Another response when being trapped is to say, ‘It’s not appropriate for me to comment on that.”

I disagree with Powell’s additional lesson of ‘Start talking while you’re thinking’. I’ve seen too many speakers in high pressure situations derail themselves by doing this.

Rather use Bob Carr’s above suggestions and/or train yourself to use the few seconds you have. Simply nod to the questioner (perceived as a mark of certainty) and say, “Give me a moment to thing about that”. Then use that time to go into your mind and choose an appropriate response. Then speak the response.

The ‘how to apply’ for this post: Review and reflect on Powell’s Lessons and refer to them in any interaction with the media.

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