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The Art of Saying Nothing

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Since Samuel Alito’s famous confirmation hearings where he hedged even the question of whether he liked Bruce Springsteen, the art of saying nothing has gained favor in high-stakes Washington proceedings. The latest case is Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor.  Her carefully scripted answers, calm demeanor and physical composure throughout two days of hearings have been remarkable. 

Michael Wolff implied that either Sotomayor had been overly media-trained for the hearings…”or she’s been skillfully medicated.” Daily Show host Jon Stewart joked that she “sat so still…after a while she activated her body’s screen-saver.” 

Avoiding risk when your team is winning is a good strategy, so we’ll probably see more of these non-hearings, at least when confirmation is likely. And after public performances like South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford’s long-winded “apology” for his indiscretions and Sarah Palin‘s, um.. improvisational media briefings, it’s refreshing to watch someone so thoroughly self-possessed. 

But, non-answers aren’t always a winning play. I personally don’t ever want clients to be overprepared for media interviews, for several reasons. First, people aren’t dumb. They know when someone’s obfuscating or avoiding, and it can reflect badly on candor, credibility, and even intelligence. Media also tend to become frustrated with bland language and double-speak, as witnessed in some sharp exchanges in the White House press room and on the political campaign trail. It’s more helpful to think of an interview as a business exchange, where each party gets something they want.

Most importantly, offering nothing forces the press and blogosphere to focus on what little they do have, even if it’s misleading, out-of-context, or damaging. We’ve seen this with Sotomayor’s “wise Latina” quote that seems to grow larger as she says less. In the corporate world, where my experience resides, there’s usually an opportunity cost to giving an interview in order to say very little.  An executive under pressure can often gain control of the conversation by giving – offering fresh facts, a point of view, or even just a new way of saying what he’s said before.

Finally, it can help to show emotion – as Domino’s president Patrick Doyle did when visibly angry over the rogue employee video that threatened to bring down the company.  Regardless of media platform or messaging, making a connection is what good communications is all about. To achieve that, you need to come across as a human being, not a media robot.

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