Why Staying Positive in Media Interviews Matters

Remember Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook”? Or Bill Clinton’s “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”?

Richard Nixon
(AP Photo/Charles Tasnadi)

Of course you do. In the midst of crisis, both of these presidents failed to heed a top rule of professional media trainers: don’t repeat the negative. Had they heeded that advice, it’s unlikely that “My conscience is clear” or a bland “I’ve done nothing wrong” would become as memorable—or in this day and age, as Tweetable!

In his book, What To Say When Things Get ToughBusiness Communication Strategies for Winning People Over When They’re Angry, Worried, and Suspicious of Everything You Say, strategic communications expert Leonard Greenberger points out that Nixon’s “use of a negative phrase, ‘not a crook,’ to defend himself made things worse. Rather than hearing the whole sentence, most people simply heard ‘crook’ and thought less of the president because he was being negative.”

When a reporter asks you a leading question, don’t be led into the same trap. Know your talking points, stay positive, and stay on message. Never repeat a negative question to deny it, and try to use only positive words in your response, using phrases such as “I think what people really want to know is…” to bridge to the talking points that you practiced.

Writes Greenberg, “Too often, defensiveness becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Act defensive, and that’s how you’ll come across…It’s very difficult to be positive from a defensive mind-set, making it all the more difficult to win people over. Instead, you need to be as positive as possible. You have a story to tell, and you can choose how to tell it.”

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