Sunday, April 19, 2009

Beat the Press

Finally, someone in President Obama's administration nailed an appearance on Meet the Press. It was Larry Summers on today's show (April 19, 2009) on NBC. The host, David Gregory, tried to put forth his very best Tim Russert impression, complete with the usual assortment of 'gotcha' quotes and video clips, but he didn't lay a glove on Summers the whole show.

This is surprising since on a previous MTP appearance, Larry Summers had turned in a less than stellar performance back in January when David Gregory seemed to have the physical and adversarial advantage in that interview and Mr. Summers seemed to be in a prevent defense.

Not this time.

Whether it was him making a few key adjustments between MTP appearances, or taking advice from Secretary Geithner's new speech guru, Michael Sheehan, or simply good luck, Mr. Summers clicked on all cylinders and provided an example for all the President's men and women to follow on the Sunday interview shows. He also served as an example for executives of how even mechanical changes can make meaningful improvements in your communication style, especially on TV.

Let the pundits both right and left argue the content. Here's why I think Mr. Summers delivery choices worked so incredibly well.

First, he looked us in the eye. Due to the fact that Mr. Summers was on satellite video hookup from the Americas summit in Trinidad, he was forced to look straight into the camera. He looked through David Gregory and spoke directly to us - the TV audience. It helped him connect with us in a way he wouldn't have been able to if he were sitting in the studio in Washington looking at David Gregory. This was significant since the last time he was on MTP he looked away almost every time he answered a question. If you want to connect, you have to look at people, especially on the tube.

Note: It didn't hurt to have the flowering bush waving in the breeze behind him. For someone who can occasionally come across as a hardass on TV, it was serendipitous set design and softened his image a bit.

Second, he turned around most of David Gregory's 'gotcha' questions into opportunities to further his own message. A case in point was his answer to a fairly tough question about Paul Krugman's 'depression still lurking' editorial in the paper, which Gregory quoted. Summers first stated that he disagrees with Krugman a lot, yet acknowledged Krugman's "we're not out of the woods yet" point and then explained why everything the President is doing and saying makes sense in light of that point. Whether you agree with the logic of his response or not, it was a classic example of not taking the interviewer's bait and staying on your own message.

Third, when he wanted to emphasize a key point in his answer he would shift gears, slow down and punch his words for effect.

Fourth, for the most part he kept a nice level head. Combined with looking into the camera it gives the television audience a nonverbal sense of strength, forthrightness and transparency.

Fifth, because he was only present in David Gregory's TV studio on a video monitor, it neutralized the physical advantage Gregory has in the studio. He actually had to look up a tiny bit to Larry Summers to ask his questions and due to Mr. Summers aplomb in deflecting the hardest of his questions, at times Mr. Gregory seemed like a student trying to 'stump the prof' in an economics class. He tried and tried again but never did any serious damage to his guest.

Sixth, Mr. Summers kept a nice conversational tone throughout versus his more formal tone the last time he was on Meet the Press. He just talked to us and sounded like a reasonable man making reasonable points. He also spoke in 'human tempo' versus Secretary Geithner's 'trader tempo' which helps us keep up with him and lets his words sink in.

Bottom line, if this was a prize fight it would have gone the distance with no knockdowns but Larry Summers would have walked away with a unanimous decision on all the judges scorecards. It was by far and away his best TV performance in my view and underscores how important it is to make good choices when communicating in an adversarial interview setting.

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