Sarah Palin likes to talk about how she’s not part of the Washington media elite. It shows.
In her first interview, with ABC’s Charlie Gibson, she blanked when asked about the Bush doctrine (and her unfamiliarity seemed to be with the phrase itself, not its meaning). Her sit-down with Fox’s Sean Hannity was convincingly compared to an infomercial. And in her latest face-to-face, with Katie Couric of CBS, she looked like a high-schooler trying to B.S. her way through a book report.
None of the interviews has been a total disaster. It’s more like a constant low hum of mediocrity. But now that she’s been on TV a few times, there’s enough source material to see what she’s doing well—and what she could do better. We asked a few professional media trainers—people who get paid to coach TV guests—to analyze Palin’s performances and offer a few tips. (The trainers work mostly with corporate clients but have also worked with politicians, whom they declined to name. “I don’t train and tell,” said one.)
Give details. When Couric asked Palin if she’d considered freezing home foreclosures as part of the bailout, Palin pulled back the scope: “It’s going to be a multifaceted solution that has to be found here.” She tends to favor “all of the above” solutions that “keep all options on the table.” Great, but anyone can say that. “The two best words you can say in interviews are for example,” says media trainer Kathy Kerchner, an Arizona-based consultant who advises corporate and government officials. The most awkward moment of the CBS interview came when Couric asked for an example of McCain pushing for government regulation. Acceptable answers would have included lobbying reform, campaign-finance reform, or immigration reform. Instead, Palin said she’d get back to her. So maybe the prerequisite piece of advice here would be “Know details.”
Don’t repeat yourself so much. In the Couric interview, Palin mentioned “shoring up” the economy at least five times, “crisis mode” at least three times, and twice how the financial meltdown makes her “ill.” The first time you hear a phrase, it sounds original. The 10th time, it sounds painfully rehearsed. Media trainer Carmie McCook, director of a D.C.-based firm that has advised UPS and Pfizer, tells clients to shake it up: “Here’s your key message—now think of three ways to say it.” And that doesn’t mean changing your tone of voice. When Couric asked about McCain aide Rick Davis’ connection to Fannie Mae, Palin said Davis “recused himself from the dealings in that firm.” When Couric repeated herself, so did Palin, only this time she emphasized different syllables: “He recused himself from the dealings.” Some media trainers encourage candidates to repeat themselves. (Advertisers used to say you need to hear something seven times before you remember it and 12 times before you act on it.) But too much and it sounds like cant.
Don’t repeat yourself so much. See above.
Tell stories. Even if you don’t have a perfect answer to the question, you can at least tell a good story. Mike Huckabee is the gold standard of “Oh, that reminds me” yarns. McCain himself is also a master spinner. If you can credibly launch into a great tale, however tangential, it pulls the interview back onto your own turf. Plus, it buys you time in case the interviewer asks a follow-up. So when Gibson asked her what she thought of the Bush doctrine, Palin could have said, “Well, Charlie, I was just discussing doctrine the other day with my preacher, who told me a great story about …” You get the idea.
No more “I’ll get back to you.” Voters like it when politicians are honest, even if it means momentary embarrassment. But you can say, “In what respect, Charlie?” only so many times. Next time she doesn’t understand a question, Palin should try to answer to the best of her abilities, says Mike Bako of Media Training Worldwide, whose clients include Bank of America, UCLA, and the Osmond family. Because now is when the “3 a.m. phone call” analogies begin. “In a leadership setting, getting back to you isn’t enough,” Bako says.
Catchphrases are overrated. The campaign message may be that John McCain is a maverick. You may think John McCain is a maverick. And John McCain may in fact be a maverick. But when Couric points out that for 26 years, McCain “has almost always sided with less regulation,” you do not say, “He’s also known as the maverick, though.” It sounds like a fall-back sound bite, says Kerchner. Plus, it cheapens the phrase, which in other contexts might be meaningful. Likewise, when invited to describe why you’re ready to be vice president—or, potentially, president—don’t just keep saying, “I’m ready.”
Relax. Media trainers think Palin needs to chill out. “She’s trying a little too hard to sound strong,” says McCook. Visually, she’s perfect, says Kerchner. She nails posture, eye contact, and tone of voice. But it’s the verbal aspect—what Palin might call her “verbage“—that needs work. Sentences that aren’t just declarative but overly decisive—”We must not blink, Charlie”—sound almost Bush-like. And some phrases, good on paper, come out sounding stilted in person. “She’s been a little too coached,” McCook says. “You gotta make it your own.”
Don’t be afraid to disagree with McCain. Palin’s best moment with Charlie Gibson was when she told him that she and McCain simply disagree on drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Reserve, says Aileen Pincus of the Pincus Group, which advises AOL, Microsoft, and the Washington Post. (Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.) “That was the one moment where I thought we saw just a glimpse of Sarah Palin,” says Pincus. Disagreeing occasionally works because it shows you’re thinking for yourself, not just repeating stock campaign phrases.
The No. 1 piece of advice for interviewees, as with all things, was, practice. But aside from her friendly chat with Hannity, Palin hasn’t been able to warm up. And giving fewer interviews all but guarantees that each one will get analyzed down to the molecular level. “They’re doing a tremendous disservice by not putting her out there,” says McCook.
This advice doesn’t just apply to interviews. It’s even more important for the vice-presidential debate, where dancing around questions is more difficult than usual. If the moderators don’t challenge you, your opponent will.