Preface: My sister and her husband are visiting from Virginia. We had been discussing politics (YIKES! I said the word “politics”). Mom decided to play a video of dad being prepped by a trainer for a legal deposition while he was CEO of an International Company. This prompted my sister to pull up a story from dad’s book called “Honesty is The Worst Policy“. Why?
Because if dad had been allowed to just be dad – a very successful but brutally honest businessman, it might have put the suit in jeopardy. In other words, he had to learn how to be politically correct: deflect, avoid and don’t answer any questions!
Keep in mind that dad’s stories are full of both true and embellished historical facts.
As we are in the craziest political season to-date, the timing seemed quite appropriate to share one of dad’s many stories. Enjoy!
Honesty Is The Worst Policy
Let’s just suppose that the late Tim Russert asked me on Meet The Press “When did you stop beating your wife”?
At one time, I probably would have answered, “On Thursday July 17th at 3:34 pm”.
At least, that’s the reputation I had that worried my bosses in London. They were concerned that I was the face of their recent well-publicized acquisition and would be subjected to press and television exposure.
So, when they requested that I get some training in being interviewed, I buried my pride and agreed.
(Until that point, I thought all I had to do was refrain from burping and scratching myself in the wrong places on camera, to be a successful interview).
The search for my trainer culminated with a man named Jack Long, former NBC Executive; now a consultant in public relations training. His office was located in the famous “30 Rock”, as it is known to us insiders. Jack had steel gray hair, eyes that could perform microsurgery, and a handshake to squeeze milk from coconuts. If he were any taller, I would be talking to his knees.
His resume included coaching George Herbert Walker Bush, Henry Kissinger, Rudolph Giuliani, etc.
Scanning the office I saw spotlights, video cameras, microphones, a sound booth, a witness chair, a whip and chains, and other accoutrements with which to convert average dullards into William Jennings Bryan.
He pointed me to a spot on the floor, splashed a hot spotlight on me, and asked me to talk into the camera, while standing at a precise angle of ninety degrees to the floor. He constantly interrupted my stand-up routine with harsh criticisms of word choice, voice modulation, posture, and facial expressions.
I barely eked out three sentences.
I vowed if he points his glasses at me once more, I will punch him in the kneecaps.
His piercing eyes made my ears bleed as he explained that I must forget my scientific training and stop the ridiculous preoccupation with FACTS.
After this session of demonstrating my weakness and reducing me to a quivering mass on tape, Jack began to teach the art of the television interview. The cardinal rule for being interviewed is, ‘YOU PREPARE YOUR MESSAGE IN ADVANCE AND DELIVER IT, NO MATTER WHAT THE QUESTION”.
Only amateurs answer direct questions. The operative term is “Bridging”. It usually takes a sentence or two to bridge from what is asked to what message you want to deliver.
(It is such a common practice that Henry Kissinger once walked into a news conference and asked, “Well ladies and gentleman of the press, do you have any questions for my answers”?)
For example, in an acquisition situation, if they ask, “Do you plan on keeping the management team”, the untrained Sahud would have told the truth, “I will fire the asses of the founder’s two incompetent and obnoxious sons-in-law as soon as the ink dries”.
The trained Sahud would say, “When we acquire companies, we consider the strengths and weaknesses of their management teams as important as their technology and markets”.
Another question could be, “Why are you fighting the organization of a labor union”? The truthful answer, known by the entire world plus the citizens of Mars, is “Because we don’t want our labor force telling us how to run the company and want to keep our costs under control”.
The trained Sahud would say “I have come from a strong union family; my Great Uncle Barney played a major role in the formation of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union”. (Actually, it was true. He ran a sweat shop and was an absolute tyrant to his workers. This served as a major impetus for the formation of the ILGWU under David Dubinsky.)
Long addressed the most common question of, “Are you considering becoming a candidate for “President/Governor/Senator”? He wanted to know how I would answer it.
My answer was typical. “I am fully committed to doing the best possible at my job in my present capacity of Dog Catcher”. I think the previous sentence is missing a few words and sounds a bit odd. My cynicism must have eluded him.
Long further explained the importance of “Catch-phrases” that everyone will remember. For example, he asked what the phrase “A thousand points of light” meant to me, since he has trained George H.W. Bush.
I tried to make sense of it as “A thousand fireflies or a thousand midgets shining flashlights.” But I had to admit that “I really don’t know what he is talking about”.
Jack said, “That was the comment of Dukakis, his opponent. But most people remember it, didn’t they? Let’s hear your comments about some other famous saying”:
- Jack: “I knew Jack Kennedy. He was a friend of mine – “You’re no Jack Kennedy.”
- Me: “Kennedy barely knew Senator Benten and was certainly not a friend.”
- Jack: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
- Me: “I never met anyone who is afraid of fear.”
- Jack: “Ask not what your county can do for you, etc. etc.”
- Me: “I didn’t elect Kennedy to make more work for myself.”
- Jack: “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes”.
- Me: “Ridiculous. The soldiers at Bunker Hill were drunkards with bloodshot eyes.
- Jack: “Fifty four forty or fight”.
- Me: “Obviously referring to the price of gasoline.”
Jack, seeming to lose his stoic composure, said, “OK, you can short shoot holes in the statements, but you can’t deny that they are remembered by most people. Let’s see if you can come up with something. It doesn’t have to be meaningful, just memorable.”
I thought hard and immediately came up with, “I have never had sex with that woman, Ms. Lewkinsky.”
Jack blanched, gave me a sneer of disgust and said, “I can’t believe that you are serious! That has already been taken. Try another one.”
I stared at the ceiling, tapped on the floor with my foot, passionate for originality, and launched forward with, “Airplanes can’t land on a pyramid!” It’s short, sweet and creative. It’s also non-controversial – I would relish the opportunity to use it.
Jack sighed without comment and continued with the lesson. “In answering my questions, you looked like your arms were glued to your sides. Why don’t you use your hands when you speak? Are your pants too loose and are you holding them up”?
I answered, “I don’t know. It might be due to my two frozen rotator cuffs. Also, I am not Italian. But maybe I am too busy thinking about what to say.”
Jack, tapping on the table with his forefinger, said “If you were more concerned with words than style, I can guarantee that your audience will jump on it. Every stumble, stammer, or grammar lapse will be amplified 100-fold. Watch Pat Buchanan. He also started as stiff as Ed Sullivan. I trained him to use his hands and now no one can get within five feet of him without getting slugged.”
There’s a side benefit to using your hands when speaking. When reporters try to stick microphones in your face, you will push them away. The broken fingers are well worth it. Another tip: when leaving a building, never walk straight to your car. Walk in a roundabout way, so you avoid reporters lounging at your car and waiting for you”.
(This one is easy for me, since I always forget where I park).
Jack closed by conducting a stressful press interview, based on facts that I provided him. My responses contained a lot of “Let me put it this ways” and “Thank you for asking” and then proceeded to not answer the questions.
He seemed perturbed that I was following his instructions. Maybe he really wanted to hear the answers.
I was now on a roll and kept bobbing and weaving. My hands were thrashing octopus style, until Jack had to calm me down.
He reminded me that “Interviewers usually have time restrictions. If you notice, many interviews end with some questions not answered at all. If you continue not to answer questions, the host will not continue to repeat the same questions, for fear of turning off the audience.
It is more important to stay with your message than to be responsive to the interviewer. In other words, don’t be afraid to look stupid. (It never stopped me before)
It was an interesting session, if only to appease my superiors in the U.K. However, the strategy backfired on them.
I had learned how to avoid their incriminating questions during budget review and became a source of frustration.
I probably could have saved the company money had I been more alert in my home life.
My wife and two daughters were experts in bridging my questions into what they wanted to say. It usually cost me money.
And they never even met Jack Long.
Life’s Journey Through the Absurd Told With Sophistication and Wise-Ass Humor
Growing up during the depression as a Jewish boy with an Arabic-sounding name,in what David describes as a dysfunctional family environment, gave him a ton of fodder for his stories. David’s stories are engaging, entertaining, and full of both true and embellished historical facts.
From Self-Proclaimed Nerd, to Accomplished Executive, to Befuddled Snowbird