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Game Face

  • By Bodine Williams
  • (Q&A Books, 218 pages, $22.95)

When famous or prominent people trip up or embarrass themselves when giving media interviews or public statements, their gaffes can take on a life of their own. But those situations also offer lessons to less-famous executives who need to improve their own public speaking or interview abilities.

Former TV reporter Bodine Williams, now a communications consultant based in Toronto, collects some of those incidents in a delightful book, Game Face, from Jimmy Carter telling Playboy he had committed adultery in his heart to Henry Kissinger swaggeringly telling Oriana Fallaci he was a lonesome cowboy, to author Mary McCarthy calling Lillian Hellman "a bad writer" and so dishonest that "every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.'"

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Ms. Williams says you know you have made it when you are asked by an interviewer to trash somebody else, as Ms. McCarthy was by TV host Dick Cavett. And it can happen. "The media thrives on conflict and controversy, framing the worlds of business, sports, and entertainment as highly personal rivalries with winners and losers," Ms. Williams writes in Game Face.

Don't take the bait. Never speak ill of the competition. Be prepared to present yourself or your interest in contrast to someone or something else but resist the invitation to criticize.

In particular, avoid blanket condemnation of others. "If it becomes necessary to address or challenge an adversarial word or deed, be brief, factual and specific. Your response should not be greater than what you are countering. The goal is to blunt the criticism rather than expand the conflict," she writes. Had Ms. McCarthy adopted that approach, she could have saved herself from a slander suit that took its toll on both women, ending without a final decision after Ms. Hellman died of cardiac arrest at age 77.

Jimmy Carter's confession in his 1976 interview is a reminder that originality in interviews is rarely rewarded. "An interview is a time for facts, arguments, and considered opinion. It is not the occasion for out-of-the box thinking on any subject. Nor is it the time to deal with hypothetical questions – or anything else you have not thought of before," she advises.

The words that landed the presidential campaigner in trouble came after the interview seemed over, as he was saying goodbye to the journalists and was asked a parting question. As he answered, the journalists indicated they were recording, so he knew he was talking to Playboy's readers. But even when reporters close their notebooks or turn off their recorders, Ms. Williams counsels to not assume the interview is over. Interviewees get in trouble making comments they think are off the record while standing at the elevator, at the door, or even in the washroom, perhaps because they are so relieved their ordeal is over they let their guard down. "But the interview is never over for the journalists while you are in their sights," she warns.

Ms. Fallaci had already held unflattering interviews with many world leaders so Mr. Kissinger, whose schedule was jammed, might have easily declined. Yet he agreed to be questioned, explaining later, "I did so largely out of vanity. She had interviewed leading personalities all over the world. Fame was sufficiently novel for me to be flattered by the company I would be keeping. I had not bothered to read her writings; her evisceration of other victims was thus unknown to me," he later told Time.

But he made himself look ridiculous with these words: "Americans like the cowboy who leads the wagon train by riding alone on his horse. … All he needs is to be alone, to show others that he rides into the town and does everything by himself. This amazing romantic character suits me precisely because to be alone has always been part of my style."

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He offered a lesson about the dangers of vanity but Ms. Williams also stresses that it's important to know beforehand what you want to achieve in an interview. Mr. Kissinger was just responding to questions while Ms. Fallaci had an agenda – the same as all reporters – to make news. Be prepared to answer questions with key messages but without seeming overly scripted or giving the same answer over and over.

The collection of 19 historical situations are eclectic, including Oscar Wilde's damaging statements in his libel suit against the Marquess of Queensbury; Edward Kennedy not being able to explain concisely (or at all) why he was running for president in an interview with Roger Mudd; Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman's off-topic comments about not wanting to go to Mombasa, Kenya, because of his fear of snakes or ending up in a pot of boiling water; and Joan of Arc's trial for crossdressing and heretical thoughts. Each produces lots of advice for lesser souls contemplating public comments and while the guidance is generally not surprising, the stories help to make them pungent and are worth reading in themselves.

I usually am not a fan of extra information in fact boxes and other displays but Ms. Williams supplements her stories and advice with quiet, helpful notes in the margin of the handsomely designed book.

POSTSCRIPT

Consultant Sanjiv Anand shows how to use the balanced scorecard technique to make your strategy work in Execution Excellence (Wiley, 270 pages, $34.00).

Presentation designer and cognitive scientist Carmen Simon draws on neuroscience to explain how to create memorable content to influence decisions in Impossible to Ignore (McGraw-Hill, 274 pages, $31.95).

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In The Evolution of Money (Columbia University Press, 309 pages, $35) Authors David Orrell and Roman Chlupaty show how money's increasingly elastic nature over the years has made the sharing economy and companies like Uber and Airbnb more effective.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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About the Author
Management columnist

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. More

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