The One Technique Your CEO Must Know To Ace The Next Media Interview
Perhaps your CEO is brilliant. Not only has he or she taken your company to new heights of profitability and innovation, but your CEO is a compassionate employer, too. He or she is everything you could want of a leader. But when the TV news camera’s red light starts blinking, your CEO’s white knuckled reaction of fear and anxiety sends you into a panic, too.
Of course, as PR professionals, we can provide media training to our top executives. We counsel them to know their material before ever talking with a reporter. We say, “Prepare key messages and practice them.” “Use bridging techniques to get the interview back on track.” We advise, “Tell the truth. Never, ever lie.”
All good advice for media interviews, backed by PR best practices. But there’s one technique that’s seldom mentioned in corporate media training sessions. One that can be more effective than any other your CEO might use:
Just …. breathe….
Breathe deeply, that is. The health benefits of deep breathing are well documented – from decreased aches and pains to improved circulatory and digestive systems. For executives experiencing anxiety when they’re about to face a reporter’s questions and that TV camera’s unrelenting red light, deep breathing can help them regain a sense of calm. In the countless media and presentation training sessions I’ve led here at Maccabee, I always remind trainees that breathing has many benefits. It can help them focus, recall important corporate information to relay during the interview, and even make better decisions about how to respond to unexpected questions.
Deep breathing – or even simple mindful breathing – during a media interview, can also help your CEO speak with more authority, says Washington, DC-based public speaking consultant Allison Shapira in her 2015 Harvard Business Review article:
“... the ability to harness your breath is one of the most important and least taught areas within public speaking … It’s one of the key elements of executive presence.
“This is not a new issue; Margaret Thatcher took voice lessons when she became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and there is a ‘before and after’ video where you can hear the difference. … I hear a difference in Thatcher’s breathing which makes her voice richer, more resonant ...”
A bit closer to home, and veteran of dozens of media interviews herself, Lexann Reischl, Corporate Relations Manager for Minnesota-based GNP Company, makers of Gold’n Plump and Just BARE Chicken, couldn’t agree more with Shapira.
“Your breath can be your friend, or it can cause issues for you,” Reischl told us. “For example, I know that when I’m tense and breathing shallowly, the pitch of my voice is instantly affected. There’s a reason people say, ‘take a deep breath.’ When you do, you’ll immediately become more settled so you can gather your thoughts before answering questions with a deeper, more authoritative voice.”
Unfortunately, deep breathing – sometimes referred to as belly breathing or diaphragmatic breathing – doesn’t feel natural to most adults. “For one, body image has a negative impact on respiration in our culture,” states Harvard Health Publications. “A flat stomach is considered attractive, so women (and men) tend to hold in their stomach muscles. This interferes with deep breathing and gradually makes shallow ‘chest breathing’ seem normal, which increases tension and anxiety.”
What might seem surprising is that we are all born with the natural ability to belly breathe – that is, from our diaphragms instead of our chests. Have you ever watched a young child sleep? If so, you’ll see their stomach rise and fall. As we age, however, we unwittingly change the way we breathe to short intakes and outtakes from the chest – the same breathing pattern typically used to prepare for danger (think primitive fight or flight). As a result, we continually deprive our bodies of the oxygen we need to function at our best cognitively, emotionally and physically.
Reischl relates from experience how mindful breathing helps her perform at her best during media interviews. During a telephone exchange she once had with a reporter whom she described as “antagonistic,” Reischl said she deliberately paused to breathe before answering each question. “Think of your breath as a tool,” she said. “When you use the tool properly, it’s centering. When you’re centered, you’re more confident.”
The article resulting from that antagonistic interview, by the way, was accurate and fair, Reischl noted.
Even though we’re all born with the innate ability to breathe deeply, as adults (whether we’re CEOs, VPs of corporate communications or just civilians), we need to practice.
The 4-7-8 Breathing Technique
The next time you’re preparing your CEO for a media interview, help them practice this simple deep breathing exercise, which is described in more detail by the world-renowned pioneer and leader in the field of integrative medicine Dr. Andrew Weil:
- Breathe in through your nose to a mental count of 4.
- Hold your breath for a count of 7.
- Breathe out through your mouth to a count of 8. If you can, make a whoosh sound through your mouth as you exhale.
Do this a total of four times.
Breathing affects vocal behavior
As if diaphragmatic breathing didn’t have enough advantages already, presence engineer Roshini Rajkumar, host of “News and Views with Roshini Rajkumar” on CBS Radio Minneapolis, and author of “Communicate That!” says that it’s also elemental for what she calls “vocal behavior.”
“Three things comprise vocal behavior,” she said. “How you sound, how you deliver your sound, and how others receive and perceive your sound.” Breathing from your diaphragm helps you control the first two components. (As does speaking from your soft or hard palates. More on that from Rajkumar in her Twin Cities Business column.)
Yawning is another technique that Rajkumar advocates. “It’s one of the most basic of vocal exercises,” she said.
How do we benefit from an action that is usually considered rude to do in public? Neuroscientists have found that yawning serves us by, among other things, helping to increase our intellectual functioning, reduce tension and performance anxiety, and relax the larynx.
So, go ahead and yawn – but you might want to do it privately before stepping in front of that microphone.
One final piece of media training advice
Of course, you don’t have to be a neuroscientist, vocal therapist or pulmonologist to coach your CEO on helpful breathing techniques. However, some CEOs might not put much stock into something they consider “new age-y.” If that’s your case, try this advice from Rajkumar: Encourage your CEO to do their own proactive assessment of their vocal behavior.
“It can be as simple as listening to your voicemail and asking yourself, ‘Would I want to do business with that person?” she said.
Don't miss Gwen's past post - "7 Horrific Mistakes Your Company Can Make On Camera" - on media training!
Gwen Chynoweth is an executive vice president and chief talent officer at Minneapolis-based Maccabee, a strategic public relations and online marketing agency.