August 11, 2021
As a Leader, Your Authority Hinges on Skilled Participation
We’ve all seen unprepared leaders lose control of difficult media conversations. Reporters delight in putting interviewees on the spot, tripping them up, and delving into topics respondents would rather avoid. But if as a leader you can’t skillfully and adeptly navigate these interactions, you risk undermining your own authority and harming your organization’s reputation.
Reporters aren’t the only people who will ask you pointed questions. In today’s world, control is disseminated more and more. And that means employees, stakeholders, and community members are free to challenge, test, and iterate on your ideas at any time. That’s a good thing. Because every media interview, town hall meeting, and hallway chat is another opportunity for you to strengthen your position, increase your influence, and solidify your message.
However, to effectively navigate these uncontrolled situations, you need to master the principles of positive, productive engagement within the original, uncontrolled environment executives have worked for decades to master – the news media.
The key is skilled participation, which can be accomplished by applying these tried and true techniques to every area of your professional life as your pathway to authentic, true authority.
Complete the Prerequisites of Skilled Participation
Skilled participation affords you an element of control in an uncontrolled environment. And the more uncontrolled the environment, the more credibility you earn by participating. But before you can master the techniques involved, start by doing some foundational thought work.
Shift Your Leadership Mindset
What it means to be an effective leader has changed dramatically. In the ’80’s, ’90’s and early aughts, leaders (especially CEOs) were high-powered executives who projected a carefully crafted image based on command and control. Confident, assured, possessing all the answers — but also unapproachable, inaccessible, and often inauthentic.
By contrast, the defining traits of effective leaders today are vulnerability and authenticity. You aren’t shielded by handlers and tucked away in your corner office on the top floor. Instead, you’re expected to be out on the playing field. Weighing in. Actively engaging. Opening yourself up to scrutiny.
To do this well, you need to demonstrate a personal commitment to growth and continuous learning. This might involve moving forward with incomplete information, allowing yourself to be questioned, welcoming honest feedback, and admitting when you’re wrong.
Vulnerability and authenticity can be humbling, but these are the characteristics that invite others to connect with you, respect you, relate to you, and ultimately follow you. There’s no leadership authority without vulnerability. And if this sounds uncomfortable, it’s because it is. But more often than not, the credibility it fosters is worth the effort.
(Much like sitting down with a reporter.)
Refine Your Point of View
Skilled participation requires you to have a well-thought-out point of view on a variety of salient topics. That doesn’t mean you have answers for everything, but it does mean you’ve taken the time to carefully consider the issues that matter most to your stakeholders.
Polite society doesn’t exist anymore, which means you never know what topic might be thrown at you. At any moment, your employees and stakeholders can ask you hard questions about your business decisions, strategic vision, financial outlook, operational plan, and organizational values.
Furthermore, social issues are now business issues, too. From critical race theory to voting rights, you’ll need to be prepared to enter into authentic conversation about the ideas that matter — and not just to your business specifically, but to society at large. Because, what’s good for society is good for business. And there are new expectations for leaders as a result.
Master These Proven Media Interview Techniques to Prepare for Skilled Participation
After you’ve completed the soft-skill prerequisites, it’s time to practice the media interview techniques that allow you to communicate your messaging effectively, no matter the arena you’re in.
Deliver a Crisp, Compelling Message
Skilled participants excel at getting to the heart of a message quickly and distilling their agenda into digestible viewpoints.
To craft an authoritative message, use these tactics:
- Concreteness. Your audience should be able to visualize exactly what you’re saying. If you can’t draw it, it’s not concrete. Abstract, squishy language flatlines empathy and gives listeners permission to check out.
- Emotion. Behavioral science tells us that humans are “feeling machines that think.” Reason and emotion are inseparable, and emotion is always more effective than cold, hard facts. If you want to propel people toward a decision or influence an outcome, strategic use of emotion is key.
- Narrative. Stories are the transporters of persuasion. The more immersed we become in a compelling story, the more open we become to changing or challenging our beliefs. Peppering your messaging with “micro-narratives” is an excellent way to use the power of story while maintaining crisp message delivery.
Need an example of how to employ these techniques? Steve Jobs used these three elements perfectly when he introduced the iPhone during a transformative CNBC interview. He used concreteness to describe the iPhone as a computer you can fit in your pocket. Drawing on the emotion of frustration, he then talked about how easy the iPhone is to use compared to other technologies that were harder for users to learn. And finally, he told stories about how his team conceived the iPhone and how they approached the design and development process.
Jobs’ discomfort with media interviews is well known, but he took himself out of his comfort zone and mastered the art of skilled participation. To become a true authority, you’ll need to do the same.
Build Your Argument Backwards
When building your argument, start at the end. Our natural tendency is to start at the beginning and build a strong argument systematically. But in a media setting — and in other uncontrolled settings — the longer you talk, the more you risk being interrupted before you can make your point. Don’t give your audience the opportunity to flip your script before you deliver the key takeaway.
Start with your headline. Then make your supporting points. Conclude with a summary to reemphasize the message and solidify it in your audience’s mind. Use repetition liberally. As organizational health consultant Patrick Lencioni says, your ultimate role is to be the “chief reminding officer.”
Expertly Maneuver Back to Your Agenda
In uncontrolled settings, you can’t follow a script word for word. But you can and should become proficient at maneuvering the conversation back to the ultimate message you want to convey.
Blocking and bridging is the most common approach. This two-pronged strategy involves acknowledging the question and bridging the conversation back to a related topic that aligns with the message you want to share.
For example, say an employee asks what you think about critical race theory. Perhaps you haven’t delved into this subject and aren’t familiar enough with the theory to provide a thoughtful point of view. You might respond by saying, “I don’t know much about critical race theory and I’ll need to do some research to make sure I understand it fully before I weigh in. But what I have thought about at great length is how our organization can do a better job of recruiting and retaining people of color. May I tell you about some of our recent diversity and inclusion efforts and ask for your feedback?”
This response shows you care about the overarching racial injustice issues that critical race theory seeks to address, signals that you are open to learning more about it, and invites honest conversation about the related issues your firm is actively working on. In short, responding this way demonstrates your authority.
Preparation + Improv = Skilled Participation
Your final requirement for perfecting the art of skilled participation is to embrace and develop your improvisational mindset. Improvisation is the ability to think on your feet, adjust your messaging based on how it’s landing, and successfully navigate uncharted terrain. This comes back to relinquishing control. We live in a rapidly changing world and, as a leader, you’ll need to make decisions with incomplete information and answer questions you don’t necessarily see coming.
But hear this. We aren’t advising you to fake it. Rather, we’re saying that — once you’ve prepared your messaging and mastered the art of engaging in media interviews — improvising comes down to trusting yourself. You are equipped to navigate the hard conversations that will come your way. You possess a reservoir of experience to help you improvise well.
At the end of the day, every conversation is improvisational because no authentic interaction is scripted. So suit up. You’ve refined your position and sharpened your skills. It’s time to skillfully participate to prove your authority.