His most recent role is media coach for executives, celebrities and artists ranging from Kelly Clarkson and Eli Manning to Thomas Keller and Tim Gunn. He’s also worked with major firms to help PR professionals hone the art of the pitch.
Two of his most recent clients’ names might ring a bell: Sheryl Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg.
In McGowan’s latest book Pitch Perfect: How to Say It Right the First Time, Every Time, he draws on decades of experience working both in front of and behind the camera to offer tips and tools on how to deliver a message efficiently and confidently.
We recently spoke to Bill to learn how that experience applies to PR.
What’s the biggest mistake people make when communicating in public?
They may do a decent job preparing talking points, but they don’t put the same amount of prep into the visual stories and examples that illustrate their points. They think they can pull the real content out of thin air, and that just doesn’t happen.
PR in particular needs to be able to speak experientially about the customer–what his or her problems are and how what you’re offering solves those problems–rather than relying on canned key messages and brand propositions.
The client’s default mode may not be to speak in relatable stories and examples, but it’s my role and the role of PR to compel and challenge them to do so.
Is refining language and eliminating jargon/verbal tics one of your biggest challenges?
Yes, and it stems from insecurity. I’ve had people in media training sessions say ‘I’m worried that if I don’t use that kind of language, people will think I don’t know what I’m talking about.’
Internally, jargon can be a shortcut. But if you don’t need to rely on buzzwords as a crutch when sharing your message externally, you will seem that much more confident.
Are there any particular cliches you tell people to avoid?
The one I hear over and over again is ‘so, if we were to look at this from a ____ perspective or standpoint.’ ‘At the end of the day’ is another one.
People mistake this sort of language as their comfort zone, but it’s really a conformity zone. You feel safer by talking the way everyone else talks.
What’s the key to transitioning between internal and external messaging?
It’s really about thinking of your customer/client as someone who buys your product…without being condescending.
The old adage ‘Imagine you’re talking to an 8-year-old’ is terrible advice. I say ‘Imagine you’re talking to a relatively intelligent college freshman.’
The flip side of that: I tell my tech clients to ‘imagine you’re talking to your grandmother’. This is someone who knows a little bit even if he/she may not be technically savvy.
In the book you mention working with PR executives. What were the biggest challenges they faced?
We have been retained by firms to teach teams going out to pitch clients.
Most people don’t go into a client meeting doing enough listening and figuring out what the client wants to accomplish.
Many junior account executives in their 20s also haven’t received proper mentoring in how to convey an executive presence, or get rid of filler words and ‘uptalk’ to increase gravitas. The big question is ‘Do you have conviction behind the pitch you’re selling?’, but it goes much deeper than that:
- Are you being an attentive listener?
- Are you sitting or standing with an executive presence as opposed to leaning back in your chair and flipping your hair?
- How do you begin the pitch with a compelling thought and end it with a bang?
- How do you interact with your slides?
What’s the most important topic you address in terms of media relations?
Helping to craft the soundbites that I know will interest the journalist.
Using analogies is always helpful: Senator Kirsten Gillibrand was recently discussing women in politics and said: ‘While we understand macro-economic issues, we really excel at the macaroni and cheese issues.’
Yes, it was obviously written ahead of time–but that didn’t stop the journalists from using it.
It works because you don’t have to explain the concept for people to understand. That’s my goal with PR clients and their clients.
Generally speaking, what does PR need to do to better appreciate the journalist’s perspective?
Sometimes there’s an unrealistic expectation that the reporter will be a megaphone for your brand proposition, but his/her first response to every pitch is ‘How can I poke some holes in this narrative?’
Also: I have rarely read a suggested Q&A document in which I’ve seen one question I would legitimately ask as a reporter.
It’s important not to confuse the notion that they’re happy to let you help them do their jobs with the idea that they’re willing to let you tell them what the story should be.
What’s the key to pitching a product/campaign that might not be a legitimate story unto itself?
In announcing a new product, there’s not enough discussion about how your customers influenced the launch. You’ll never go wrong in highlighting the pipeline between your company and your customer and how it influences the decisions you make.
In the Don Draper chapter, you begin with his famous quote about changing the conversation. What about the art of gently guiding the conversation?
There’s an erroneous assumption that being good at media relations is about never answering the question–but that’s what makes you sound like a politician.
You want to steer the conversation, but you don’t want to hijack it. This is known as bridging, and the ultimate clumsy bridge is ‘I’m not here to talk about that today; what I am here to talk about is…’
There must be some conversational connective tissue between the reporter’s question and topic Y. For example: ‘There’s been a lot of conversation about this and rightfully so, but one of the things we’re also taking a look at is Y.’
The overwhelming number of questions you get from a reporter will be pretty benign, and for those loaded questions you want to address the broader topic without getting into the granular nature of the question.
How self-aware are your clients about their own shortcomings on the communications front?
I find clients to be pretty certain about what they’d like to improve, so I’m usually very pleasantly surprised.
The point is to create a level of confidence and conviction behind your thoughts.
Later we’ll review McGowan’s seven points of effective communication as applied to PR.