The Pros and Cons of Talking Points

A few years ago, I attended a lecture by a media consultant.  The job of the consultant was to prepare people who were scheduled to be interviewed on television or on the radio.  Much of what he said in the lecture made sense, but there was something important that bothered me.  It took me a while to figure it out.

The consultant made two interesting points about the need for such preparation.  The first was that in this era, everything that happens in, or even around, the studio is likely to be in the accessible permanent record – even if the microphone and the camera are supposed to be dead.  There is no escape from what you say.  Years later, it may be used against you.  This is true of all modern media including Facebook, Twitter, and smartphone photography.  Beware!

The second point he made was specifically about broadcast interviews.  This was a corollary of the first: prepare your talking points very carefully and stick to them!  Don't be tempted to answer leading questions.  Move away from your talking points, and you are in danger.  You must resist the temptation to elaborate and must always quickly return to your talking points.  That way you will be safe. 

Good advice – except where he advised to deflect the questions and return to your talking points.  This is what troubled me.  I believe he is wrong about that.

This lecture changed the way I see television interviews.  I now am acutely aware of when a person is sticking to talking points and when he is not.  Of course, almost everyone who is subject to a planned interview will have his talking points.  However, I have discovered that there is great hazard in strictly following the lecturer's prescription.  Follow it too closely, and you will likely alienate your audience.

That hazard is most apparent during on-air debates.  In that environment, conservatives usually are pitted against progressive liberals.  The difference between the two is striking.  Progressives almost always stick closely to their talking points – often vehemently.  Conservatives tend to be much more free-wheeling and frequently improvise far away from their talking points. 

Why did I eventually reject part of the lecturer's advice?  Because winning or losing comes from an audience's emotional response – not a rational one.  The problem with sticking to talking points is intellectual rigidity.  Rigid can be too easily broken, which often manifests in an interview.  Most listeners don't respond well to this lack of flexibility.  Emotionally, something seems wrong with an argument that has no supportive explanation.

In many cases, liberal talking points fall into predictable categories.  For example, suppose that a progressive social engineering program has clearly failed.  The standard progressive response is to deny the failure.  How many times have you heard one of these three universal excuses?  1) Not enough time has been given for the program to succeed.  2) Not enough money has been spent to make the program a success.  3) It is the fault of conservatives for sabotaging the program. 

Or how about the talking point du jour?  It is almost magical how the many outlets of the liberal media will simultaneously offer the same opinion in nearly the same words at exactly the same time.  Collusion?  Hear the talking point once, and it may have a favorable impact.  Hear it simultaneously from multiple sources, and the positive effect is likely canceled out.  The talking point is correctly seen to be mere propaganda. 

So repetition is deadly.  That was the major flaw in the lecturer's advice.  It is probably okay to occasionally refer to a talking point.  But this is only to emphasize some element of the argument.  Repeat too many times, and you are on dangerous ground.  You are in danger of falling into the trap of rigidity, of not having the wit to adapt to questions.  You become, in the eyes of the viewer, a mere messenger.

The lecturer was right about one thing: do your homework.  Prepare very carefully.  Fail to get your facts right, fail to get your logic right, and you trap yourself, now and forever.  This is true regardless of the medium you are working in.  It is especially true if you are being interviewed.  Always be aware that the interviewer is a pro.  He knows how to ask questions designed to trap you.  Do your homework!

Above all, don't lie!  Don't deliberately lie.  Worse still, don't lie by omission.  I believe that, more than any other factor, the obvious lies told during the recent administration, and during the recent election campaign, gave Donald Trump the presidency:  "If you like your doctor...," "Benghazi was because of a video," "ISIS is a J.V. team," "I did not have classified material on my server," "There is not a smidgeon of corruption in the IRS," "We didn't pay ransom to Iran," "You didn't build that," "Our economy is stronger than ever," "This administration has been the most transparent in history," "This administration has been scandal-free," and so on.

I mentioned that conservatives tend to be more free-wheeling and confident in interviews.  Why is this so?  I believe that conservatives mostly argue from a core of self-discovery and experience, not from an abstract conservative ideology.  The talking points conservatives present are usually generated directly from these core beliefs.  It is the conservative individual's experience that enables his fearless expression. 

Many liberals I have encountered strike me as immature, regardless of age and intelligence.  By way of contrast, the liberals and conservatives who are my close friends are very different.  They take risks.  They have often failed.  And they have often succeeded.  Both success and failure temper their judgment of the world around them and temper what they see and hear from the media and from the liberal culture in which we are all immersed. 

Too many liberals, and especially progressives, lack essential soul-maturing experience.  They have not felt the hard knocks of life.  These fragile people shelter themselves from the rough-and-tumble world.  They may hide in academia or in some relatively undemanding bureaucracy or liberal community.  They fear risk.  They fear struggle.  They fear failure.  They fear debate.  Ironically, these fears are often expressed as arrogance – a false façade of superiority they believe entitles them to dictate to all. 

In reality, these liberals fear being themselves.  So they hide in a think-alike crowd.  Thus, many liberals, and most progressives, must rely on the dogma of their liberal community rather than on their own nonexistent experience of failure and success.  These sheltered people lack a mature core from which to improvise.  They must therefore stick to standard liberal talking points.  They are little more than automatons delivering a canned message.  They are hollow.

So my advice is this: don't hide.  Live.  Dare.  Fail.  Learn.  Succeed.  Develop a core of beliefs from your real-world experience.  Then you will not fear any question.  You may turn out liberal or conservative.  It matters little which.  You will be solid.  You will have integrity.  You will be an adult.

A few years ago, I attended a lecture by a media consultant.  The job of the consultant was to prepare people who were scheduled to be interviewed on television or on the radio.  Much of what he said in the lecture made sense, but there was something important that bothered me.  It took me a while to figure it out.

The consultant made two interesting points about the need for such preparation.  The first was that in this era, everything that happens in, or even around, the studio is likely to be in the accessible permanent record – even if the microphone and the camera are supposed to be dead.  There is no escape from what you say.  Years later, it may be used against you.  This is true of all modern media including Facebook, Twitter, and smartphone photography.  Beware!

The second point he made was specifically about broadcast interviews.  This was a corollary of the first: prepare your talking points very carefully and stick to them!  Don't be tempted to answer leading questions.  Move away from your talking points, and you are in danger.  You must resist the temptation to elaborate and must always quickly return to your talking points.  That way you will be safe. 

Good advice – except where he advised to deflect the questions and return to your talking points.  This is what troubled me.  I believe he is wrong about that.

This lecture changed the way I see television interviews.  I now am acutely aware of when a person is sticking to talking points and when he is not.  Of course, almost everyone who is subject to a planned interview will have his talking points.  However, I have discovered that there is great hazard in strictly following the lecturer's prescription.  Follow it too closely, and you will likely alienate your audience.

That hazard is most apparent during on-air debates.  In that environment, conservatives usually are pitted against progressive liberals.  The difference between the two is striking.  Progressives almost always stick closely to their talking points – often vehemently.  Conservatives tend to be much more free-wheeling and frequently improvise far away from their talking points. 

Why did I eventually reject part of the lecturer's advice?  Because winning or losing comes from an audience's emotional response – not a rational one.  The problem with sticking to talking points is intellectual rigidity.  Rigid can be too easily broken, which often manifests in an interview.  Most listeners don't respond well to this lack of flexibility.  Emotionally, something seems wrong with an argument that has no supportive explanation.

In many cases, liberal talking points fall into predictable categories.  For example, suppose that a progressive social engineering program has clearly failed.  The standard progressive response is to deny the failure.  How many times have you heard one of these three universal excuses?  1) Not enough time has been given for the program to succeed.  2) Not enough money has been spent to make the program a success.  3) It is the fault of conservatives for sabotaging the program. 

Or how about the talking point du jour?  It is almost magical how the many outlets of the liberal media will simultaneously offer the same opinion in nearly the same words at exactly the same time.  Collusion?  Hear the talking point once, and it may have a favorable impact.  Hear it simultaneously from multiple sources, and the positive effect is likely canceled out.  The talking point is correctly seen to be mere propaganda. 

So repetition is deadly.  That was the major flaw in the lecturer's advice.  It is probably okay to occasionally refer to a talking point.  But this is only to emphasize some element of the argument.  Repeat too many times, and you are on dangerous ground.  You are in danger of falling into the trap of rigidity, of not having the wit to adapt to questions.  You become, in the eyes of the viewer, a mere messenger.

The lecturer was right about one thing: do your homework.  Prepare very carefully.  Fail to get your facts right, fail to get your logic right, and you trap yourself, now and forever.  This is true regardless of the medium you are working in.  It is especially true if you are being interviewed.  Always be aware that the interviewer is a pro.  He knows how to ask questions designed to trap you.  Do your homework!

Above all, don't lie!  Don't deliberately lie.  Worse still, don't lie by omission.  I believe that, more than any other factor, the obvious lies told during the recent administration, and during the recent election campaign, gave Donald Trump the presidency:  "If you like your doctor...," "Benghazi was because of a video," "ISIS is a J.V. team," "I did not have classified material on my server," "There is not a smidgeon of corruption in the IRS," "We didn't pay ransom to Iran," "You didn't build that," "Our economy is stronger than ever," "This administration has been the most transparent in history," "This administration has been scandal-free," and so on.

I mentioned that conservatives tend to be more free-wheeling and confident in interviews.  Why is this so?  I believe that conservatives mostly argue from a core of self-discovery and experience, not from an abstract conservative ideology.  The talking points conservatives present are usually generated directly from these core beliefs.  It is the conservative individual's experience that enables his fearless expression. 

Many liberals I have encountered strike me as immature, regardless of age and intelligence.  By way of contrast, the liberals and conservatives who are my close friends are very different.  They take risks.  They have often failed.  And they have often succeeded.  Both success and failure temper their judgment of the world around them and temper what they see and hear from the media and from the liberal culture in which we are all immersed. 

Too many liberals, and especially progressives, lack essential soul-maturing experience.  They have not felt the hard knocks of life.  These fragile people shelter themselves from the rough-and-tumble world.  They may hide in academia or in some relatively undemanding bureaucracy or liberal community.  They fear risk.  They fear struggle.  They fear failure.  They fear debate.  Ironically, these fears are often expressed as arrogance – a false façade of superiority they believe entitles them to dictate to all. 

In reality, these liberals fear being themselves.  So they hide in a think-alike crowd.  Thus, many liberals, and most progressives, must rely on the dogma of their liberal community rather than on their own nonexistent experience of failure and success.  These sheltered people lack a mature core from which to improvise.  They must therefore stick to standard liberal talking points.  They are little more than automatons delivering a canned message.  They are hollow.

So my advice is this: don't hide.  Live.  Dare.  Fail.  Learn.  Succeed.  Develop a core of beliefs from your real-world experience.  Then you will not fear any question.  You may turn out liberal or conservative.  It matters little which.  You will be solid.  You will have integrity.  You will be an adult.

RECENT VIDEOS