To Comment or ‘No Comment’

How to dodge bullet questions without those lethal words ‘No comment’? In tough Media interviews or post-presentation Q and A, how to avoid without sounding evasive or flaky? How to present the company position without being trapped into corners?

We tackled this hot topic in my recent Media Skills training. (I enjoyed working with these Rural Financial Counsellors, who assist those in tough situations.)

A picture tells 1000 words

People groan ‘not another PowerPoint!’ Enliven with (relevant) pictures. So at midnight before that day’s training I’m adding family photos of outback Australia to my slides.

Next day I’ll dress up to detract from bleary eyes – pearls will help.

Give reasons. I can’t comment because: 

  • ‘As this is not my portfolio I would refer you instead to Joe Bloggs.’
  • ‘I’m not familiar with that research so will leave it to those who are.’
  • ‘This matter is under investigation’ or ‘For legal reasons…’
  • ‘It is a complex situation and warrants XYZ…’
  • ‘I agree in part but won’t respond to hypotheticals. If you’re asking about QRS I can say…’
  • ‘My brief evaluation is LMN but others are better qualified to respond.’
  • ‘Your premise has some validity but STU…’
  • ‘I don’t yet have the full picture so will reserve judgment until then.’

Sincere thanks for the training program you conducted with my team. It put forward some views that people seldom consider. At an important meeting since then, they were well prepared, relaxed, and gave so much practical information that the meeting was extended.’
Shirley McNaughton, Executive Officer
Rural Financial Counselling Service NSW – Northern Region

How it’s done

British PM Cameron dodged a press conference question about the US-China deal to reduce carbon emissions. He wanted to see ‘more detail’ before making a judgment.

On the global stage

The G20 Brisbane heat abated after a week of celebrity and jet spotting. (Why don’t dignitaries plane pool to help save the planet? Were President Obama’s ex-forum comments appropriate?)

Constructive face-to-face meetings warmed friendships–often through non-verbal cues of body language and voice tone as much as words. Photo and metaphor beamed powerful messages around the world.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s vow to shirtfront Vladimir Putin brought a memorable concept to international diplomacy. It sent media into frenzies of:

Will he-won’t he-did he-don’t he?

(Spellcheck, you don’t get the impact of rhyme and rhythm.)

Top leaders joined Team Abbott to kick that ball after an inappropriate media skit. Which could lessen sympathy for ABC cuts of rural and regional programs, that deny voice to battlers in the ‘outback’.

Bear Diplomacy won friends

  • Vladimir Putin smiled while cuddling a koala, pronounced his hosts efficient and friendly but fled the heat.
  • Indian Prime Minister Modi gave Tony Abbott enthusiastic bear hugs.
  • Angela Merkel enjoyed our beer with locals.

Communication challenges

Merkel is tech savvy. ‘You can’t use two at once’ she advised when a microphone and live translation earpiece set up banshee wailing.

International conferences challenge communication even when the major language is English – my salvation when presenting in Finland.

Build your presentation confidence with training or coaching.

Skills to speak/write short

Have you found that it’s easier to speak or write SHORT than LONG? Speakers must be tight with timing to not disadvantage the next presenters. So we edit, prune, prepare, practise. But try 5 minutes! 

When chosen to pitch a manuscript at Byron Bay Writers Festival I determined to give it my all.  And a picture tells 1000 words, right? My PowerPoint presentation shone with photographs and evocative music. I bought my own data projector to avoid tech meltdown, enlisted a techie to help me craft a streamlined presentation. 

Heed advice from experts

At a workshop a few days before, Stephanie, Jill and Lisa critiqued us and gave invaluable advice; it was challenging, honest and brutal where needed. They looked askance when I arrived lugging tech gear and props.

  • No PowerPoint. What if there’s a glitch, you might waste half your precious five minutes. ‘Couldn’t I cut back the slides to just a few?’ (Whimpers) ‘Please?’
  • No, because attention is divided between your face and the screen. Just speak.(Tactful but firm). Hmm, good point.

Learning to let go


They were right. This, my first pitch, was an exercise in letting go, in listening, in faith. I’d be foolish to ignore astute, sound, expert advice, so booked a coaching session with Stephanie. She tolerated my minimalist PowerPoint version, then reached for my laptop. Cut, cut, cut, paste. (‘Can’t I keep that story?’) Cut, add, paste, cut. A tight but flowing version emerged. My style had become staccato in its efforts to save valuable seconds: I had opted for two-syllable words as opposed to four. Her priority was clarity. She brought my pitch to five minutes exact. 

On the day 

I spoke first of five strong contenders. Slow deep breathing beforehand. As I do. Added a few ad libs. So the bell caught me off guard. (With PowerPoint, I note the number of the last slide so I can skip content if necessary.) I’d indicated the usual four-minute mark on my text, but forgot my own advice: 

• ‘Tab sections/sentences that can be dropped if time runs short.’ 

My revised pitch gave freedom to express through verbal, facial and body language. Though not the winner, I emerged positive, wiser and grateful. I value the opportunity to be heard, and to learn in the process. 

Nothing is wasted

I’ve since filmed it into a book trailer that’s up on YouTube. My next presentation for my book-in-progress Burn My Letters allows 30 minutes – ample scope for slides!
It will be at the Institute for Migration in Finland in May.

Prepare to shine

Prepare – get feedback – revise – get coaching – prepare, prepare, prepare. 

I’m available for one-on-one coaching – or I recommend Stephanie!

P.S. Three of my books are available on Amazon kindle including Speak Out.

Ease dry mouth – public speaking

When author Eleanor Catton was named the youngest winner – aged 28 – of the £50,000 Man Booker Prize for her epic novel The Luminaries, she was gobsmacked. 

How would you respond?

Although Catton recovered her composure to make a graceful speech, she said she was hit by a “white wall” to hear her name read out. She rose from her table at the black-tie dinner with “dry mouth and trembling knees” according to The Australian newspaper.

Some tips for when you accept YOUR award

Dry mouth is exacerbated by throat tension. To relieve it:

 Drop your jaw and rub the underside of your tongue against the inside of your teeth. This activates the lubricating saliva glands.

• Press the tip of your tongue on the hard palate near the teeth ridge.

 Subtle sucking movements promote saliva. 

 Imagine the taste of lemon juice or vinegar. 

 Simulate yawns  (subtle social yawns, rather than alienate listeners).

A dehydrated performer’s responses become sluggish if fluid is not maintained.

In a “normal” day we need at least eight glasses of water – but increase this for periods of stress. Yes, I know what you’re thinking… you don’t want to haunt the bathroom.

We’re talking HABITS here!  Drink plenty of water in those pressured weeks, days, the morning of a presentation. Ease back in the hours and minutes before, perhaps simply taking a sip before walking onto the platform.

(Excerpt from my book Speak Out – Don’t freak out now available as eBook.)

And the shakes? More on this next time.

Short vs. long?

While known and loved writers sell doorstopper size novels, the novice is advised to submit 90,000 words (or better, 80,000). Yet Catton won with a novel ten times that length. Chair of judges, Robert Macfarlane, said “Length never poses a problem if it’s a great novel.” Take heart, authors. Edit, polish, hone your skills and polish, polish.

Speaking short

My writing journey was encouraged to be chosen as one of five authors to pitch their manuscripts before a panel of publishers at Byron Bay Writers Festival. How to condense all that passion and enthusiasm for an absorbing story into FIVE minutes? It was a challenging learning curve, even for an experienced speaker and I’m very grateful for the opportunity. I’ll tell you more next time.