How To Lose Friends And Influence Nobody

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I interviewed a lot of people for my last book.

From neighborhood moms to well-known personalities. Within minutes certain interviewees did something that made me immediately NOT want to continue talking with them. And, guaranteed they’d never make it into the book.

Interestingly, the higher profile they were, the more likely they were to do it. What was the thing that was so undesirable?

They stayed on message.

Every answer to every question was a rehearsed, bullet-pointed recitation of talking points from their latest book, DVD or presentation. I get why they did it. I get that it is completely appropriate in certain scenarios, especially when being interviewed for short, discrete broadcast segments, where there’s no time for anything else. But, here’s the problem. When you’re actually trying to go deeper

Staying religiously on message reads as boring, overly-“handled” and insincere.

Don’t believe me?  Three words…

Al. Gore. 2000.

People, the good stuff—the thoughts, ideas, revelations and conversations that move mountains and change lives—rarely ever happens when you’re staying on message. Think about the most compelling moments in public conversation. They almost always occur when people go off-script. Because…

The magic happens when you’re willing to get real.

When you know your topic so well and believe in it so deeply, you are willing to let go and just speak from the heart. When you choose to speak not because someone’s given you a platform, but because you’ve actually got something to say.

That’s when people want to listen. That’s when people stand up and say, “lead the way.” That’s when legions of like minded individuals form communities and rally to your cause, while others line up to debate you. That’s where the juiciest conversations and most compelling moments come from. That’s the conversation I want to engage in, learn from and talk and write about.

And, it applies in nearly every aspect of life and business.

Stay always on message with your boyfriend, girlfriend partner or spouse and see what unfolds after months or years of refusing to go deeper. Keep repeating the same bullet points on blog after blog, post after post or book after book and your writing career won’t be very long lived. Stick religiously to the script every time you take the podium and you may wow them the first time or two, but then they’ll never come back. And, worse, they’ll stop telling others to come back.

Know what you believe in, then speak from the heart.

Be prepared with important ideas, concepts and points to discuss. Think deeply about how and why they’re important. Do your homework, anticipate every question and ponder how you’d answer them.  Get ready to speak to those points. But, when it comes time to breath public life into them, try something new…

Go off script, then watch the world respond!

So, what do you think? Do you agree?

How do you feel when you speak with people who stay zealously on message 24-7?

Are they the ones who become lifelong friends and treasured advisors?

What am I missing?

Share your voice (and please try to stay on message, hehehe!)…

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28 responses

28 responses to “How To Lose Friends And Influence Nobody”

  1. Susan Murphy says:

    As you mention, there is something to be said for staying ‘on message’ when being interviewed for a brief article, news story, etc. As a video producer, people who talk in sound bites are my friend in these cases (i.e. no rambling on and on – get to the point and get it over with).

    But how to combat the “on message” types? There are a few techniques to try. One, you can have a discussion with the person prior to the interview, and let them know the style of conversation you are going for. Many people who are overly rehearsed don’t even realize they are doing it. Letting them know that you want to have a conversation with them, not a series of sound bites, can make them more aware. Doesn’t work every time, but worth a shot nonetheless.

    Also, try re-wording questions to make the interview more conversational. If the subject is comfortable, ask questions with a more personal edge. Don’t lead with “In your book, you say X. What do you think about Y?” You’re setting yourself up for sound bite city. Instead, ask “What in your experience has taught you X?” Get the person to tell a story to get their point across.

    Hope this helps – it has worked for me in the past.

  2. This is just a brilliant post. Could you please send it to our political parties?

    One reason people LOVE those “town hall meetings” where nothing is scripted is perfectly summed up here. As a matter of fact, I wish we would ban all campaign advertising and make the candidates ONLY campaign door to door, in town hall meetings, and at events where they were forced to speak what’s really on their minds.

    What you’ve said here really DOES apply to business as well. How many times have I heard our CEO trumpet labor productivity numbers? No matter the what’s being discussed, he ALWAYS turns it around to that subject…and we have the best numbers in the entire industry ALREADY.

  3. nick says:

    Besides not being real, I think the other thing people don’t do is listen. The ability to listen and comprehend what another person is trying to convey is something most people don’t have. Taking that extra time to listen makes your reply (especially when it’s not just about you) sincere.

  4. Matt Silb says:

    The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you’ve got it made.

    Jean Giraudoux

  5. Jonathan!!!

    This was so inspiring, so affirmative (because I make it a practice to speak from the heart whether on stage, during an interview or in one on one conversations). You’ve just affirmed that I am on the right track and it makes me feel GOOD.

    What a great reminder how important it is for us, regardless of who we are or what we do, to be authentic. That’s so important – we have way too many fake people out there who are like robots, repeating recorded-like messages over and over.

    This post ROCKS buddy. It got me all damn excited. It reaffirmed my life’s purpose and reassured me that people do respond to authentic speakers who talk from the heart. I’m no Winston Churchill or Obama on the stage but that doesn’t matter – I am still me. And it feels good.


  6. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Susan – great points about setting expectations for conversations in advance and reframing questions. I did a lot of that trying to get certain people to go off message. At times, it became a bit of a game, like a reporter trying like crazy to get a politican to answer a question that they’d been told never to give a direct answer to.

    @ Ron – yeah, I think people watch political town partly, in part, for the same reason some watch NASCAR. They’ll have fun along the way, but secretly yearn for something really wild to happen, whether it’s going off track or off script

    @ nick – sorry, what was that? Hehehe! Just kidding, absolutely, listening is always at least half of the game.

    @ Matt – awesome quote! 😉

    @ Stephen – glad I could help kindle a little fun to start your weekend off! I’ve found it to be true when I speak as well. People just respond so much differently when you know what you want to say, but allow room the spontaneity and freedom

  7. I’ve gotten in trouble at certain jobs for not staying on message because the message was supposed to be “nothing is ever wrong, our totally fairy tale development schedules are realistic, we aren’t seriously understaffed, etc.”

    Not that I’d do it differently. Cultures where problems are only discussed in seething secret backchannels are not healthy.

  8. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Nathan – yeah, tell that to the crew over at Podtech. See Scoble’s recent friendfeed for more on this.

  9. “How do you feel when you speak with people who stay zealously on message 24-7?”

    I don’t know, since I don’t hang out with people like that.

  10. Pamela Slim says:

    I would respond, but the question is not covered in my “12 points to cover in blog comments strategic plan for 2008.”


    Blech. Hate canned comments. I have interviewed a few folks on podcasts who had this approach and it made the conversation so much more difficult. Makes me want to reach through the phone, take them by the shoulders and shake them while saying “Cut the canned crap!”

    I think you can be clear about the core message you want to share with the world and have endless ways to discuss it, based on the interviewer and environment.

  11. Nice post, Jonathan.
    “Staying on message” makes more sense in the sound-bite driven world of TV. The rise of social media has given us all the chance to become more “real” because anyone can now run his/her own media platform (blog, noozle, webcast, etc) which means we’re not limited to 15 or 30 seconds any more.
    I think that this increase in “authenticity” is one of the defining characteristics (and opportunities) of the “new” new media.
    Individuals can make much better connections with each other by sharing some level of personal details and letting their personalities shine through. I haven’t yet seen corporations figure out how to make this work in their marketing, however.

  12. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Hayden – good point, friends who stay on message don’t generally make for good friends.

    @ Pamela – Yeah, I did a few interviews where the interviewees PR person was also on the phone reeling them in and it reminded me of my time as an enforcement attorney at the SEC, where witnesses lawyer’s kept conferencing with the witness before each answer.

    @ Scott – no doubt the rise of social media has made fuller conversations more viable. And, though they are rare, a small community of high level execs are getting it and bringing the real conversation to the masses. The CEO of Zappos is one.

    I wonder what would happen is someone ran for president and, in introducing themselves to the world released a giant list of every stupid thing and big mistake they remember doing since they were ten and said…

    “Here I stand, laid bare. This is what I remember, but honestly, I was so plastered for the better part of college, I’m sure there’s more that I’ve either blanked out or forgotten. I’ve been an idiot, I’ve been a savior, I’ve won big and failed often. I’ve said a million wrong things at the wrong time and a million and one right things. Because I am human, I live, I act, I learn. And, with each experience, I make better decisions. That’s why you should vote for me.”

    Bundle that with real smarts and I wonder what might happen?

  13. LOL. That is the oppportunity isn’t it? It will likely be someone of our generation who is that political candidate. The web is so good at archiving memories that transparency is increasingly difficult to avoid. Sorry “handlers”!

  14. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Scott – Modern day Bulworth…

  15. Do me a favour and send this to all the “media trainers” out there that teach people to always “stay on point”…

    Thanks in advance 🙂

  16. This is a great post – I hope it ends up in mustreads. Authenticity – its so refreshing these days! @thetricycle preach the selling of relationships vs. product. People will buy product, but it rarely builds trust. Selling relationships requires depth with customers/clients – I am learning that many people are not willing to do that, but it is exactly what is needed in business (and life) today.

  17. Jonathan Fields says:


    Completely spaced on including this link to one of Chris Brogan’s recent posts where he went SERIOUSLY off script and tore up the audience. It was actually a partial inspiration for this post.

    Go there now and enjoy (warning, lot’s of George Carlin’s 7 dirty words, be ready to shower afterwards)…

  18. Lance says:

    I”m all for being real. Whenever I talk with someone and it seems scripted, it feels fake. And I lose trust. I see this sometimes at work. And I just lose a desire to continue working with that person. However, those that are authentic and real – even if I don’t agree with what they say, I have much more respect for.

  19. riva says:

    “Go off script” is a great sound bite, mind if I steal it? Thanks, btw, for keeping it real, and giving those of us who always speak from the heart, a little encouragement in an overpackaged, overbranded world.

  20. I definitely think there’s a wonderful balance to be found. Like, if I contact you because you’re an expert in X, I’m probably talking to you to get ideas and quotes about X. If you keep coming back to Y, it’s going to be frustrating.

    But canned answers certainly don’t make for compelling… well, anything. Like you hinted to at the end, I’m of the opinion that a healthy amount of prep and background knowledge along with a willingness to go off-script at the first invitation is the best combination.

  21. Robyn says:

    I love the fact that you posted on this, Jonathan. I’m at BlogHer 08 in SF, and yesterday attendees got treated to some blog readings. The amount of self-disclosure and the bravery of some of the people in talking about the most horrific, frightening, and self-destructive parts of their lives was astonishing. And it wasn’t just what they shared, it was that they shared it with anxiety, terrified of what others might think, but willing to share their stories anyway, in the hope that someone would be able to learn from their experience. Authenticity: accept no substitutes!

  22. Eric says:

    Staying “on message,” as you put it, can be dangerous to anyone in any position, not just high-profile individuals. Over-rehearsed speeches and sales presentations sound insincere and the messages come across as too “word-smithed” to really mean anything.

    At the same time, though, under-rehearsal is just as fatal. While I dislike people bullet-ing out their answers in interviews just as much as you do, the people who “um” and “uh” their way through a circular presentation are just as draining.

    In either situation we’re looking at an interviewee who isn’t actually saying anything the entire time words are coming out of their mouth. I truly agree with your assertion that people should be “willing to get real.” Be it business or a dinner table conversation, being “real” will improve anyone’s verbal posture.

  23. Helen South says:

    Well said! Thanks for the wake-up call. Because our blogs are used as a ‘front page promo’ tool, (though less so in our new redesign) I’ve always found it difficult to really use it as a blog – there’s often that ‘sales pitch’ for the article you want readers to go to. So yeah, often very scripted.

    I’m also conscious of needing to appear professional , so don’t often ‘open up’. Ironically, on those rare occasions when I do really get stuck into an issue or tell readers about a personal experience, they’ve responded so warmly.

  24. I like this idea and the whole point about the dangers of staying on message within even our personal relationships really resonates with me at the moment. Too often, we reiterate thoughts, facts that have not been questioned ina long time. It doesn’t leave much room for emotion or personal truth.

    Get real and shake things up to feel more alive, I say.


  25. I love this article – and the comments! It all comes back to doing what you are passionate about. If you are passionate about something, people will not be able to get you to shut up about it, and you can talk circles around it and relate it to anything and everything because it is everything to you. What happens when you ask someone about their kids or their dog? Yeah – like that. In one moment you can tell if they just bought the designer puppy the people in their social class ought to own, or if they love their dog, chewed slippers and all. In some cases, a person who is passionate may have allowed themselves to become overcoached or overtrained and hopefully they will read this article 😉 just let that passion hang out!

  26. Justin says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with this post. Rehearsed comments are usually uninteresting and disengaging, while speaking from the heart is, well, interesting and engaging. If you know a topic well, you should be able to talk about it without having to memorize a prewritten speech.

  27. Jonathan: Found your blog thru Liz’s blog show … this is a fantastic post … will definitely be checking back to see what else you have to say. I use a Cicero quote to to tell my clients what tehy need to do “Charm – Teach – Move.” Each is an essential element of communication and quoting the same “message” over and over again won’t charm, teach or move anyone. Keep up the good work.

  28. Xeres says:

    How come I see many mediaced (by now that’s a word)people like they never attended one lesson media-training? Comes with the job, I should think. Their ‘performance’, makes them look like a stereotype at their own accord. Without any help of bad lighting, directing, montage or bad questions.