Emotion up, gestures down; joke a lot, don't wear brown
Boston — JACK KENNEDY was one of the first to do it. Jimmy Carter toned down his ``cracker'' image by doing it. The current President of the United States could write the book on it. And the next president probably won't get elected without it. This is the behind-the-scenes business of media training - a process that offers everything from political advice, message development, and acting exercises, to speech therapy, breathing techniques, and grooming tips to help candidates communicate more effectively through the electronic media.
Like athletic coaches, media coaches work to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, and maximize the innate potential of their charges.
Michael Dukakis, for example, learned to control his hand gestures - an expressive Mediterranean way to punctuate remarks, perhaps, but a distraction on TV. Richard Gephardt was told to relax and let loose some of the humor he shows in private. And Robert Dole was advised to tone down the sarcasm.
``Our job is to eliminate things that get in the way of the message,'' says political consultant Dan Payne, of Payne & Associates, in Boston. But media advisers, like acting teachers, attack the problem at different levels.
Dorothy Sarnoff, a former actress and founder of Speech Dynamics Inc., in New York, overhauls the costuming and conquers stage fright. She told Senator Dole to replace his baggy brown suits - ``a man looks less authoritative in brown, don't you think?'' - in favor of figure-fitting blue suits, pastel shirts, and natty ties. She also showed him, in a video playback, that his habit of sinking onto a lectern and leaning heavily on his crippled arm drew attention to his handicap.
``I pointed out ... that if he stood at the lectern straight shouldered, with upper torso held high ... we would not even notice his arm,'' she explains.
``Presence'' is a favorite Sarnoff word. It's the result of how you carry yourself physically, and it plays to the audience as confidence, authority, and ease. How does she get it? - with a variety of physical techniques, including the ``Sarnoff Squeeze,'' a breathing exercise designed to conquer every negative inclination from nerves to nausea to sweaty palms.
Sarnoff scoffs at people who advise a candidate to ``be yourself.''
``Just who is `yourself'?'' she asks. Sarnoff has no trouble with the idea that she ``repackages'' people, if the original ``package'' - however ``natural'' - is self-defeating. For instance, she adores Paul Simon's rich baritone voice but would like to rip off that signature bow tie, because, she says, ``it robs him of presence.''
Frances LaShoto, who teaches communications at Emerson College in Boston, is a speech coach who also focuses on ``the physical instrument.'' In 1960, she used vocal exercises with John Kennedy to deepen and ease the strain out of his high-pitched voice. Today she works with Michael Dukakis on modulation as a way, she says, ``to get the emotion that's in his body into his voice.'' Before a major TV address, Ms. LaShoto tells the Duke ``to imagine that he's talking to four people in a busy kitchen.'' After he does a dry run on video, the two analyze his voice and body language for flat tonality or errant gestures.
LaShoto also keeps an eye on the competition. She suggests that George Bush relax and lower his vocal pitch to eliminate the ``tight jaw, nasal, `snarly''' quality from his delivery. She, too, applauds Paul Simon's wonderful baritone but criticizes his monotone. She calls Jesse Jackson ``a marvelous communicator,'' but difficult to understand when, ad-libbing, he slips into dialect.
Like Sarnoff, LaShoto says that physical poise and vocal flexibility help people communicate more effectively, while bad habits interfere. ``I loved Bruce Babbitt,'' she says, ``but he had this habit of smacking his lips after every statement. That sort of thing draws attention to itself, and, I think, it got in the way of people hearing what he had to say.''
Jim McAvoy of the public relations firm of Ruder, Finn & Rotman in Washington, dismisses most of the physical rehab of candidates `a la Sarnoff as superficial or unnecessary.
``All the candidates are presentable. What's important,'' he maintains, ``is understanding the ground rules of the media.'' Mr. McAvoy, who works with George Bush's regional press representatives, teaches people how to say what they have to say within the short sound bites allotted by radio and TV reporters. He has them write out the major points they want to convey, from which they craft short, quotable statements. He praises Gephardt as the contender who ``knows the rules better than anyone, and can get his message across in neat `media chunks.'''
David Doak, who works with his consulting partner Robert Shrum out of Washington, might take some of the credit. His job has been to help Gephardt distill and focus his political messages, which he accomplishes through strategy discussions and role playing. Mr. Doak and other advisers take the roles of opposing candidates and reporters, and challenge their man as he would be in an actual interview or debate. Doak, who was a strategic planner in Jimmy Carter's 1980 campaign, says there are no mysterious techniques; it's just a matter of becoming familiar with the process through practice.
After what he thought was a fabulous performance in a Sioux City, Iowa, debate in January, the coach asked the candidate what he did to make himself come across so well.
``I just sat in the room,'' Gephardt reportedly told Doak, ``and was myself.'' Doak likes this story because it illustrates his attitude about tampering with the candidate's style of presentation: ``Dick Gephardt is a natural performer in his own right, and it would be a mistake to change his style.'' He has, nevertheless, nudged Gephardt to use in public the humor he evidently reveals quite easily in private.
Regardless of the tack media trainers take, there are some things that they cannot do. Doak, for instance, bristles at a common misconception that ``presentation consultants'' (his term for the job) create the candidate's ideas. Shape for the media's time constraints, yes. Create, no. The message, he says, springs from the candidate's convictions and cannot be ``pasted on'' by a team of energetic consultants.
And contrary to cynical opinion, media coaches say, you cannot transform a bumbling fool into a star. Even Dorothy Sarnoff, who says you can change anyone who's motivated to change, concedes that the camera picks up faking. Dan Payne, who produces commercials for Dukakis, contends that a ``cosmetic makeover'' won't work in a presidential campaign, because there are too many unstructured, spontaneous moments caught by the media which reveal unvarnished character and uncensored thoughts. Besides, Doak adds, ``voters can smell'' the phonies.
If voters are so canny, does this mean that, in the last analysis, media coaching is irrelevant to the electoral process? Probably not. Eliminate the physical tics and other distractions and get the candidate to be more at ease with himself in front of a TV camera, consultants say, and voters have a fairer chance of witnessing the character and message.
Still, in practice, there is controversy over what constitutes a ``distraction'' and what being ``oneself'' is all about. One critic thinks Paul Simon should get his ear lobes bobbed, while another believes they give the man a ``Buddha'' presence. Some feel Mike Dukakis's bushy brows make him look menacing, others think they're sexy. And Bob Dole's rapier wit is an asset or a liability, depending on who you ask. Clearly, a squeaky voice, slouching posture, or humorless manner are turnoffs, but the impact of other qualities can be in the eye of the beholder.
As in all contests, it is the winner who gets to write the book on what works. And the coaches, should they ever hold a convention, can argue whether a Richard Nixon or Lyndon Johnson won because of or in spite of himself.