Saturday, August 25, 2012

"Thank you, Mr. Armstrong"

Most people over a certain age know precisely where they were when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon on July 20, 1969. I don't because I was three at the time. I do remember the night in 2004 when I got to shake his hand. It was an awards gala where Armstrong was being given the National Space Trophy by the Rotary National Awards for Space Achievement. Oddly, the first man to walk on the moon was the 18th recipient of RNASA's annual award.

It's a fairly rare occasion for me to be speechless, but when I shook his hand all I could muster was a near-breathless, "Thank you, Mr. Armstrong." 

I was one of probably 500 people who shook his hand that night and one of millions that shook his hand in the 43 years since he walked on the moon. He was a reluctant and gracious celebrity. With so many frivolous people famous for nothing other than attracting attention to themselves, it's easy to forget that one of the most famous men in history wished for nothing more than to be left alone to teach and live in the small Ohio town where he grew up. 

We've gotten dulled to the incredible technology that we surround ourselves with every day. Most of us take more computing power to the gym than Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins took to the moon.

NASA photo
Armstrong was passionate about engineering and unhappy that NASA's human spaceflight program seemed adrift, with no American rockets left to carry Americans to space and none on the horizon anytime soon. No one could take Armstrong's title of "First Man" from him, but he understood that America could very well lose its place as the world's foremost country for space exploration.

Times are turbulent now, but not any more so than the late 1960s. We went to the moon during all of that generational upheaval and there's no good excuse for why we don't have the world's most audacious human space program. Space programs employ thousands of really smart people who get that way with a great education. Those are just two benefits of space exploration.

Rovers are really cool and NASA's Curiosity mission to Mars is a great achievement. All things being equal though, footprints beat tire tracks.

When you look up at the moon tonight remember that 12 men from Earth left footprints up there. Most importantly, remember to say, "Thank you, Mr. Armstrong."

Bill Salvin

Thursday, August 23, 2012

All Gaffes are Not Created Equal

I've been thinking a lot about gaffes lately and the fear people have about making them. Luckily, Missouri Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin's comment about "legitimate rape" gave me what I needed to make the point I've wanted to make. All gaffes aren't equal and most aren't even memorable.

"Was it something I said?"
Gaffes are memorable for the humanity (or lack of it) revealed.
Akin's claim that a woman has a built-in kill switch to stop pregnancy during rape resulted in nearly universal condemnation. Besides being wrong about the physiological facts, his comments trivialized rape and blamed women for either lying about their assault or secretly wanting to get pregnant.

For the majority of people Akin's comments revealed all they needed to know to make a judgement. His double-digit lead in the polls evaporated overnight. Technically, Akin's comments aren't even a gaffe because he meant to say what he said. When you heard it you had the sense that he really believed it. In doing that, he rendered a useful service rare among politicians: he let the good people of Missouri know what he really thought.

Let's move away from politics. Not everything is a Freudian slip. Sometimes people just misspeak. I media train people every week and the fear making a mistake looms large in nearly every training room where I work. People beat themselves up for making the smallest mistakes and they believe they've failed if they weren't perfect.

No interview is ever perfect
I've done around 3,000 live newscasts, both television and radio, in my life. None of them were perfect. Some were awesome. I mispronounced my own name in one of them. Most were not memorable.

Thousands of people are interviewed every day and, in reality, there are very few truly epic gaffes. News is disposable by its nature. So is your interview. Fear of making a mistake shouldn't keep you from doing an interview, it should motivate you to get trained and to practice before agreeing to it.

Since you're likely to make a mistake, focus on techniques to correct them when you make them.

Three tips to fix your "gaffe"
The first thing you can do when you realize you've misspoken is to stop talking. If you stop talking, the reporter has no news. Stop. Tell the reporter you've lost your train of thought and then re-start.

The second thing you can do is ask the reporter to ask you the question again so you can give a better answer. In most cases, a reporter will give you the chance to clarify your answer if you are honest about the fact that you weren't happy with your first go at it. They get a good story with good information from you.

The third tip to keep you from being gaffe-tastic is to use a pause. So many people think they have to begin speaking the microsecond a reporter's question ends that they stop thinking. Let the reporter ask the question. Listen to the whole thing. Take a breath and begin your answer.

Those tips can help keep your routine interview from becoming a viral video.

The other thing that can help is not citing as "fact" information that can be refuted by reading a middle school health textbook.

Bill Salvin