If you’re going to wade into controversial public discourse, you’d better be prepared for the controversy. Otherwise, you could end up like Bethany Mandel, the author who humiliated herself on video, then made things worse by writing a vacuous essay about how bad it felt.
Bethany Mandel is the coauthor of Stolen Youth: How Radicals Are Erasing Innocence and Indoctrinating a Generation, a book recently published by right-wing outlet Daily Wire about how “the Left is waging an all-out battle on the American family, particularly the youngest members.” As a columnist for Deseret news in Utah with 117,000 Twitter followers, she is a minor public figure in conservative circles.
If you’re an author, you can learn from her experience.
As part of her book promotion Mandel appeared on Rising, a production of The Hill. Halfway through her appearance, the host asked her to define “woke,” since she had mentioned the term several times in her commentary and it is central to her book. The result was a deer-in-the-headlights moment and a complete inability to answer the host’s fair and simple question.
Mandel knew she had screwed up. Newsweek gave her a chance to respond and published her essay about the experience here. It begins like this:
It’s a delicate balancing act, promoting a book with six kids at home full-time. My book Stolen Youth—about how I believe woke ideology is upending American childhood—was released a week ago. To give me the time and space I needed to do various television shows and appearances, I arranged childcare for three of my kids.
Incredibly, the Newsweek piece consists entirely of descriptions of how upset she was, how she had a panic attack, and how it felt to have people criticizing her performance. This piece was her opportunity to actually answer the question “What does woke mean?” but instead she took the chance to write about homeschooling her kids and how stressful her video appearance was. It’s rare to get a chance to recover after screwing up as she did, but she squandered that opportunity and left us all wondering if, even after including a chapter on woke ideology in her book, she actually had anything to say about it.
Authors — particularly controversial authors — must be prepared for conflict
I’ve done many TV appearances like this myself, in some cases on controversial topics. If you are an author, this opportunity to appear on camera is priceless; you have to be prepared and make sure not to waste it. But there is a risk as well, because when you’re being interviewed live on camera, the host controls the flow. (Ask anyone who has ever appeared on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show what that feels like.)
After participating in both live and recorded segments, I figured out that live segments are actually better. Yes, they’re scary. But in a live segment, you get to say whatever you want and it goes out on air. In a recorded segment, the producers will often pick a sound bite or two, and they may not be the ones you’d prefer.
Ideally, you can use these segments to propel your book to higher visibility without humiliating yourself as Mandel did. But to do so, you need to prepare. Here are some tips that will make you more likely to succeed:
- Get media training and practice. At Forrester, I worked with a patient and talented PR professional named Jon Symons to rehearse and prepare. He helped me to understand what I would be seeing and hearing and how best to get my point across. Before I appeared on “60 Minutes,” we did several mock interviews and reviewed what I was doing well and what I could improve. I learned things you’d never expect, like the way that looking upward when thinking — which is completely involuntary — makes you appear to be lying. If you have access to a PR professional or can take media training, do it; these people know a lot more than you do about how video interviews work.
- Be brief. This is television. You may get five minutes total if you are lucky. If your first answer takes three minutes, you won’t get very far. Practice saying what you mean very quickly, with 30-second answers. This is no time to ramble.
- Have a set of canned answers and use them. You have points to make. You should make them. Like a politician, you should get used to pivoting from the question the host asked to the answer you want to give. If you’ve practiced those answers many times, then they’ll come out sounding solid and right — and you can concentrate on delivery rather than imagining what way to construct your answer. You can probably deliver a practiced answer even if a panic attack is creeping up on you — it will sound solid, and will help restore your confidence. Mandel should have had a canned answer to “What is woke and why is it a problem?” because that topic was sure to come up.
- Keep your cool. The point of the training and the canned answers is to keep you on topic. If you sound logical and forceful, you’re much more likely to be effective than if you sound terrified. Some hosts or fellow panelists may attack you (to be clear, in Mandel’s interview, the host was balanced and the questions were fair, as Mandel herself acknowledged in Newsweek); you look at lot better responding to a personal attack by focusing on the issues rather than becoming defensive. When you have limited time, focus on substance, not emotion.
- Prepare your space and protect your time. These days, many of these interviews will take place in a space that you’ve set up, with Zoom or a similar videoconferencing tool. People have written a lot about making your background look great, which Mandel obviously did, with copies of the book behind her. But part of that preparation is also making sure that your internet connection is rock solid, that there is no extraneous noise, and that all your other responsibilities like child care are handled. For example, when I had essential video meetings in my home, I worked with my wife to ensure that I wasn’t disturbed (and like Mandel, I homeschooled my kids, so this took some planning). If you’re doing a TV segment, you can’t be distracted by what’s going on around you; you must be able to fully concentrate on the content of the interview.
- If you get a chance to follow up, stay on topic. Mandel’s wasted TV opportunity is, perhaps, forgivable. We all get flustered at times. But her inability to respond in Newsweek is incomprehensible. If you’re being denigrated on social media, the best choice is often to do nothing. It may also be useful to make your points in other venues — in writing, you can edit your work until it perfectly makes your point. The worst thing you can do when you’re in the bottom of a hole is to keep digging.
- Grow a thick skin. You can’t throw a rhetorical grenade into the enemy camp and expect them to just sit there and take it. If you can’t handle controversy, then writing on controversial topics is a mistake, because you’re going to become a target. But controversy sells books and raises your visibility. If you respond in the channels you own with logic and continue to make your points, you’ll generate further visibility. If you curl up in a corner and whimper, all the effort you put into your book will be wasted, since people will see your lack of courage and ascribe it to a lack of conviction about your topic.
Some of you will be reading this and saying “Hey, she became the center of attention for a moment or two — good for her, because that will sell a lot of books!” But I’m betting that Mandel wouldn’t agree because, as her Newsweek article makes clear, she found being the target of ridicule to be a painful experience.
I admire people who make logical points about controversial topics. If you’re an author, that could be you. But you’ll do a much better job if you prepare for the visibility that your viewpoints will bring, and for the few moments you may have to be the center of attention in a media interview.