Moving the “Give-a-Damn” Meter

As a reporter, I once had a news director who had a special way of dismissing story ideas he found to be trivial.

“That doesn’t move the ‘give-a-damn’ meter,” he would complain.

His meaning was clear: My news director wanted stories that were more than just interesting; he was looking for stories that mattered to as wide an audience as possible.

As a media trainer and consultant, I think about that meter all the time, and I encourage my clients to deliver quotes and sound bites that will move it. You may be the most articulate, charismatic communicator ever to face a camera, but if your words don’t constitute a real story –or at least give me a reason to care– then what does it matter?

Moving the meter begins with a renewed appreciation of who your audience really is. And it’s not the reporter. The best way to envision a journalist is as a conduit; a telephone line to your ultimate audience. And in this era of Twitter and Facebook, it’s worth remembering that unlike those fancy new telephones, a news interview does not provide a direct connection. A journalist carefully listens for the quotes and sound bites that will move the meter the most, and passes them on to his/her own audience. If you don’t provide any of these powerful phrases, there’s no telling what part of the interview he/she will choose to emphasize. Maybe your words won’t be used at all.

When I ask my media training clients to write down their key messages prior to an interview drill, I often see efforts such as “Acme Widgets is a company with 10,000 employees,” or “Anytown Medical Center has just opened a new heart clinic.” Though these may be factual statements, they are not what we would call “message oriented.”

But the slightest re-wording changes that. “With 10,000 employees, Acme Widgets is the largest employer in the city” moves the meter, as does “Anytown Medical Center is on the forefront of battling the number one cause of death for Americans; heart disease.”

The difference between the first set of quotes and the second is obvious. The second set does more than simply inform; it addresses the audience’s instinctive need to know “what’s in it for me?”

Sometimes just a subtle change in word order can help move the meter. In crisis, saying “the safety of our employees and customers is our top priority” may be slightly less effective than stressing customers over employees. After all, your target audience is likely to be comprised of far more potential customers than employees.

My old news director probably had no idea that I would use his “give-a-damn” meter as a PR tool two decades after he introduced me to the concept. But it served me well as a reporter, and it is equally indispensable now.

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