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The Powerful Effect Of Trigger Words

The goal of a good interview is to elicit honest answers and emotion. Preparing questions for an interview using trigger words is walking a fine line.

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AP Photo/Adrian Kraus

The best question I’ve ever heard asked in a live interview came from Jim Moore. He also happens to be the author of the worst question I’ve ever heard asked in a live interview. In fact, I was sitting right beside him as a co-host at 710 ESPN Seattle when he did it.

Both of those questions were rooted in the same interview technique, but yielded very different results. That’s the thing about using trigger words, though. They’re going to make something happen, you just can’t control what exactly it is.

I was introduced to the concept of trigger words by John Sawatsky, an investigative journalist from Canada. For years he worked for ESPN where he workshopped interview techniques and reporting tactics. Two days of listening to Sawatsky taught me more about interviewing than I had in my entire career up until that point.

Don’t ask double-barreled questions, stacking requests on top of each other. Ask open-ended questions that start with how, why and what. You’re more likely to get an explanation from your subject as opposed to closed questions that can be answered with a yes or a no. His insights and recommendations changed the way I looked at interviews specifically and reporting in general.

One of the most interesting concepts Sawatsky introduced related to trigger words, which he described as a term or phrase so charged it would overpower the rest of the question and demand a reaction from the subject of your interview. A great example of this happened in Buffalo last year, when old boy Jerry Sullivan asked this question after the Bills lost to the Patriots in a game in which New England attempted only three passes. 

“Forty years since a team has won a game passing that few times,” Sullivan said. “Is that embarrassing?”

Bills safety Jordan Poyer: “What kind of question is that?”

Bills safety Micah Hyde: “What are we doing, bro?”

Poyer: “I think we gave up seven points?”

Hyde: “Fourteen to 10, is that the final score?”

Poyer: “We made stops when we had to. They had one big run. I mean, they have good backs. They kept coming back to a couple runs. I don’t know how you want us to answer that question.”

Was it a good question? It certainly created compelling video. It generated hundreds of stories about Bills players “snapping” at a reporter. I now know Sullivan’s name, which I did not prior to this, though my impression of him is not favorable. I think he asked a question designed to antagonize, and I think questions should be judged by the quality of answer that is produced. I don’t think the responses from Poyer and Hyde showed much more than how much they were annoyed by the question. Their reaction to the question tainted the rest of the interview, and when they left the stage, Hyde addressed Sullivan specifically.

That’s the gamble you take when you put a trigger word in your question whether it’s intentional or accidental. Sawatsky even developed a Richter scale to judge the severity of the reaction:

1 — No visible reaction

2-3 — Temporary irritant

4-5 — Subject becomes less engaged

6 — Visibly irritated

7 — Hostile outburst

8 — Interview terminated

9 — Physical attack

I would rate the reaction of the Bills player at a 6. I would put Jim Everett flipping over Jim Rome’s desk at a 9. When you use a trigger word, you’re taking the chance that not only that interview, but any future contact with that subject is going to go south.

Which brings me back to Moore’s questions. To make it very clear, I find Jim absolutely hilarious, a true character and one of the very best writers I know. He absolutely needs to finish his book on athletes and their dogs. I worked with Jim first on the staff at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and later at 710 ESPN Seattle where we were co-hosts on the afternoon drive show for 5 years.

I thought Jim was the best interviewer at our station. He asked simple, unique questions that often produced compelling answers and occasionally produced very awkward moments. He also used trigger words though I’m not sure he ever realized he was doing it until afterward.

In September 2013, Jim was interviewing Jack Zduriencik, the Mariners general manager, who was discussing his surprise at the fact the team’s manager, Eric Wedge, said earlier that week he felt he was left hanging by the organization.

“Was I surprised? Yes,” Zduriencik answered.

“Can you blame him, though, Jack?” Jim asked.

Silence for a full second. Then came an, “Umm.” Then an, “Again.” After regaining his balance, Zduriencik then provided the most honest criticism he would ever provide over Wedge’s decision not to return as manager after that 2013 season.

“I think that we’ve operated here in good faith,” Zduriencik said. “I think that those above me have operated in good faith with me. That is one of the things that I’ve said to Eric, I think you’ve got to trust people.”

It was absolutely riveting.

Jim’s question six years later to Zduriencik’s successor was equally memorable. The Mariners were in the first year of (another) rebuilding process. Jerry Dipoto was the general manager, and after a particularly rough stretch of fielding, Jim offered the observation that while he understood this was a rebuilding effort, there was a certain amount of competence expected of a Major League team. Jim then said it was possible he had seen a cleaner game from the youth baseball team his 14-year-old twins played four compared to the Mariners.

Silence. For three seconds.

“We’ve obviously had some challenges in the field,” Dipoto said, proceeding to provide a totally innocuous answer. It wasn’t the last time Dipoto joined our show for what had been a weekly interview. It was pretty close to the last time. Later that year after Jim mentioned in a column that he didn’t know if he could trust what Dipoto was doing, Dipoto has not participated in an interview with Jim since. I don’t believe they’ve even spoken.

That’s the risk with trigger words, though. Sometimes they cause a scene. Sometimes, they provoke a great reaction. Sometimes, they burn a bridge. And while that doesn’t mean you should steer clear of them, you also shouldn’t be entirely surprised if the whole thing blows up.

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BSM Writers

Being Wrong On-Air Isn’t A Bad Thing

…if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign.

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WRONG BAD

In the press conference after the Warriors won their fourth NBA title in eight years, Steph Curry referenced a very specific gesture from a very specific episode of Get Up that aired in August 2021.

“Clearly remember some experts and talking heads putting up the big zero,” Curry said, then holding up a hollowed fist to one eye, looking through it as if it were a telescope.

“How many championships we would have going forward because of everything we went through.”

Yep, Kendrick Perkins and Domonique Foxworth each predicted the Warriors wouldn’t win a single title over the course of the four-year extension Curry had just signed. The Warriors won the NBA title and guess what? Curry gets to gloat.

The funny part to me was the people who felt Perkins or Foxworth should be mad or embarrassed. Why? Because they were wrong?

That’s part of the game. If you’re a host or analyst who is never wrong in a prediction, it’s more likely that you’re excruciatingly boring than exceedingly smart. Being wrong is not necessarily fun, but it’s not a bad thing in this business.

You shouldn’t try to be wrong, but you shouldn’t be afraid of it, either. And if you are wrong, own it. Hold your L as I’ve heard the kids say. Don’t try to minimize it or explain it or try to point out how many other people are wrong, too. Do what Kendrick Perkins did on Get Up the day after the Warriors won the title.

“When they go on to win it, guess what?” He said, sitting next to Mike Greenberg. “You have to eat that.”

Do not do what Perkins did later that morning on First Take.

Perkins: “I come on here and it’s cool, right? Y’all can pull up Perk receipts and things to that nature. And then you give other people a pass like J-Will.”

Jason Williams: “I don’t get passes on this show.”

Perkins: “You had to, you had a receipt, too, because me and you both picked the Memphis Grizzlies to beat the Golden State Warriors, but I’m OK with that. I’m OK with that. Go ahead Stephen A. I know you’re about to have fun and do your thing. Go ahead.”

Stephen A. Smith: “First of all, I’m going to get serious for a second with the both of you, especially you, Perk, and I want to tell you something right now. Let me throw myself on Front Street, we can sit up there and make fun of me. You know how many damn Finals predictions I got wrong? I don’t give a damn. I mean, I got a whole bunch of them wrong. Ain’t no reason to come on the air and defend yourself. Perk, listen man. You were wrong. And we making fun, and Steph Curry making fun of you. You laugh at that my brother. He got you today. That’s all. He got you today.”

It’s absolutely great advice, and if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign. It means they’re not just listening, but holding on to what you say. You matter. Don’t ruin that by getting defensive and testy.

WORTH EVERY PENNY

I did a double-take when I saw Chris Russo’s list of the greatest QB-TE combinations ever on Wednesday and this was before I ever got to Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski listed at No. 5. It was actually No. 4 that stopped me cold: Starr-Kramer.

My first thought: Jerry Kramer didn’t play tight end.

My second thought: I must be unaware of this really good tight end from the Lombardi-era Packers.

After further review, I don’t think that’s necessarily true, either. Ron Kramer did play for the Lombardi-era Packers, and he was a good player. He caught 14 scoring passes in a three-year stretch where he really mattered, but he failed to catch a single touchdown pass in six of the 10 NFL seasons he played. He was named first-team All-Pro once and finished his career with 229 receptions.

Now this is not the only reason that this is an absolutely terrible list. It is the most egregious, however. Bart Starr and Kramer are not among the 25 top QB-TE combinations in NFL history let alone the top five. And if you’re to believe Russo’s list, eighty percent of the top tandems played in the NFL in the 30-year window from 1958 to 1987 with only one tandem from the past 30 years meriting inclusion when this is the era in which tight end production has steadily climbed.

Then I found out that Russo is making $10,000 per appearance on “First Take.”

My first thought: You don’t have to pay that much to get a 60-something white guy to grossly exaggerate how great stuff used to be.

My second thought: That might be the best $10,000 ESPN has ever spent.

Once a week, Russo comes on and draws a reaction out of a younger demographic by playing a good-natured version of Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man. Russo groans to JJ Redick about the lack of fundamental basketball skills in today’s game or he proclaims the majesty of a tight end-quarterback pairing that was among the top five in its decade, but doesn’t sniff the top five of all-time.

And guess what? It works. Redick rolls his eyes, asks Russo which game he’s watching, and on Wednesday he got me to spend a good 25 minutes looking up statistics for some Packers tight end I’d never heard of. Not satisfied with that, I then moved on to determine Russo’s biggest omission from the list, which I’ve concluded is Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates, who connected for 89 touchdowns over 15 seasons, which is only 73 more touchdowns than Kramer scored in his career. John Elway and Shannon Sharpe should be on there, too.

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BSM Writers

Money Isn’t The Key Reason Why Sellers Sell Sports Radio

I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions.

Jeff Caves

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Radio Sales

A radio salesperson’s value being purely tied to money is overrated to me. Our managers all believe that our main motivation for selling radio is to make more money. They see no problem in asking us to sell more in various ways because it increases our paycheck. We are offered more money to sell digital, NTR, to sell another station in the cluster, weekend remotes, new direct business, or via the phone in 8 hours. 

But is that why you sell sports radio?

In 2022, the Top 10 highest paying sales jobs are all in technology. Not a media company among them. You could argue that if it were all about making money, we should quit and work in tech. Famous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed twenty banks over twenty years. He reportedly said,” that’s where the money is”. Sutton is the classic example of a person who wanted what money could provide and was willing to do whatever it took to get it, BUT he also admitted he liked robbing banks and felt alive. So, Sutton didn’t do it just for the money.

A salesperson’s relationship with money and prestige is also at the center of the play Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman is an aging and failing salesman who decides he is worth more dead than alive and kills himself in an auto accident giving his family the death benefit from his life insurance policy. Loman wasn’t working for the money. He wanted the prestige of what money could buy for himself and his family. 

Recently, I met a woman who spent twelve years selling radio from 1999-2011. I asked her why she left her senior sales job. She said she didn’t like the changes in the industry. Consolidation was at its peak, and most salespeople were asked to do more with less help. She described her radio sales job as one with “golden handcuffs”. The station paid her too much money to quit even though she hated the job. She finally quit. The job wasn’t worth the money to her.

I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions. I never wanted to sell anything else and specifically enjoyed selling programming centered around reaching fans of Boise State University football. That’s it. Very similar to what Mark Glynn and his KJR staff experience when selling Kraken hockey and Huskies football.  

I never thought selling sports radio was the best way to make money. I just enjoyed the way I could make money. I focused on the process and what I enjoyed about the position—the freedom to come and go and set my schedule for the most part. I concentrated on annual contracts and clients who wanted to run radio commercials over the air to get more traffic and build their brand.

Most of my clients were local direct and listened to the station. Some other sales initiatives had steep learning curves, were one-day events or contracted out shaky support staff. In other words, the money didn’t motivate me enough. How I spent my time was more important. 

So, if you are in management, maybe consider why your sales staff is working at the station. Because to me, they’d be robbing banks if it were all about making lots of money.  

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BSM Writers

Media Noise: BSM Podcast Network Round Table

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Demetri Ravanos welcomes the two newest members of the BSM Podcast Network to the show. Brady Farkas and Stephen Strom join for a roundtable discussion that includes the new media, Sage Steele and Roger Goodell telling Congress that Dave Portnoy isn’t banned from NFL events.

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