unPHILtered – Phil Ponce's Blog

I Make a Rookie Mistake, Part 2

Yesterday I wrote about Tavis Smiley and the fallout from something he said when he didn’t realize his microphone was on.  The same thing happened to me recently. 

I was doing a pre-taped interview with a guest in a different city via Skype.  Skype allows you to do an interview with someone over the internet using a camera inside the interviewee’s computer.  The video quality is not as good as that given by a professional studio camera, but usable nonetheless.  This guest had graciously rearranged her schedule to do the interview.

She was an excellent interview–she knew her material, was smart and articulate.  But we were having technical difficulties at our end.  Her audio was perfect but the video images of her kept freezing up.  The interview lasted 6 or 7 minutes.  When the interview was over, I thanked her and said she’d done a great job, which was true.  Then I paused for a second or two, assumed she could no longer hear me and said to the studio crew, “Are we going to use that?”  That was the last thing she heard and she thought I had not been pleased with her performance.  In fact, my concern was whether we could use the interview because of our problems with the video.

Understandably thinking my comment was about her, she sent our producer an e-mail saying my comment was unprofessional, particularly since she had gone out of her way to help us.  I was mortified.  We quickly explained to her the true nature of my concern.  She immediately got it.  But it was embarrassing and humbling to have violated a rule of Broadcasting 101.  And in the intervening minutes before we received her gracious e-mail accepting my apology, this “veteran” broadcaster felt like a real greenhorn.  Lesson learned:  if you’re wearing a mic, assume it’s hot.

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I Make a Rookie Mistake, Part 1

We’re airing an interview tonight with Tavis Smiley about his new book in which he cites 20 mistakes and the lessons he learned from them.  One of them involved a time when he was in the studio getting ready to interview a renowned filmmaker via remote hook-up in another city.  The subject of the interview was the guest’s new movie.  Unbeknownst to Smiley, his microphone was hot and the remote guest heard Smiley say to his studio crew that he’d seen the new movie and that it was a “piece of ****.”   When Smiley discovered that his microphone was live and that the guest had heard his remark, he immediately apologized.  The interview was going to be live and naturally Smiley did not want a hostile guest. 

Too late.  The interview did not go well.  Terse answers throughout.  It was excrutiating for the host–and presumably for the viewers.  And the relationship between the filmmaker and Smiley was never the same. 

All rookie broadcasters are taught to assume that a mic is always hot and that someone can hear whatever you’re saying.  Smiley say’s he re-learned that lesson the hard way.  I recently re-learned it, too.  Details tomorrow.

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Should One Space Follow a Period or Two?

This may fall into the category of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, but I don’t think so.  Apparently there is a raging debate over whether one space should follow a period or if there should be two.  As you can tell from reading this so far, I fall into the “two-space” camp.  But for a passionate opposing argument, see this article in Slate magazine.

This came to my attention recently when I noticed that some of the younger staffers here use only one space after a period in the copy they draft for me to read on the teleprompter. When I edit their copy, I always add a second space. It’s how I was taught, but more importantly, I find it easier to read. But apparently, this is a debate that transcends generations. Some younger folks use two, some older folks use one. For me, though, my preference primarily has to do with visual clarity. A test: which was easier to read, this paragraph or the first?

How about you, which do you prefer and why?

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Grammar Check!

Here’s part of a wire service report on last week’s announcement by Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels that he would not be running for president. We all make grammatical mistakes. So what? But when you’re issuing one of the most important statements in your career, better take extra care to make sure it’s right. You don’t want voters to think they dodged a bullet! (On the other hand, maybe it’s part of his folksy persona?) In any case, here’s the statement:


Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels said early Sunday that he won’t run for president because of family concerns, a development that narrowed the Republican nomination field though made the wide-open race even more uncertain. “In the end, I was able to resolve every competing consideration but one,” the Republican said, disclosing his decision in a middle-of-the-night e-mail to supporters. “The interests and wishes of my family, is the most important consideration of all. If I have disappointed you, I will always be sorry.”

A two-term Midwestern governor, Daniels had been considering a bid for months and was pressured by many in the establishment wing of the party hungering for a conservative with a strong fiscal record to run. He expressed interest in getting in the race partly because it would give him a national platform to ensure the country’s fiscal health would remain part of the 2012 debate.

But he always said his family — his wife and four daughters — was a sticking point.

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The Success Ratio

I’ve been thinking about the speech John McDonough recently gave at Loyola University Chicago (which I summarized yesterday).  The underlying theme is the importance of people skills in having a successful career. Early in my career, I thought that professional success was based overwhelmingly on how well you did your job. I thought of the people side of the equation as ancillary to professional competence. If I had to break it down into a formula, I would have said professional competence accounted for 90 percent of one’s success and that people skills made up the remaining 10 percent.

Boy, was I wrong.

I now believe the formula is at least 50-50 and probably closer to 40-60, with people skills outweighing strictly “professional” ones. I’m not saying you can be an incompetent charmer and survive (although there are probably many examples of that). What I am saying is that one skills set complements the other. And if one doesn’t consciously work on being strong in both areas, you’re at a huge disadvantage.

Bottom line: people like doing business with people they like. With the economy being what it is and with lots of folks out there who have the base-level professional skills, review McDonough’s bullet points and pass them on to someone whose future matters to you. You’d be doing them a favor.

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A Graduation Speech Worth Hearing, Part Two

Last Friday night, I heard a terrific commencement speaker at Loyola University Chicago, where I teach part time. The speaker for the School of Communication ceremony was John McDonough, president of the Chicago Blackhawks. Under his leadership, the Blackhawks achieved what Forbes Magazine has called “The Greatest Sports-Business Turnaround Ever,” re-energized the fan base and won the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1961. Before that, he was president of the Chicago Cubs with a reputation for marketing savvy and innovation.

At the beginning of the speech, he candidly acknowledged his less-than-stellar high school career. His advice was exactly the kind of rubber-meets-the road pointers that a young graduate needs. Here’s part of what he said:

  • First and foremost, no matter where you go from here, we’re all in the people business.
  • Personality and warmth will take you further than any other skills.
  • Preparation and persistence give you a chance to be lucky.
  • Be well-read. Information is the engine of the mind.
  • Be interesting and interested. Reading makes you interesting, listening makes you interested.
  • Have the confidence to laugh at yourself. It disarms others from doing so.
  • People like to surround themselves with happy people.
  • Be humble with your successes and treat failure as an incentive.
  • Express sincere compliments frequently.
  • Call people by their name. It adds a classy touch.
  • Ask others about themselves. That is their favorite topic and will inspire conversation.
  • Look people squarely in the eye when you speak to them and give them a firm handshake.
  • People are impressed with a broad vocabulary.
  • There is genius in brevity. Get to the point.
  • Please have big dreams. They just may come true.

These no-nonsense pointers make a lot of sense to me. And if the graduates remember even a few of them, they will have walked out of that ceremony with something just as valuable as their diplomas.

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A Graduation Speech Worth Hearing, Part 1

If you’re lucky, you’ve heard an excellent commencement speaker either as a graduate yourself or attending somebody else’s graduation ceremony. I have no recollection of my high school speaker, I missed my undergraduate graduation ceremony because I was working, and I have only a brief memory of my law school speaker. Full disclosure: I’ve given a few graduation speeches myself and pray they were the least bit cogent and helpful. (Actually, as I think about it, I’m quite sure that they were the least bit cogent and helpful.)

So it was a pleasure to hear an excellent speech this past weekend from a Chicagoan who was disarmingly candid about his history, to wit:

  • His class rank in high school was 311 out of 356.
  • His GPA was a “sparkling” 2.1.
  • He was cut from every sports team he tried out for.
  • He spent most of his 4 years on academic probation.
  • He was rejected from virtually every college he applied to, including the one where he was now the honored guest giving the commencement speech!

And yet, he went on to reach the pinnacle of his profession and is one of the most admired people in his field. Tomorrow I’ll reveal who the speaker was and give some of his insights that I wish I had heard years ago, as I was about to start my work life.

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Goodbye to a Loyal Viewer

Every now and then, those of us fortunate enough to work on this show get some feedback that makes our work especially rewarding. I recently received a phone call from someone who is a regular guest on this program. He told me that his mother had died and he forwarded me her obituary.

Avis Morgan Sykuta

Avis Morgan Sykuta

Her name was Avis Morgan Sykuta. Her obituary reads, in part, “She was, perhaps, the most loyal viewer ever of Chicago’s premier nightly public affairs television show, WTTW’s Chicago Tonight. She loved to discuss and debate the issues presented.”

Obviously, it’s not the most important part of the obituary. That would be the part that describes how much she was loved by her family, including her late husband, children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and even a great-great grandson! And the obituary also reveals someone who loved the arts and who had an active, engaged relationship with her church and community. In short, a person in full who lived a rich, connected life.

But to be mentioned in her obituary is a high honor and for that we are grateful. And we are grateful to all our viewers who, by tuning in to our program, invite us into their homes and make us a part of their lives. Our thanks to Avis Sykuta for being part of our viewing family and our sincere condolences to all the people who loved her.

To read Avis Morgan Sykuta’s full obituary, click here.

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