Stop Making Sense

Summary: Most financial professionals and others with a deep interest in the capital markets spend their days with business television channels switched permanently on somewhere nearby and similar video content readily available online.  On their commute, it’s business radio.  You see and hear a parade of talking heads chatting about interest rates, currencies, stock ideas, whatever.  But what’s going through their minds as they run through their points?  Today we offer up some observations about what it’s like to be one of those people – the ones who appear in 5 minute bursts on your TV or computer screen or on the radio and then disappear, only to pop up again days or weeks later.  At the top of the ‘To do’ list for an appearance: be factually correct and don’t embarrass yourself or your firm.  And what should you listen for from the army of talking heads you see every day?  The bottom line is whatever they say first.  And with the most conviction.

Imagine walking past Jimmy Fallon’s studio just as The Tonight Show starts its afternoon taping.  Stage hands rush through narrow corridors. Racks of clothes for the evening’s skits sit in neat lines next to the hallway walls.  You hear the muffled sounds of music, mixed with laughter.  You peak in a side room and catch a glimpse of someone you know you should know.  Was that Madonna?  The door closes before you can tell for sure.

You open a set of glass doors and enter a different space.  Quiet now.  An NBC page (no blazer, for some reason) shows you to a waiting room.  After a few minutes a friendly technician loads you into a small room, the walls painted a matte black.  A camera at one end, you behind a desk on the other.  An earpiece goes in your right ear, a wired microphone on your lapel.  You squint to find the camera lens because the bright lights overhead make your eyes think you are outside.  Behind you, a picture of the New York City skyline.  You could be in your office.

Except you are not, because in your earpiece you hear your name being called.   And then a question.  You start to respond, trying to remember the points you so diligently wrote on the index cards spread out in front of you.  Cards you can’t look at now, because for the next 5 minutes that camera is a person.  A person you have to connect with, focus on, and convince. The minutes feel like seconds, then hours, then seconds again.

That, in a nutshell, is what it is like to be a guest invited to speak on a business television channel.  In this case, it is CNBC that shares the floor with the great Mr. Fallon.  At Bloomberg TV, you’ll more likely sit with the anchor on the set. That’s different, of course, because you are speaking to person.  And then there is business and general interest radio. There, it’s all about making your voice do double duty to engage an audience that cannot see you.  Online video, such as Yahoo, is very much like sitting on a television set.  There, you have a little more leeway because it isn’t live.  If you really screw up, there is a chance for redemption.   But you try really hard not to screw up.

To be a capital markets professional is essentially to be a news junkie; TV, radio, online media, all of it.  All the time.  And a good chunk of that programming relies on the myriad of guests that provide their insights in response to questions from the folks who guide those programs.  Now, in most cases these market professionals have a day job that requires very different skills from those required to present well on television.  And all of them realize that anyone they know in the business could be watching or listening to them go through their spiel.  Some will claim they don’t get nervous before appearing on television.  I don’t believe them.

So how do you get the most out of listening to one of these talking heads?  A few ideas for you, from someone with a passing familiarity of the process on the other end of the camera:

  • Are they prepared? As a guest, you always know the topic to be discussed.  It’s not like they plop you in the seat and say “Go!”  I spend about 90 minutes for a short appearance and 2-3 hours for anything longer, thinking through likely questions and bulleting responses.  You want to hear specific facts that support the argument at hand.  Everyone has opinions, but without some specific supporting arguments those run out of steam pretty fast.

 

  • What do they say first? Once an interview starts, you never know what direction it will go.  That means you need to lead with your best stuff to make sure it gets out there.  I always listen most carefully to what anyone says at the top of an interview.  If they’ve prepared, that’s like eating dessert first as a viewer or listener.  It is what the speaker believes the most and wants you to remember.

 

  • Are the explanations tight and coherent? Business TV gets a bum rap for skimming along the surface of a topic; that’s generally the fault of the guests, not the channels or the format.  Listen to really good guests and you’ll see they transmit a lot of information in very few words.  Not to say that this is easy.  It’s not.  But the really good speakers do it consistently.

 

  • Everyone talks their own book, and that’s OK. Brokers like Convergex want everyone to know we have a great trading desk staffed by people who care deeply about our clients and understand markets extremely well.  If I do my job on TV or radio or online, hopefully a few more potential clients hear that message and existing ones remember to hit our light a few more times.  Money managers pitch their ideas because they feel those investments best represent their process and viewers/listeners will be impressed enough to invest with them.  Are you getting everyone’s very best ideas?  Generally, yes.  Just remember: most of us are a little nervous as you watch or listen.

 

  • Keep an open mind. We all see/hear people on TV/online/radio with whom we violently disagree.  It happens.   For years I guffawed when someone said “You have to put your money somewhere” as a defense for buying U.S. stocks during the Federal Reserve’s bond buying program.  How simplistic. How shallow.  And, as it turned out, how right. The people you hear or see on business programs are a reasonable cross section of market itself. You don’t have to agree with them. You probably won’t.  And you don’t have to respect them just because they have the mic.  But you should probably listen and if you hear the same thing from multiple speakers be assured that you are hearing a consensus.  Agree or disagree…  But at least you know the contours of the narrative.

 

  • Look for conviction. You know when someone really believes what they are saying.  Maybe the tempo of their speech slows down a touch.  Or they stop blinking for an extra step.  Their eyes might look almost surprised, and they smile just a little bit. Again, nerves can overcome any of us and you won’t always see even the most earnest guest give up these “Tells”.  And you might not even agree with whatever they say when they do.  But you’ll know they believe it.

And one last thing…  If you see someone you know on business TV, be kind and tell them.  You don’t need to let them know the sound was down.

 

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