3 communication lessons from Jim Schlossnagle’s press conference

Josh Storie

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Josh Storie

With a new weekly headline in the news of some PR-fail or a big speech-blunder, it’s safe to say that communication lessons can come from anything and everywhere.

Well, here’s an evergreen lesson from college baseball.

If you’re not a college baseball fan, here’s the gist: Tennessee beat Texas A&M by one run in the final game of the College World Series this week. But social media is ablaze, not because of Tennessee’s win or the “Houdini” level slide that clinched the game for the Vols. But from the comments made by Texas A&M’s (former) coach, Jim Schossnagle, during his post-game press conference.

Schlossnagle has long provided great lessons on coaching. But this week he taught us a few things about communication. More specifically, he showed leaders what not to do when you’re in the hot seat.

Let’s break it down.

Takeaway #1: Prepare for the tough questions you know are coming

It’s called the hot seat for a reason. The media can be friend or foe, and it’s up to you to prepare for anything and everything when it comes to communicating well.

Rumors began to swirl that Schlossnagle was in the running for the coaching job at the University of Texas – Texas A&M’s in-state rival. And while the focus of the post-game press conference would ideally be on the game that was just played and the effort of the players, anyone in his position needs to prepare for the question of whether he’s entertaining the move – which was eventually asked.

Now, when you proactively prepare for a question like that, it allows you to tailor your response in a way that keeps the interview moving should you not want to answer the question. Here are a few examples of answers he could have provided when asked about the possibility of a new coaching role:

  • “It’s a valid question, and I’m happy to answer any questions about my future later this week, but I’d love to spend tonight focusing on the players who just gave their all.”
  • “Out of respect to the players who just played an incredible game, I’d love to spend our time celebrating their efforts if that’s ok.”
  • “I’ve been so focused on trying to win the national championship, I haven’t given it much thought. But it’s a consideration I’ll give more thought to this week.”

Those would have all been perfectly fine answers. But when you don’t prepare for the question you know is going to be asked, you can find yourself saying things similar to what Schlossnagle said:

“I think it’s pretty selfish of you to ask me that question, to be honest with you. I left my family to be the coach at Texas A&M. I took the job at Texas A&M to never take another job again. And that hasn’t changed in my mind. That’s unfair to talk about something like that. … I understand you’ve gotta ask the question. But I gave up a big part of my life to come take this job, and I’ve poured every ounce of my soul in this job. And I’ve given this job every single ounce I can possibly give it. Write that.”

ESPN video: Jim Schlossnagle, who just led Texas A&M to its first MCWS Finals, is leaving to coach rival Texas

Communication lessons on what not to do

Notice the defensive tone. Notice how he turned it on the reporter. And, more importantly, notice how definitive he was in his answer. Those three factors defined his response. Those three factors became the source of the criticism he received for what happened next. And those three factors were a product of not preparing for a question that was inevitable.

What you can learn and implement from this

Had he prepared for the question, he could have tailored both his tone and his answer to land in a much different way. We give lots of tips on public speaking, one including watching your vocal variety.

Yes, your words matter. But your tone matters, too. As does your delivery. Things an executive speaker coach can help you catch.

But since he didn’t prepare for this question, he ended up making a definitive, defensive statement that ended up reducing his credibility within 24 hours.

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Takeaway #2: Be honest

If you scroll social media for the different reactions after Schlossnagle took the job at UT, you’ll find that people aren’t typically criticizing him for taking another job. They criticize him for the way he took the job.

Now, I understand the desire in the post-game press conference to keep things about the game or to focus on the players. In fact, I would argue that’s admirable. But if you choose to answer a question, then you must be honest in your answer. Because when you say something as definitive as, “I took [this] job … to never take another job again. And that hasn’t changed in my mind,” people expect you to stand by your statement.

Leaders must understand that people are rarely upset by the truth. If your company has a bad quarter, if layoffs are inevitable, if a leader made a judgment call that hurt the company more than it helped, people are resilient enough to handle those things. What unravels trust in a leader (or an organization) is the refusal to be honest – to paint the quarter as not that bad, to assure everyone their job is safe, to point fingers to explain why something didn’t work out.

Illuminate

In communication as in life, honesty is the best policy. But sometimes we make mistakes. Which is why leaders should always strive to …

Takeaway #3: Own mistakes

At the press conference announcing his new role as the coach at UT, a reporter asked Schlossnagle what changed between Monday and Tuesday, and if he considered his answer misleading. This is what he had to say:

“Well, I didn’t intentionally mislead them… In that moment, that’s exactly how I felt … I [left TCU for Texas A&M’] because it aligned both personally and professionally at the time and I loved it. I dove in with every single ounce of me to help A&M have the best program it could possibly have. And that investment lasted through the last pitch of the national championship game.”

Notice, the question wasn’t about his commitment. It was about his communication. Was it misleading? Could he see how his words on Monday brought confusion to his actions on Tuesday? In that moment, the reporter wanted to see if he’d be willing to own his mistake.

To be clear, people have the right to change their mind. The crux of this situation is that it’s difficult to imagine someone changing their mind on something so significant in such a short amount of time given the passion and directness displayed by Schlossnagle a mere 24 hours before.

As a leader, it’s easy to think you must be flawless in your leadership. It’s easy to think you must play mistake-free ball. But the truth is leaders don’t lose followers because they make mistakes. They lose followers when they refuse to own them.

A different way to lead

Leaders oftentimes find themselves in the hot seat. In fact, a significant portion of our Executive Speaker Coaching services are spent helping leaders prepare for high-stakes, hot seat moments. And while the hot seat can feel like a make-or-break moment, it doesn’t have to be. It simply requires preparation, a commitment to honesty, and the willingness to own mistakes.

Talk to a Solution Architect today if you want executive speaker coaching services for your next big keynote, press moment, or speech. We’ll get you stage and presentation ready so you’re comfortable, prepared, and poised.

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