Even Turkeys Get Media Training

By Merna Skinner (Words at Work) - No Comments

In case you missed this year’s Presidential Turkey Pardon – the event went off without ruffling any feathers!  Such calm cannot be claimed by former President George W. Bush.  In 2001, the honored turkey lunged at Bush’s gleaming belt buckle making for a very embarrassing photo.  In 2006 the turkey named Flyer frantically kicked throughout Bush’s pardon.  The bird required physical restraint – all because Barney, the president’s terrier got too close to the fowl.

Why, in 2013, did the turkey, Popcorn, come through with such grace?  He and his partner Carmel received hours of media training from their owner and turkey farmer, John Burkel.  Burkel studied former pardoning ceremonies and then applied preparation techniques straight out of the media training tools I and other media trainers use when preparing clients for important interviews.

Here’s a list of the media prep Burkel used with his birds, as reported by the Wall Street Journal – followed by our suggestions to help you translate these ideas into actions you can take before a media interview:

1. Set up a mock media setting and practice

Burkel created a rehearsal set matching that of previous pardoning ceremonies – a table standing at a specific height and covered with a table cloth. (Practicing with the cloth was especially important since Turkeys panic on sliding surfaces).  Burkel repeatedly practiced lifting the birds onto and off of the table – they practiced for two hours each morning and two hours each evening.  By the time they left for Washington D.C. the birds could stand tall, spread their feathers and remain calm.

For your practice – once you’ve agreed to the interview, familiarize yourself with the TV show’s format – are there sofas or tables?  Practice sitting so that you look comfortable and engaged.  What is the set color (you want to wear complimentary colors).  Dress comfortably for the hot lights and make sure, if you cross your legs, that the bottoms of your shoes look new.  Use calm hand gestures and smile!

2. Get used to the cameras

During his practice sessions, once each turkey was lifted onto the table, Burkel took flash photos of the birds to get them used to the sudden and unpredictable lights and shutter sounds.

For your practice – look the interviewer directly in the eyes throughout the interview – you will look engaged and the eye to eye connection will make the distracting cameras, cables and stage crew disappear from your field of vision.

3. Practice listening

For the turkeys, Burkel knew that unpredictable sounds could send the birds into fits of gobbling, so he used auditory conditioning around the clock.  Pop songs during the day and classical music at night helped the birds adjust to varying sounds.  Radio broadcasts of sporting events conditioned the birds to the sounds of applause and cheers.

For you:  learning to listen very closely to the questions and then responding without hesitation are two essential skills for media interviews. Ask a practice partner to  pepper you with a variety of questions – ranging from tough to soft-ball ones.  Often the easy ones are the questions that can lead you to over-talk or introduce an issue you hadn’t intended to discuss.

4. Prepare for every type of encounter:

Burkel knew that the Obamas have a dog.  He knew about the incident with Bush’s dog Barney and he knew that Secret Service dogs would conduct a “sniff search” before they could enter the White House grounds – so he exposed the birds to numerous encounters with dogs as part of the pre-ceremony exercises.

For you – know your interviewer’s style of asking questions.  Watch or read some of their previous interviews.  Are they investigative in their style or are they more social?  Do they save a hard hitting question for the end or do they lead with the tough questions?  (One of my clients once shared with me his experience with a national broadcasting reporter who asked my client to pray with her during a commercial break! He followed her lead and closed his eyes for a moment of silence).

5. Know what is expected of you:

For the selected turkey, his job was to stand calmly on the table while the president addressed the crowd.  People would likely pet the bird after he was pardoned. A little gobbling was acceptable.  All practice sessions focused on the bird playing his part with ease.

For you:  your job is to answer questions concisely and communicate a clear, quotable message – which means you need to prepare a positive, brief message and prepare short stories or anecdotes to illustrate your point.

A final thought:  if you are facing a media interview with little experience or preparation, it’s natural to feel like the turkey Flyer – distracted and tense. The lights, cameras and unfamiliar television surroundings can unnerve anyone – even a turkey.  So, take a lesson from farmer Burkel and his birds  – Practice and prepare so that you can be in peak, not pecking form!

For more information on media training, contact us at: 310-437-0400 or

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Merna Skinner
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Satori Communications, Inc.