Recently, Dr. Gwendolyn Reece of American University* was interviewed on Court TV concerning a murder case in which the accused may have been a Pagan. Dr. Reece has studied contemporary Pagans for some time and is presented as a specialist in contemporary Paganism. I think that her interview is worth watching as a lesson in how to handle these sorts of public appearances.
NB: I spoke with Dr. Reece. Her university public relations people got the initial request for her to do the interview (likely based on some of her published studies concerning Pagans) and helped her prep a bit for it. She then chatted with the interviewer’s staff concerning relevant topics. She did this in order to be prepared. The lesson here is to reach out to anyone who can help you — staff, friends, colleagues, etc. Even one prep session where someone asks you questions and you practice answering them is a good idea. Two is better. You get the idea.
To start with, Dr. Reece sits in front of a bookshelf and dresses fairly conservatively — it’s easy to see her as a university professor. She’s obviously good at public speaking — note how she avoids lots of “erms” and “uhs” and generally speaks in complete sentences. Those are things you can learn to do, even just practicing with a friend and an iPhone.
She also says what she has to say and stops. This avoids a mistake that too many inexperienced speakers make in these situations. Often we feel as if we need to fill up any empty space and keep talking. You do not. You can make your point and stop. Again, practice can make you comfortable with those scary moments of empty space. Similarly, and on a related note, Dr. Reece also avoids going back and repeating herself. You often see poor public speakers trying to deal with silence by saying, “And, again, as I noted before, . . . .” We lawyers know the power of silent time: it’s often when people make confessions they didn’t mean to make — anything to avoid silence. The best way to get comfortable with this is — again — to practice.
Dr. Reece was fortunate that her interviewer was generally friendly and avoided “gotchas.” She did refer to “Wiccanism,” along with Paganism, and some people would have felt the need to correct her and insist on “Wicca,” rather than “Wiccanism.” In a short interview such as this one, I think Dr. Reece was right to just ignore that and focus on her main points. No need to antagonize a friendly interviewer by making her look silly to her audience. (Dr. Reece does, subtly, use the term “Wicca” instead of “Wiccanism.” That’s all that was necessary here. And by the end of the session the interviewer figured it out and was using “Wicca” instead of “Wiccanism.)
Cudos, as well, to Dr. Reece for not starting off on the defense, which is an easy mistake to make, especially in a case where the alleged murderer has apparently attempted to indicate that the murders were somehow religious. Please go read George Lakoff ‘s Don’t Think of an Elephant and any of my previous previous posts on this topic. When you attempt to negate a point, you often wind up reinforcing it. (Think of Richard Nixon saying, “Your President is not a crook.” We all knew from that moment on that he was, indeed, a crook.) So note how Dr. Reece starts off with general information about Pagans — they follow the seasons; they are often pantheistic, their religion is based on nature, they honor the divine feminine, they establish relationships with their ancestors, etc. Well before she has to answer questions about this murder, she’s provided a base that makes Pagans sound pretty reasonable, even if different.
Once Dr. Reece has laid her foundation, the interviewer makes a hard turn towards the murder case. That’s where I might have started off with a firm statement: “Let me begin by saying that no form of contemporary Paganism, including Wicca, involves murder or human sacrifice. These murders have no role in Wicca.” All of the subsequent information — which gets a bit technical and confusing (When was the Blue Moon? Do Pagans care about Blue Moons? How are Sabbats and Esbats related? How did the sheriff misrepresent things? and so on) — is less important to Dr. Reece’s main point, which is that murder has no role in Wicca, regardless of the phase of the Moon. This is where it can help to write down on a 3/5 card the one point you mean to get across. Dr. Reece clearly gets the point across at the end.
Dr. Reece told me that she’d hoped to have an opportunity to explain how minority religions, such as Wicca and other forms of Paganism, are at a disadvantage in modern media stories. She simply didn’t have enough time in this interview to cover it. But it’s a good idea to have your second and third important points ready to go if the interview runs longer than you’d expected.
Finally, good on Dr. Reece for being willing to be out there on this. We need more of her kind of calm, authoritative, expertise on these issues.
*Full disclosure: I consider Dr. Reece a friend and I serve on a volunteer Board of Directors with her.
Picture found here.