Legendary investor Yuri Milner stopped by San Francisco today to shoot an interview for Chinese television show during the GMIC, one of the world’s largest trade shows for the mobile technology industry.
Milner runs DST Global, a late-stage investment fund, and he’s the founder-friendly venture capitalist who helped Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg raise an unprecedented $1 billion investment round in less than 60 days. Milner’s stake in Facebook returned $8 billion. He also holds large positions in Groupon, Zynga and Twitter, which is set to IPO in the coming months. Milner has been on an unprecedented win streak, and has single-handedly change the rules of startup investing.
Needless to say, I was thrilled to witness his surprise visit, and to get to absorb some of his personality. I was sadly mistaken, but I learned a valuable lesson about staying on message in public relations.
Why you need to stay on message
The question came up a few weeks ago, about why people are so prone to stay on message when the cameras roll. Staying “on message” is essentially reciting answers from a prepared script, regardless of the question. When people are too “on message,” it can be frustrating to interviewers and audience members who want more than the mechanical version of the subject. I can sympathize. Someone on message puts themselves behind a wall of safe answers, where he or she feels safe in front of the glare of public scrutiny.
At the same time, however, being on message demonstrates professionalism and preparation. “That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it,” is essentially the defense position.
When the host asked Milner if Zuckerberg looked like a middle schooler, as he has been described, Milner replied that it was he, not Zuckerberg, who had a case of nerves before the meeting. Milner needed Zuckerberg to take his investment, after all.
Another reason why it’s so important to be on message is that you’re delivering essential information. You don’t know if you’re going to have another shot to tell your story, so it’s vital that you convey the key themes in a coherent and digestible fashion. These are commonly known as sound bytes, or talking points, and they’re crucial, because it’s often the only thing the public will hear.
Yuri Milner is a remarkably funny, in a deadpan and scientific fashion. His humor is that of a scientist, much more than a prankster. As the interview pushed the one-hour mark, the interviewer began to press with more incisive, and less jovial questions, such as asking Milner to choose a favorite among the three Chinese CEOs who he’s backed, Alibaba’s Jack Ma, Lei Jun of Xiaomi, and the third whose name escapes me.
Milner appealed to the mercy of the crowd, rather than to divulge which Asian Internet startup was his true darling. He fired back that the host was making him wear his politician’s hat. The crowd ate it up, and our laughter got him out of answering a tough question.
Acting in control of the situation
In some regards you are playing a character in your own story. Staying on message is about embodying the role the public expects of you; the visionary CEO, the product genius, the pit-fighting and revenue wringing growth hacker. Business is messy. Life is messy. Staying on message is your chance to show that through the chaos of growing a startup, your company is rooted in certain unshakable principles that will outlast any turbulence.
You have to reassure the public, even when you are unsure yourself. Your stomach may be doing summersaults, but the Even when you don’t believe, you’re playing an important role. Actors like Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger embodied the role of politician so well because much of the job of an elected official is to reassure the public. Athletes often gravitate towards politics as well, because they’re able to mouth the answers that reassure the public, and make it sound genuine.
There are times when it’s OK to go off-script. Dave McClure is a master of unrehearsed, shoot-from-the-hip public appearances. I would go as far as to say it’s his brand. You’re not going to be so lucky when you get in front of the press. At least not yet.
While the day’s interview revealed few new insights into Milner’s investment strategy, or where he might invest in the future, it was still a very unique opportunity to be part of the in-house audience.
One enlightening moment came when he said that one of his biggest failures of his career was the 10 years he spent training to be a scientist, only to make his mark as an entrepreneur and investor. Milner was trained as a physicist. And while he was unwilling to divulge the details of other failed business deals, he did present this nugget. ”The quickest way to lose a fortune is to invest in what your friends say is going to be big.”
Investing in minerals and natural resources had never panned out. Hardly groundbreaking revelations from one of Silicon Valley’s most feared/respected/forward-thinking investors, but at least he was being real.
Let's Meet!My Office Hours