For some individuals, being asked to speak in public can have a curious effect: “Abject terror,” says media coach Tracey Pepper with a chuckle. That is how she describes her first encounter with an on-camera interview, back when she was asked to speak on behalf of the music magazine SPIN as a Senior Editor in the early 2000s. “I rocked back and forth in my seat through a live cable-news appearance completely unaware I was doing it.”
It’s a little hard to imagine, given the first impression Pepper makes – a bright, super-attentive redhead welcoming you into her soothing but inspiring realm. This, calm, confident human has experienced debilitating self-doubt? “Oh yeah,” Pepper says. “Sweat mustache, nearly forgetting my own name, all of it. But now I love public speaking. You can’t shut me up.” These days, she loves standing in front of a room full of people and talking about her passion: helping others tell their stories.
“I really understand people’s anxieties and need for control because I’ve had to work through the same things in my own life,” she says.
That process of digging into her personal fears and examining their root causes has generated an emotionally intelligent approach to media coaching – one that is as grounded in pragmatic tips and tricks as it is attuned to complex feelings. Whether it’s a CEO speaking to a New York Times or WSJ reporter, a singer or YouTuber talking about a new project, or an executive appearing on a high-profile panel, Pepper’s clients come away feeling like they’ve learned to speak more powerfully about who they are.
“I have always been able to listen to someone else’s story and sense where the emotional connection is,” Pepper says. “I can intuit what details are going to resonate with an audience.”
The origins of Pepper’s gift can be traced to the children’s novel Charlotte’s Web. (Seriously!) “I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was six years old,” she explains. “Reading this book, I sobbed my eyes out and thought, ‘If I could come up with a story like that out of my imagination, and make people feel like that, that’s what I want to do for the rest of my life.’”
But being a novelist wasn’t in the cards, so after graduating from Tufts University with a degree in English, followed by a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University, Pepper harnessed her consuming passion for music into a career as a journalist, writing for Entertainment Weekly, Harper’s Bazaar, The New Yorker, and Playboy, among others. Getting real live rock stars to trust her as the messenger for their life stories was now her job, though it took some doing, especially as a young woman in a supremely male-dominated industry. “I had to find a way to connect with them and take me seriously without sacrificing my integrity,” she says.
Thus, the seeds of Pepper’s media coaching work were planted. Nearly every artist is carrying around an albatross of insecurity. As an editor at Interview and SPIN, Pepper became known for her ability to help others locate the essence of their stories. But more than ten years ago, she began to shift her focus to helping artists better define and express themselves to journalists. “Basically, I was tired of listening to people give crappy interviews,” Pepper recalls of the time she spent, post-SPIN, writing official bios for pop singers and rock bands. “Whenever someone gave a boring, crazy, or long-winded answer, I found myself making suggestions on how they could improve. I couldn’t help it! Next thing I knew, publicists and managers were asking me if I could do more of whatever it was I was doing with their clients.” It took a minute to discern what that was, but soon Pepper’s signature method began taking shape.
Okay, but what exactly is media coaching, according to Tracey Pepper?
“People think it’s about telling clients, ‘Don’t say this, don’t say that. Don’t swear on camera. Sit up straight. Okay, off you go. Good luck, Namaste!’” Pepper says. “There are media coaches who just do that. But that’s the easy part, telling people what not to say. The hard part is figuring out what they can say. No reporter wants to talk to someone who is evasive and shut-down.”
Pepper’s journalistic background uniquely qualifies her to help clients finesse their TV appearances, in-person radio, podcast, and print interviews, red carpet chats, live-stream sessions, and public-speaking engagements in a way that feels authentic to the client and engaging to the audience. Everybody wins! “Really, I’m there to help people approach press and public speaking with confidence, clarity, and control,” Pepper says.
It starts with one simple question. “I start by asking the client, ‘When you wake up in the morning and know you have a day of press or a public speaking engagement, what’s the feeling you have in your body?’ I ask this first because these situations can leave some people feeling disempowered and vulnerable and I want to support them around that,” she says.
Beginning a session with this type of inquiry is unusual. Most media coaching is focused more on generating a message and delivering it come hell or high water. Pepper does message craft for all her clients, but she believes it’s also her job to generate within them the capacity to express a fully integrated story that feels authentic. And that requires her to go a bit deeper.
“I can definitely tell you what to say,” Pepper says, “I’m really good at that, but I don’t want anyone to memorize anything. Because if they forget what we came up with they’re screwed. I want them to be prepared, but also to learn to be present in the moment. So my sessions are a collaboration between myself and the client so they feel seen and heard and can show up as themselves, which in turn, leads to more natural confidence.”
Okay, so what does that mean? How many crystals are involved?
“I know,” Pepper says with a laugh. “It sounds kind of woo-woo, but it’s actually really powerful.” And actually extremely efficient. In her editor days, the Los Angeles native was known as “The Pepper Shaker” because her edits were so precise. That knack for trimming the fat from a story, getting clearly and directly to the heart of the matter carries over to Pepper’s media coaching paradigm. Her process allows her to tune in to the feelings that come up for a client when they are doing press or speaking in public precisely because the work itself is so very grounded. Once Pepper understands how the client feels about doing interviews, the next step might be a straight-forward session. “If you just want a sharper message, we’ll do that,” Pepper says. But sometimes, before that process can begin, you have to clear away the emotional detritus.
“Often people have psychological blocks and negative, self-limiting beliefs that prevent them from communicating confidently and impactfully,” Pepper says. “You can’t separate how someone shows up to communicate publicly from how they feel about themselves. So we need to deal with that before we figure out what the words should be.”
She has a step-by-step process for how to address these issues, but suffice it to say Pepper and her clients always arrive at: What’s the message? What’s the story? Does the audience care about your story? Who are you and what do you care about? Can you play offense, not defense with the media? If you don’t like the question, can you steer your answer toward something you actually want to talk about?
The end result is the proverbial light bulb going on. “I can actually see the client’s eyes get brighter,” she says. “Their whole energy shifts. They become animated. They are lit up because they are talking about something they care about. They forget what they were afraid of and just feel the relief that comes from being free from fear.”
There’s a sense of renewed enthusiasm, control, and, dare we say it, joy. “Many people I work with love what they do but they don’t love talking about it,” Pepper says. “So there’s nothing more rewarding than when I see a client realize, ‘Oh, I do want to talk about myself and my work. I just had all these stories about myself and my self-worth in the way.’ Once you get to know your inner critic and ask it to step back, you become the boss of your own world.”