Turning Messages from Blah Blah Blah to Va Va Voom
Do you know your headline? That’s the first query media and public speaking coach Heidi Berenson ’79 (Journalism/English) puts before her clients. From members of Congress to Fortune 500 executives to university leaders, she helps individuals find their passion and express it. As president of Berenson Communications in Washington, D.C., this two-time Emmy and Peabody Award winner makes it her business to tap into natural talent and elevate performances to new heights. Berenson’s most recent “class” included the 19 freshmen members of the Massachusetts Legislature in mid-December as part of a three-day crash course at the Academy for New Legislators held on campus.
According to Ralph Whitehead, professor of journalism, “Heidi has brought her talent to the Academy several times now, and without fail her before-and-after on-camera sessions are a major highlight.”
“If your message isn’t fine-tuned,” Berenson says, “your audience will tune out. With time and attention at a premium, speakers must wow the crowd. It’s a fact, the more you talk, the less people remember."
Berenson’s resume reads like a “Who’s Who” of network television news: ABC News/TIME forums, anchored by Peter Jennings; ABC’s Good Morning America; CBS News and CNN’s Crossfire. Now, she has translated her media experience into helping people make the most of opportunities to present themselves. “Television,” she says, “is a demanding medium… you are instantly judged by your appearance, voice and words.” And the same goes for speeches and printed messages. Capitalizing on her ability to facilitate precision and pith, Berenson is a whiz at sharpening images and powering up performances.
“Speechwriters call me Heidi the Hatchet,” she quips. “But it all boils down to figuring out how to forget the windup and just pitch.” Known for her high-energy techniques, Berenson is making waves in the industry, and the media is charmed. On Good Morning America, for example, she pointed to key nonverbal communication tactics of the candidates. From clothes to color to coiffure, she clarified the impact of candidates' television appearances on voters. In Allure, Berenson offered dos and don’ts on presenting a wedding toast (which can be applied to any introduction or short speech). The Legal Times featured her tips for handling a media interview, court appearance or client pitch. Berenson “likes to lead by example,” noted Capital Style. “It’s style that sets her apart from Washington’s growing legion of media trainers.”
Berenson notes that much of her success is rooted in UMass Amherst. “All roads lead back to UMass journalism professors Howard Ziff and Ralph Whitehead,” Berenson reflects. “They were instrumental in cultivating my interest in journalism and television and encouraged me to pursue an internship. I landed one at WCVB-TV Channel 5 in Boston, and the contacts I made there helped launch me to CNN after grad school at Boston University.
“Sometimes people get caught up in their lives, but if they trace their career path, many will see that it was hatched in those undergraduate years—through a class, a professor or a work experience. UMass Amherst is a microcosm of the real world—large enough to spread your wings and small enough to establish contacts—allowing students to experience a tapestry of academic and extracurricular activities. I, for example, was an editor at the Daily Collegian, a lifeguard and a bartender at the Blue Wall. Truly, I forged lasting connections with roommates, professors, friends and colleagues that are enriching my life to this day.”
December 19, 2006