Did Lance Armstrong’s Nonverbal Cues Betray His Crisis PR Prep?
Even though it appears that the world will have to wait another day for the requisite tears to flow, the first installment of Lance’s Armstrong interview with Oprah lived up to the hype and was truly remarkable. It produced the long-overdue admission that the cyclist cheated in each of his seven Tour de France victories. It also pushed all viewers to look deeply within themselves to determine whether or not they believed Armstrong was finally telling the truth or cynically employing crisis PR tactics. But did Lance even believe what Lance was saying?
That Lance Armstrong would step into this interview with Winfrey exquisitely prepared was never in question. Known to his teammates as Mr. Millimeter for the way he adjusted the tiniest components of his ultra-light cycles down to the millimeter, Armstrong is a fierce competitor for whom rigorous training is a way of life.
Sitting down with cameras rolling to come clean after over a decade of lies, deceit, cheating and betrayal is a tall task—almost superhuman—and perhaps even more daunting than taking on a mountain stage at the Tour de France. And as he did in each of his races, fueled we now know by banned performance enhancing drugs, Armstrong clearly came prepared and seemed determined to meet the challenge.
As expected, Armstrong was smooth with his delivery and often polished, but provided plenty of contradictions. While at some points willing to answer questions directly and without hesitation, at other junctures he was evasive, vague or unwilling to be forthright. Could he really not recall the specific doping incidents at the Tour that his teammates have spoken about?
There were glaring inconsistencies, but also some sentiments expressed that appeared to be heartfelt. Armstrong admitted to being “a flawed character” and “bully” and said he viewed his fairytale story as “one big lie,” yet at another point seemed to suggest that one of his biggest regrets was trying to stage a comeback attempt after retiring. If that had not happened then he probably never would have been exposed, according to Armstrong.
Lance did succeed at delivering a number of short, quotable phrases of contrition that made for good sound bites and were likely drilled into his head through repetition and practice; however, it was what his body said that was equally as interesting.
His blue eyes at some times radiated the ice cold focus and steely determination that fans saw during his cycling career. At others they flitted around the room and seemed to avoid prolonged eye contact with his questioner. They frequently looked down, a cue that often suggests deception. There was also some irony in watching Armstrong shift uncomfortably in his cushy leather chair. After all, this is the same disciplined man who for long stretches maintained cramped aerodynamic postures hunched over his handlebars while perched atop a narrow, hard saddle.
But perhaps the most interesting (and subtle) clue that the words he was serving up betrayed the truth came when Winfrey asked him if he thought at the time that his actions were wrong. Armstrong said “no” while his head incongruously nodded yes. She followed up. Did he feel like he was cheating? Again, he almost imperceptibly nodded yes even as he answered “no.”
Tomorrow night’s second part of the conversation should be equally riveting and probably more emotional. Armstrong will be forced to face questions about the consequences of his actions on the Livestrong Foundation that formerly bore his name, legions of adoring fans and cancer survivors, and his own children.
The American public has forgiven many heroes who have gone astray, but that usually comes after they believe that the person has confessed, expressed regret and truly come clean. It’s hard to know when a liar, especially one so talented that he could deceive the entire world for over a decade, is actually telling the truth or just continuing to lie. As Armstrong himself pointed out: “I’m not the most believable guy in the world right now.”
–Evan Nierman is a crisis communications expert and founder of the PR firm Red Banyan Group.