Category Archives: Broadcasting

Media training: in business or in politics, don’t knock the competition

This is not a political blog but there are two areas I would like to highlight about the general election. Reassuringly, standard practice is right in both cases.

The first, as the headline suggests, is that slating the competition never works well. Today we wake up to a general election result in which there will be a hung parliament. Among the many errors made by prime minister (as I type) Theresa May was the notion of attacking her enemy too directly.

He was going to “go naked into the negotiating chamber” over Brexit. He was going to “sell out the union” between Scotland and the rest of the UK. Previously David Cameron had told him to “put on a suit” and “for goodness’ sake, man, go”.

This was poor for two reasons. First, it looks vindictive and unprofessional. In business it’s the same. Years ago I worked on a trade publication in the computer industry and every three months or so, two software companies would send us conflicting reports about who was ahead in the market. They’d exchange unpleasantries, we’d write a thoroughly entertaining story…and the readers would hold the software companies in complete contempt. They didn’t want their suppliers focused on each other, they wanted them focused on service.

The second reason not to criticise the competition too heavily is that you manage expectations downward. This makes it simpler for them to exceed expectations. Frankly, all Corbyn had to do was turn up on time with his trousers on the right way around and he’d pleasantly surprise anyone who’d been listening to May.

She sounded amateurish and vindictive and set the bar low so he couldn’t help but outperform it. She also set her own bar so high that a result of Conservative 318 seats, Labour 261, ends up looking like a moral victory for Labour. That takes some doing.

So what about Corbyn?

It’s beyond doubt that he had a rocky start. Footage of him stomping away from a Sky News journalist has mysteriously vanished from YouTube; he’s also been snappy, grouchy and relatively recently he staged a “full” train when there were seats available.

He’s not the slickest performer. However, during the election campaign he’s smartened himself up. He’s worn better suits, he’s engaged with people and journalists. He’s prepared answers but not to the extent of ignoring questions.

In spite of people saying he’s different, he’s actually swallowed the entire rule book on media training – or at least the best bits. The friendly, sometimes self-depreciating Corbyn was always going to win friends if not supporters, unlike the robotic May with the “strong and stable” and “there’s no magic money tree” phrases, no matter how much she may have believed them.

There’s more to any election than presentation. You don’t elect someone because you’d like to share a pizza with them but because you trust them with the difficult decisions. However, presentation and media engagement plays its part, and on this occasion, quite unexpectedly, Corbyn turned out to be the more polished performer.

Alternatives to alternative facts

If you’re interested in the media then you’ll have read by now about the absurd claim by the new administration in the White House that Donald Trump’s inauguration had more people attending than any other in history. Worse, you will have heard his counselor Kellyanne Conway claiming that this was just an “alternative fact“.

As an aside, the really chilling thing is her statement at the beginning of the piece, in which she says the White House may have to re-evaluate its relationship with the press if the press continues to be hostile. This is directly counter to freedom of speech.

Back to “alternative facts” though. It’s the worst sort of lie, because it makes the speaker sound as though they’re wriggling, as if they’re defensive and incompetent.

Oh, and in my media training sessions we’d have focused on what someone might have been able to say without actually lying.

Alternatives to alternative facts

The initial comments, from press secretary Sean Spicer, were about reportage that the crowds for Trump’s inauguration were smaller than those for Obama’s first term. Let’s assume, for a moment, that there had been some miscalculation – maybe a rush just after the picture of the sparse Trump crowds had been taken (unlikely but not impossible).

The likelihood is that Spicer, even with evidence, would not have won against the press. So he could have taken an alternative tack. Something like:

“Yes, the first African American president was always going to be a crowd puller. That wasn’t about Obama, it was about a moment in time.”

You might disagree. I might disagree. We can see a line of reasoning nonetheless.

Or he could have played down the significance of the sheer number of people:

“Crowd numbers are less important than what the president does for those people in the crowd in the next four years. We believe a lot went wrong in the Democrat years and the next four or eight years is going to be about fixing it.”

Again, you might or might not think that’s fair enough. You couldn’t call it an actual lie, though.

Think of the reaction

The overriding likelihood is that the numbers were indeed down on Obama’s inauguration. However, even when you’re right, you have to think of the impact in public. Lecturing the press with venom in your voice isn’t going to play well, and sending the counselor onto NBC to criticise further and threaten people with diminished contact is crazy. First, you look petulant rather than professional, and second, if you’re only going to tell whopping great “alternative facts” when you do appear, who cares if they can’t talk to you?

Do you need help relating to the press? I can help – call me on 07973 278780 or fill the form below and we’ll talk.

Broadcast interview: A word on dress code

A while ago I watched a public speaking competition. All of the contestants were excellent but one speaker stood out, not because she was better than the rest but because unfortunately she was wearing clanky jewellery with a lapel microphone (also known as a lavalier). You could hear her clearly enough but the clunk, clunk, clunk of the necklace was just as distinct.

This can also be a problem in a broadcast interview. The camera operator or sound person will almost certainly want you to wear a lavalier, and it will pick up any noise nearby. So when preparing for a broadcast interview the first thing to watch for is anything noisy on your person.

A broadcast interview and a crisp white shirt?

When I media train in person I have a choice of shirts in which I look reasonably OK. The first is the old fallback, the crisp white shirt. The second is a selection of finely striped shirts – I kid myself they hide the middle-aged spread (if they don’t, just don’t tell me). Experience has told me, however, that neither is particularly good on video.

The stripes, though fine in person, can end up looking a little grey on a screen. The sparkly, distinct detail on the shirt ends up looking indistinct even in high definition; if someone’s watching on their phone or other device it can actually look a bit grubby.

Brilliant white is better but not under studio lights. It can end up glaring at the camera, so the operator has to turn the lighting down or apply a filter – so I end up looking grey rather than the shirt! Off-white, pink, blue, are all good and will look fine in the studio.

Suit you, sir

The other thing to do is to wear something that fits and in which you’re comfortable. Buying something particularly swish and wearing it for the first time, which is more of a problem for the female population than the “a suit always works” male contingent, can make people feel self-conscious.

For men like me (think “over 50”) a decent suit is indispensable but be honest, does it really fit? It can be worth visiting a tailor. I have particularly square shoulders (tailors call this “squareback” which doesn’t make me feel great) so off-the-peg suits always ruck up at the back. I started with A Suit That Fits (please note that’s a sponsored link) and it’s not as expensive as you might think (more than Marks and Sparks but less than a designer suit); many local tailoring establishments will be just as efficient at making something that works on your shape.

Finally, the newsreader Sir Trevor Macdonald always said it’s a good idea to do your jacket up and sit on the tail, so it looks smooth. Bitter experience a little while ago says this works fine if you’re reasonably slim and svelte; any signs of a belly and you’ll look like a sack of potatoes. Without wishing to incriminate myself, I’ve been doing my interviews with the jacket undone lately!

Was Ken Clarke’s gaffe an accident?

The standard advice in media training sessions is to ensure that the microphone is switched off. We all remember prime minister Gordon Brown calling that woman a bigot. The older readers among you probably recall prime minister John Major suggesting a lot of his cabinet were “bastards”. Then yesterday this happened:

Ken Clarke, former chancellor of the Exchequer and home secretary, accidentally had the cameras on when he comprehensively trashed everybody standing for leadership of his own party, the Conservatives.

There’s an easy media training lesson in here. Make sure you take the microphone off, make sure the camera isn’t zeroing in on you, if you’re going to have a full and frank discussion about your colleagues.

Accident? The media training view

Except, of course, I don’t believe that’s what happened for a moment. Sky News, which put the clip out there, has been criticised by people on Twitter, says The Drum. The article to which I’ve linked accuses Sky of being dirty, nasty, underhand and even breaking the law.

So let’s have another look at the clip. Go ahead, play it again.

Clarke, you’ll notice, is directly centred in shot. The sound balance on the microphone is what we call in the trade “perfect”.

Is this all coincidence? I’ve been told there’s a “robot camera” at Sky so the focus would always be perfect when you’re on a particular stool. But a seasoned pro would know this.

Personally I think it’s a media veteran knowing exactly what he’s doing and having a little bit of a laugh. Don’t expect him to admit this anytime soon, he’s made sure it’s deniable, but his statements are too fluid to be otherwise, in my judgement. I could be wrong of course.

So, should you do the same? “Accidentally” leak your view to the press by “unintentionally” enunciating perfectly in the dead centre of a screen so that nobody, repeat nobody, can misunderstand you?

If I’m coaching you, the answer is “no”. You have to be as good as Ken Clarke, as skilled at amusing people so they get over the clumsiness and focus instead on whatever charm they perceive you have. If you’re less experienced, forget it. It can backfire and therefore it will.

Mind you, it made me laugh, lots.

Image: Flickr: Policy Exchange

Do you need help when faced with a microphone? Drop me an email by clicking here and we’ll talk.

Broadcast interview tips: Get your message in early

My media training offering covers a number of elements, including developing your message and broadcast training. One thing that comes up often is: if you’re being interviewed on screen or on audio, how quickly should you introduce your prepared messages?

The answer is “flaming quickly”. The reason isn’t that you want to sound like a politician ignoring the question, that’s always a bad thing. The reason is that attention spans tend to fall off a cliff immediately you start to speak. Don’t take my word for it: the chart on this link from Statistics Britain suggests that you have just over eight seconds to hold people’s attention. Four of those may be taken up as the interviewer introduces you.

This doesn’t mean people will be switching off, just that they’re likely to be less engaged after a short period of time. So what do you do?

Broadcast your message

The first thing to do, always, is to acknowledge the question. Nobody likes to hear someone ignoring the point completely, as I established in this entry. But you don’t have to answer it immediately.

Consider this. You’re asked a question that’s nothing to do with your central message. You can answer it, or you could start with:

  • That’s an important point and I’ll address it. First, it’s important to understand…
  • I’ll get to that point but I need to make a few things clear…
  • That’s really important but before I answer, your viewers need to know where I’m coming from.

Obviously you need to remember to come back to the question otherwise you will sound arrogant. And remember a journalist will see through any flannel quite quickly so your messages will need to be thought through, unlike (to be non-partisan) pretty much either side of the Europe debate currently happening in the UK.

Answer the question but don’t be afraid to get the message out there – your knowledge and authority is why they’re talking to you in the first place, don’t be afraid to use it!

Do you need help with your media messaging or delivery? I’ve been a journalist since the 1980s and can help. Email me by clicking here or call me on +44 7973 278780 and we’ll talk.

Corporate video interviews: let the journalist think

I’ve been shooting a corporate video today. It’s been good because the interviewee is lively and knows her subject really well. The only minor frustration was that the client dictated the questions to ask.

I don’t have a massive objection. They were pretty good questions as it happens (which is not always the case). I have a good feeling about this one.

On other occasions it’s been less good. Sometimes I get given a list of questions and instructed not to divert from them.

Why would you hire a journalist with 27 years of experience and just get him to read questions out, not allowing him or her to use any initiative?

Corporate video needs to engage

Corporate videos, even more than other videos, needs to be engaging to the viewer. It’s not enough that your company gets a mention; you need people to be watching, not switching off and hopefully reacting to whatever your points are.

If you’re hiring a journalist to present it, the chances are very good that they’ll know a few tricks to make this work. They’ll also know how to ask questions to get a really good answer, to provoke some thought.

I had it again when someone confirmed me as host of a round table. They wanted a comprehensive list of questions to be asked, and they wanted it before I’d seen their main presentation.

The simple answer was that I didn’t know what I was going to ask. I’d be listening and using my intelligence while they were speaking.

You pay for skills, use them!

It’s not control freakery. I’m genuinely convinced people are worried that if a journalist is given a free rein at their event, they’ll run riot and the important messages will be lost. That may well be true of some of us. The majority, though, will be aware that they need to understand the brief and deliver according to it.

It’s crazy to go to the expense of hiring a journalist to present your event or film and then not leverage the skills we bring – why not take a chance and see how much we can upgrade your corporate video? The example with which I started allowed me some leeway and, I hope, benefited from it. Why not join them?

Do you need help presenting corporate videos? I can help as a presenter or coach – contact me by clicking here.

Broadcast interviews: watch yourself

A Facebook friend had been to the launch of a new camera and queried the need for video as standard. I commented that I always send people away from broadcast media training sessions with video of themselves; her response was that she hated watching herself on video.

Which is fine from her point of view as she’s not one of my delegates. However, the media is going more and more “video” – YouTube is the second largest search engine according to some reports so you have no option, you have to take it seriously if you’re building a business.

This means knowing what you look like on screen.

Broadcast tips

There are a few things you can do to make it all look a bit neater. First, ignore your instincts. You’re going to spot that you don’t look 25 any more, it’s time to get back to the gym (I’m going today for the third time after a video interview last week!) and every stammer is going to be a stake through your heart. Nobody else cares about this stuff.

You can, however, put a little polish on. First, establish in your own mind which points are the most important for you to make and gently steer the conversation around to them (don’t, though, ignore the questions completely, as I established last week). Second, make sure you’re dressed comfortably – if you’re buying a suit or dress for the occasion, wear it a couple of times before the interview so it doesn’t make you self-conscious.

Don’t worry excessively about your movements; I once trained someone whose PR executive stopped them every time they made the smallest gesture. They ended up looking like someone with some sort of condition, no matter how happy the PR person was.

Also remember to wear blocks of colour. Modern TV and video technology has eliminated a lot of the strobing that used to happen with older televisions but it can still look distracting.

Other than that, have something relevant to say and you should be fine.

The picture above is of the board room in which I media train people for broadcast media – the screen on the wall is a live feed from the studio in the same corridor. Do you want to be interviewed on camera in a real studio for a session? Contact me for details.