Media interviews: When you’re right, shut up

Some of you might recognise the quote in the headline up there. It’s from a poem by Ogden Nash and the complete quote is “when you’re wrong, admit it; when you’re right, shut up”. But what has this to do with interviews?

The fact is, it’s useful advice for media interviews as well as life in general (it’s probably saved many marriages). Your competitor may well be going down the pan. People might actually be stupid to spend money on a named brand rather than your offering. But is telling them so through the media going to do any good?


You’ll probably be familiar with the president of the USA’s Twitter habit. Earlier this week he used the social network to respond to criticisms about how he handled a conversation with a war widow – a Gold Star widow in American jargon. She said he made her cry by saying her husband knew what he was getting into and not remembering his name. Here is his Twitter response:

Now, I don’t know Trump and I wasn’t there. I’m no fan but in fairness, some of the comments on his Tweet indicate that there is a recording and transcript around (I do ask myself why) and that Trump may have a point.

From which I conclude that a distressed widow might not have been thinking completely rationally. This isn’t a surprise.

Let’s assume, then, that Trump is factually correct on this occasion. I still contend that the president of the USA, the most powerful man in the world, going onto Twitter and implicitly suggesting that a gold star widow is being dishonest, is unwise. He has overlooked the weight his office carries, he’s forgotten the emotional state she is likely to be in. His wording is actually quite moderate but it doesn’t matter – in the context of his other Tweets, this is seen as lashing out.

I’ve come across other examples. There was an elderly woman in America who gave interviews about how the tobacco companies, by marketing their product as harmless in previous decades, had effectively killed her. The lawyers cottoned on to the fact that she’s worked with asbestos so it wasn’t clear-cut. The PR people’s counsel was that it didn’t matter whether the tobacco people were right or wrong; massive cigarette corporations going after an elderly, dying woman in the courts was never going to look good.

Your interviews

So let’s take an example that might occur in a more everyday situation. A disgruntled and fired employee is spreading malicious gossip about your company.

You can dismiss these as from an unreliable source. You have proof of his or her dishonesty and can furnish the press with it. But should you? Is this going to look any better than the most powerful president in the world criticising a widow for inaccurate recollections at probably the most difficult time of her life?

OK, it’s not going to be that bad. But sometimes, even when you’re right, shutting up can be the better part not only of valour, but of coming out looking reasonable at the end.

Do you need help with interview practice or media communications? I can help – email by clicking here and I’ll look forward to working with you.

What sort of editor should you be?

If you ask me to work as editor on an article, magazine or book, what should you expect? A vague tidy of grammar and punctuation or a full-blown rewrite?

I’ve had both as a writer. An old news editor of mine took to rewriting every story I wrote. He’d print it out, hand it to me and say “see”? It may have been intended as training; it came out as belittling. He’s no longer in the business, I’m happy to say.

My own style is somewhat different. I’ve been writing full-time for 28 years so yes, there’s a good chance I could rephrase something a new person brings to me and make it a little more elegant. One thing would be missing, though.

People have seen my version of loads of things before. But they haven’t seen that new writer’s take. Or yours, if you’re thinking of hiring a ghost writer or getting someone to tidy your copy up.

The editor will watch house style and grammar

That said, there are still a few things that should be taken as read. Put bad grammar in and a good editor will correct it (and I mean genuinely bad grammar rather than following a few rules slavishly, as I explain in this post). Fail to adhere to house style and there will be tweaks. This won’t be big stuff, it will be changing “per cent” to “%” in Economist style, or the other way round for Guardian style.

If you’re writing an opinion piece to publicise your company there will be other stuff too. When I started as a freelance and ghosted several such pieces for clients, one of my favourite editors had a strict rule; any more than three mentions of the company name and she’d start zapping them.

Unlike the guy I mentioned earlier, she was keen to hear the voice of the writer and didn’t recast everything as if she’d written it herself.

If you’re writing for magazines, newspapers and other people’s websites, you might find either extreme or somewhere in between when your work is edited. If you’re commissioning an editor for your own work, to beat it into shape, it can be worth considering the above and making sure you know what sort of edit you need – and putting it into the brief.

Do you need help with editing or with coaching on your business writing? I can help – drop me an email by clicking here and we’ll talk.

Media training: is there an obvious question?

If you’re going in front of the media you should know what you’re going to say. But have you thought about what the interviewer is going to ask? Elsewhere on this blog and in my media training sessions I highlight the need to get back on topic and take control of an interview. The journalist will be quite capable of pushing back if he or she needs to.

Ideally there need be no surprise about the questioning, though. It’s worth preparing by making a list of obvious subjects, not just the ones that will work for you. The ones that don’t are equally important, if not more so.

And it’s here that we introduce our old buddy Theresa May.  Here she is in an excruciating exchange with Ian Dale of LBC radio:


The trouble with this latest car crash is that it should have been an easily-predicted question.  The prime minister has made speeches about how no deal is better than a good deal, she was full of the “Brexit means Brexit” sound bite when she first got the job and her tone in her February speech in Lancaster House was strident. The text is here and towards the end she’s all but telling the EU off.

So she’s taken a strong position in the past. Holding her to account by asking “Would you vote for this again” is not a question that took a lot of imagination. It’s a justifiable and obvious line to pursue. It looks as though it caught her completely on the hop in spite of having all the resources of 10 Downing Street at her disposal.

Never mind which side of the debate you’re on. There are places to debate that (come to Facebook and I’ll shout at you anytime). As a piece of communication this was shoddy in the extreme. The prime minister really, seriously, ought to have been ready for something so basic – if you’re going into an interview to promote your business, have some answers ready for the obvious stuff.

Do you need help with your interview technique? I now offer a masterclass with a professional, tooled-up cameraman. Drop me a line to find out more.

Press interviews: aim for a big finish

The best novelists know where they’re going and plan their finishes first. So do the best interviewees in press interviews. Is it time you started?

I’ve been working with my friend Paul (pictured and hiding behind some of his equipment) in our media training masterclass just lately, which consists of some fairly intensive interviews and feedback.  One of Paul’s best pieces of feedback is that people should aim for a strong conclusion.

This might seem less important if you’re working with the written media. One of my worst habits in communication is that when I’m making a point I tend to tail off at the end rather than finishing well. That doesn’t matter in conversation and in a written interview, nobody’s going to transcribe the last “er…” which may be what you actually said. So it doesn’t matter, right?

Be memorable in press interviews

The thing is, the journalist will go away and write what he or she remembers. Of course there will be notes in press interviews, maybe even recordings, but essentially when we start writing the lead-in tends to consist of what stuck in our minds as important.

That last tailing-away “er…” isn’t going to be it. However, if you go into an interview certain of the points you need to make and then make them, and summarise them at the end in an upbeat manner, we may well remember better.

This is never emphasised better than when Paul records something, plays it back to participants and they see the difference for themselves. They also pick up all sorts of other repetitions and habits they hadn’t noticed before, and as an experienced cameraman Paul supplements my own media insights with all sorts of visual and audio tips.

There’s no substitute for solid content of course, but presenting well visually is a skill worth mastering. And no, you don’t have to be a supermodel to look fine on a screen.

If you’d be interested in taking your video skills beyond a big finish (but do that first!), Paul and I would be delighted to help – call me on 07973 278780 or fill in the form below and we’ll talk.

You thought you knew the rules

How many rules of grammar and English do you think you know? The chances are that there are many you assume to be true but which are in fact complete nonsense.

Yesterday I was giving a hand at my daughter’s school, where the “A” level class has to write an article as if it were for the national press (they’ve picked the Guardian as their model). So I asked: if I spell ‘organise’ with an ‘ize’ on the end, is that British or American? They all said American.

The Concise Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t agree.  It has “organise” as a variant and “organize” as the main way of spelling (12th edition, feel free to check up on me). Nevertheless, as I type this into WordPress, the system is highlighting “organize” as a spelling error.

The actual answer, I suspect, is that if your employer or client demands ‘ise’ and they’re paying the money, that’s what they should get. That’s what I’ll be telling a new client of the Henshall Centre  later this week.

People think they know all sorts of correct English and grammar and it’s often incorrect. And yet they amend other people’s copy, not because of house style but through thinking their version is right. Here are some examples:

  • Never use a conjunction (“and”, “but”, “because”) to begin a sentence. Now look at the middle sentence of the last paragraph – did it make sense? By all means don’t use the construction often, but using it occasionally is fine.
  • It is wrong in text to write figures for one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten and to spell out from eleven onwards. Uh-uh, that’s about house styles and consistency.
  • A sentence must have a subject, verb and object. Many do. But “Many do” didn’t have an object. “Help!” is also a sentence.
  • I before E except after C: don’t get me started. Look at feign, weight, foreign, forfeit, vein…some people say it works when the sound is “ee”. If they tell you that, offer them a coffee and ask how they spell “caffeine”. This frequently quoted rule is baloney.
  • Never split an infinitive – and this in the week that a new version of Star Trek is on Netflix, reminding us all of the phrase “To boldly go where no-one has gone before”!

There are better ways of improving your writing than learning rules by rote. Contact the Henshall Centre, through which I offer my writing courses, for more information.

Media training: the “trap” question

Journalists will sometimes ask a question they know you can’t answer and it’s easy to see how damage can be done. Taking the politics out of it if we can, let’s use the example: “So, prime minister, will you be leading your party into the next election?”

The answer should, you might think, be reasonably straightforward. So consider, when he was asked in 2015, the ramifications when David Cameron said he wouldn’t serve a third term.

It’s easy to snigger and say “you were right there, mate” – but it was an honest answer to an impossible question. At that stage it looked doubtful that his party would win an outright majority, which of course they did – so he risked:

  • Looking arrogant if he assumed he would still be prime minister within months (the option he went for, in fact)
  • Looking evasive if he tried to dodge the question

Anyone who reads my Facebook posts will be aware I’m no fan, but the direct question in that instance was unanswerable. We’ll come back to the ramifications in a second but he wasn’t the first PM to face that question. His predecessor in the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher, was also approaching an election when she famously said she’d like to go on and on and on  as prime minister, and she was out within three years.

It’s a trap

Circumstances were different for Theresa May this week. Far from approaching an election, at least one of her choosing, she is fresh from losing her majority in one, two years into a Parliament when few people thought she could do as badly.

The question of whether she planned to stay long as PM was arguably reasonable because she could well have been on the brink of resigning only a few months ago after throwing her majority away. However, it wasn’t a fair one to ask.

Like Cameron before her, there was no good answer available to her. Immediately Cameron said he wasn’t staying, he was a lame duck. Going to the EU as he did to ask for a better deal prior to campaigning to remain in it was a waste of time when all of the leaders knew he’d most likely be gone within three years.  May is already damaged; if, at this stage in the Brexit negotiations (whatever you think of them and her) she’d effectively confirmed her intention to resign, her credibility and any need for the other countries to listen to her would have been severely damaged.

So she opted for the other extreme – telling the press ‘hell no, I’m staying for the duration’. and the backlash has been swift (here’s one clipping but you can find many more by Googling, including her own former party chairman Grant Shapps pretty much dismissing her on the Today programme.

The alternative was to confirm that she had her eye on the exit door and to lose all remaining authority in the process, Oh, and to trigger a long-winded unofficial leadership campaign among any prospective candidates

So what do you do?

You’re probably not prime minister if you’re reading this, but you may well be in a position in which a journalist asks a question that’s effectively a trap.

Unlike the prime minister you’re not accountable to the electorate and therefore you’re not obliged to answer a journalist’s questions. You can politely decline to help. You can say something is confidential.  You can use one of my favourite techniques, the bridge, although if it’s a direct question this can sound slippery.

But do watch out for those “trap” questions. Remember they’re designed to elicit a headline as today’s papers will confirm in the case of May – and for once I have some sympathy because she really couldn’t have said anything else.

Do you need help with your media engagements? Email me by clicking here and we’ll talk.


This article amended to reflect that Grant Shapps is the former chairman of the Conservative Party, not the current one, 16.13 1 September

Why I love training

The reason I became a part-time trainer, as well as a journalist in 2002, was very straightforward. I’d just had a bank statement and was therefore about to reach for the brandy and revolver (but realised I didn’t have either and couldn’t afford them). The phone went; it was Microsoft’s PR people, asking whether I offered media training. I looked at the bank statement and said, yes, I almost certainly did…

The remainder of this 600-word blog is on the Henshall Centre website here.