Five things good media training won’t do

Media training is something I enjoy doing. Helping people shape the message they want to get into the press, broadcast or online media and offering the tools to make this message heard is a great thing. Generally. Occasionally, though, I’m asked odd stuff.

Media training has its ethics

Sometimes the odd stuff I’m asked veers into the downright unethical or impossible. So here are five things a decent media trainer will never promise or offer:

  • We won’t, or shouldn’t, offer to write about you/your client immediately. I once had a solid-sounding lead for media training. The PR person involved said at the last minute that they would expect me to write about the client in the national press afterwards. Guys, if I’m coaching you and accepting a fee, I can’t pretend to the press that I’m an independent commentator. No ethical media trainer should write about you for several months after coaching you.
  • We won’t encourage you to lie. Want someone to come in and train you on withholding key information from stakeholders? You need to look elsewhere. A good media trainer will help offer techniques to get away from difficult conversations. He or she will give you the confidence to say when something is confidential and you can’t comment. In no way should they encourage you to lie to the press – you’re bound to be found out eventually.
  • We won’t claim there is a 100% foolproof way to get your message into the press. You present your case, you argue your point, we give you the tools and techniques to make the best of that. Unless you’re doing paid-for advertorial, however, no competent media trainer will offer any guarantees beyond that in the face of a free press. They can do what they want with the resulting interview. We will equip you with the best chance possible to put a positive case.
  • We won’t arrange interview opportunities for you. This is the job of your PR company. I’ve been in training sessions in which people have asked me to get them into, say, the Financial Times. It’s been a few years since I’ve written for that paper so even if I were inclined to step outside the role of “journalist/trainer”, I wouldn’t know where to pitch.
  • Related point: our contact book is our livelihood, not public property. One or two – a tiny amount – of clients seem to expect me to open up my contact book and hand over the names of all of the commissioning editors so that they can pitch to them. This is in most cases a step too far; if a trainer who is a current journalist had a reputation that suggested he or she would send loads of PR people pitching to an editor’s door after every training session, he or she wouldn’t be a journalist for long.

There’s a great deal to be gained from a media training session: confidence, an understanding of the media, the ability to meet us half-way, formulation of messages and preparation for an interview plus a lot of interview techniques – talk to me about them by emailing here. Understand that it’s a training/mentoring session and you should end up with a great session.

Presenters and trainers: watch your timing

Presenters, speakers and trainers all share one thing in common and we hate it: we are, as my friend and fellow speaker Graham Jones has been known to advise people, less important than the coffee. I’ve borne this in mind every time I get to present or MC something and it’s advice that’s never let me down.

Here are a couple of stories that illustrate why it’s important.

A couple of years ago I was editing something called “UC Insight” – a good gig – and a company asked me to come and give a talk over dinner at one of Gordon Ramsay’s restaurants. The fee was acceptable and I thought, terrific, Ramsay restaurant, pleasant people, this can’t go wrong.

The waiting staff told me timing would be tight because the starter was fish, being kept warm underneath those lights they have at the serving stations of restaurants. That was fine, I reasoned – I knew my timings.

Then the MD of the host company, whose job it was to introduce me, stood up and announced that he’d only been told he was speaking at midday. So, he thought, it would be a good idea if the entire room full of people introduced themselves.

Oh God.

There were about 40 people. All of them took about a minute. You can do the maths. Remember the fish was being timed around my 30 minutes, not his 40 intros plus my time. I cut it as decently short as I could but he insisted on a Q and A session…I’ll just tell you that a large number of guests were quite bewildered that someone like Gordon Ramsay would allow such dry fish to be served. Sadly there wasn’t a great deal I could do about it. Presenters should always talk to the catering staff.

Component speeches

After that experience I started to watch some of the better presenters more closely. I realised a lot of them, particularly the MC variety, actually broke their presentations down into chunks – a story here, a bit of content there…they could add or subtract bits at will. I adopted the technique fairly promptly.

It came in very handy when I was speaking at another communications event. My job was to give a 40-minute overview but the speaker before me overran, initially by ten minutes, at which point he announced “I think I’m over my time but this is important…”

(That’s a very good thing never to say, by the way – you might think it’s important but the other speakers may be important too; “this is important…” has that element of “knickers to everyone else, I’m staying on stage”.)

I was the last speaker before lunch. People look forward to lunch at corporate events, it’s a chance to get away from the speakers. The catering staff were, once again, serving hot food which needed to be eaten fresh, and they had their shifts and other duties to think about.

So I dropped a couple of my stories and did a 25-minute overview. The organiser came over during lunch and said how lucky it was that I’d underprepared so we were back on schedule. She went away too quickly for me to tell her otherwise, sadly – but believe me, it wasn’t an accident.

Presenters need realism

People get ratty when they’re hungry and irritable if they start to dehydrate. Most conference organisers have thought about attention spans, pee breaks, catering and networking opportunities in advance. If you’re speaking and especially if you’re facilitating, you need to understand these things and fit in as part of the event rather than as a star turn who can take an extra half an hour if they feel like it.

My job when I’m MC-ing is to see that people get their coffee and the staff get to clear up without working late – and to make sure nobody notices that’s what I’m doing!

Working with video and celebrities

I interviewed Olympian athlete Sally Gunnell a fortnight ago for Xero, the accounting company – it’s a corporate gig so there’s no surprise in being uncredited and out of vision. Here’s one of the resulting videos:

All good stuff. So I thought it might be worth sharing some insights on working a) on video and b) with celebrities

  1. Even if you’re not going to be in shot, try to look presentable. If it’s not formal there may be no reason for a man to wear a tie, but nobody’s going to be offended by a jacket and shirt.
  2. Prepare a bit and try to find a conversational ice breaker. My brother in law Steve happens to be over in Rio now setting cameras up for the Olympics so in this instance that was easy – as you’ll gather from the pic I’m not all that athletic (been to the gym twice this week already I promise) but it gave us a little common ground.
  3. Treat the camera and audio team well. Xero were fine hosts and constantly made sure Sally and I were offered coffee, water, whatever we wanted. Not all hosts are as accommodating so it’s down to the presenter to keep everyone happy. They’ll notice – and they may be asked sometime whether they can recommend a presenter/interviewer.
  4. Related point: listen to the camera crew. I did a video a while ago in which the (non-celebrity) interviewee was forever telling them how to set up shots and what we should be doing. He won’t be getting interviewed again. Presenters/interviewers are doubly vulnerable to being dropped – let everyone else do their job and work with it.
  5. Ensure in advance that you know what the client wants from the video, and also that the celebrity guest has been briefed.
  6. Before the interview ask the interviewee to pause briefly before every answer. The client may want their quotes isolated so you don’t want your voice speaking over theirs.
  7. Pick the right guest. Sally was flexible, pleasant, well-briefed, focused and utterly professional when it came to the tiny amount of retakes required. She actually suggested a round-up summary for a blog at the end, which added to the overall offering.

Overall a thoroughly pleasant experience and I hope people find the videos useful.

How do you introduce someone in a podcast interview?

I train people to interview others as well as to be interviewed themselves (generally not the same people, you understand). Something that’s changed over the last few years is that journalists are presenting their own interviews as podcasts. There are some things they could do to improve the result without much hard work.

For a start, if you’re marketing it as a podcast, consider publicising it as a radio show instead. Depending on your market you might well find some of your target listeners are put off by “podcast”, believing they need some sort of technical skill in order to hear it. They don’t care about whether it actually reaches them over radio waves; tell them it’s a radio show and they’ll get it.

Heeeere’s Guy! Start an interview strongly

I listened to a pretty good one the other day. The content was terrific. A lively interviewee and the interviewer knew when to shut up and let her speak (maybe a little too much for my tastes but he or she – I’m not disclosing identities – was perfectly clear that the guest was the star). That put it in the top niche of podcasts already as quite a number are ego exercises for the presenter, and I speak as someone who ran his own a few years back!

However, in this instance the presenter was too self-effacing. You wouldn’t have known their name from the show they put on, it was straight into “with me is…” and then bang, on with the interview. Always start off by introducing yourself.

Introduce the interviewee

The guest introduction was also low-key. The beginning of a show is always the attention-grabber, so here are a few pointers:

  • Don’t announce the name immediately. I’ve introduced people on stage before and their agents have sent me intros that begin “NAME is an Olympic athlete, who has scaled Kilimanjaro, tunnelled underneath Everest and played the lead role in Bugs Bunny the Musical for 15 years.” I always leave the name until last, so it’s “My guest today is an Olympic athlete, who has scaled (etc…) – a warm welcome to NAME GOES HERE”. You’re actually building up to something with an intro like this.
  • Ask your guest or their agent how they like to be introduced. Your idea of their professional highlights may not be theirs. And do make sure you introduce them. You might think it goes without saying that everyone will know who they are. You’d be surprised at the number of people who may not.
  • Raise your voice, in tone if not in volume, when you get to the interviewee’s name. It signals to the audience that someone good is about to speak, and that you’re excited about it. If you’re presenting live, they’ll know it’s time to applaud.

Interviewing isn’t as easy as it looks. You need to know when to shut up, when to probe a bit, when to interrupt and also to manage the timings. Get off to a strong start, though, and you’ll at least have their attention.

Do you need help with interviewing techniques? Contact me and we’ll talk. If you want to know more about how I can add value introducing people and generally MC-ing your corporate event, check my speaker and MC page.

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.