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.

There’s bigger stuff than the rules of grammar

I’m running a couple of writing courses for the Henshall Centre this month and as I do this frequently I read books on writing. I may have a new favourite as Do I Make Myself Clear?: Why Writing Well Matters by Harold Evans has been accompanying me on a press trip.

Unlike so many other books on writing, this one makes the point that grammar is not the ultimate in clarity. This is right. Here’s why.

Technically grammatical, actually baloney

When I was at college one of my tutors had a favourite example. Most readers will on some level be aware that in grammar you generally have a subject, a verb and an object. You can expand that and say you have a subject, a verb and a predicate. The predicate is everything except the subject and verb.

So, “The man lifted the kettle” is clear subject (man) verb (lifted) and object (kettle). Change it to “The man lifted the kettle clumsily” and you have an adverb in there, hence the need for the word “predicate”, otherwise you’d have to list everything.

What, though, of the following sentence – the one that my tutor used to cite:

“The green dreams slept furiously.” We have subject, verb and predicate, all in a really simple order. It breaks down perfectly. The snag is that it’s utter drivel; dreams are intangible so it makes no sense to say they are green, they aren’t alive so they can’t sleep and nothing can sleep furiously anyway. OK, teenagers, but nothing else.

Evans doesn’t use this example but his point is equally valid. He says that making sense and being clear are generally more important than fretting about whether you should be using “which” or “that”, and unless you’re a sub-editor – whose job is to be a grammar hawk – he’s right.

So in a couple of weeks time I will be telling my clients that clarity is pretty much everything. I will aim to share some tools to make it easier to achieve.

Would you be interested in my sharper writing course? Contact the Henshall Centre to find out more.

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.

PR people, want to pitch? Then read the papers

I’ve been pitched to for the magazine I edit over the last few days and the standard has been mixed. It’s worth looking at a couple of (anonymous of course) examples. In the interests of fairness I should say that about four were completely on target.

Here’s an article, what do you think?

I felt quite bad for the first. I’d sent out a request to PR contacts through the Response Source service, asking for a pitch on a particular subject and mentioned that I would need 1500 words. So the PR exec in question put together a pitch, said she could come out with the small business angle on behalf of her client and make it very practical.

My magazine, Intelligent Sourcing, doesn’t cover small to medium enterprise. I had other pitches to follow so I did so, intending to follow up the “no thanks” ones with some feedback in the middle of this week.

Then yesterday she sends me a completed article by her client. 1507 words so the length is on the nose – but it’s aimed at entirely the wrong readership so it’s nothing I can use at all. I get that it’s frustrating when an editor hasn’t had the chance to respond immediately but getting your client to write (or perhaps more realistically sign off) a 1500 word article without checking the magazine first isn’t the way forward. She’d worked damned hard, by the looks of it, too.

Here’s a basic article on a related topic


Others made similar errors by sending in stuff that was really very basic. Still others made sure they were talking about the UK market alone (the magazine goes out in paper form to thousands of professionals in the UK but in electronic form it reaches thousands more in the US, Africa and mainland Europe, so ‘strong UK angle’ is a weakness rather than a strength for this publication).

It’s not fair to expect the PR community to know every website and every magazine. I do understand that. Nonetheless, if you’re pitching to an editor there are some fundamental questions:

  • Ask yourself whether you’re familiar with the publication. If not, no sensible editor is going to mind being asked a bit about it. If it’s easily available, get hold of a copy (do not ask the editor of a national newspaper if you can see a copy, go and buy the damned thing).
  • If it’s unclear who the readers are, ask. In the Internet age you can’t assume a single-country readership. In a subject such as the one my magazine covers, sourcing, it might apply to any size of business. Ask rather than guess.
  • A related point is to find out the level of the readership. Earlier this year I had a pitch that started “you’ve probably never thought of using Microsoft Lync”; first, yes my readers have, and second, if you really were an expert you’d know it’s been called Skype for Business for years. Bit of a giveaway, that.
  • Consider the sort of article you’re being asked for. Recently I was looking for something for a regular column on Brexit. As it’s a regular column, anything that started “In March 2017 the UK will be leaving the EU” or “On 26 June 2016 the UK voted to leave the EU” is inappropriate; the readers know, it’s a regular column on the subject, they don’t need an introduction.

Of course there’s a very good argument that says it’s my job to edit out the clearing-the-throat guff and make sure the article gets to the point at the right level. This is fair and  correct. However, it’s equally true that if I get multiple submissions for a slot and two or three are spot-on because they’ve done the research in advance, those are the ones that will appeal to me most.

Do you need input on pitching or writing for the media market? I can help with both – call me on 07973 278780 or fill in the form below and we’ll talk.

Do journalists like facts and figures?

Media training a couple of weeks ago I was struck by one delegate’s insistence on coming out with a statistic for everything.  He was a businessperson, the readers were businesspeople, they’d welcome everything being backed up by a solid fact.

It’s difficult to argue with that on the surface, but I’ll have a go. The fact is that businesspeople might not like dry facts with everything but they need them. Let me put it this way: the business community deals with facts and figures all the time but only when it’s pretty much being paid to do so.

The journalist’s job, in the majority of cases, is to take up what happens after that.

Would you read dry facts over coffee?

Basically the dry business stuff is dispensed with, the coffee comes out and someone picks up the paper, the tablet, the phone, whatever they want to read on. At that point they’re interested less in the raw data and more in the stories behind it.

This is why, for example, when  I was writing extensively for the Guardian’s small business section, they always asked me to get pictures of the people involved even when the story was about the difference the technology made.  All of their research said that people buy from people and people want to read about people, so putting human beings on the cover was better than a screen grab or picture of a shiny new phone or something.

Technology has changed but that central truth hasn’t. So if I’m interviewing you about a new widget you’ve invented and your stat says it enables a 10% time saving, why not tell me about what someone did when they’d saved that time? Or how they were able to grow the business steadily without employing someone they could ill afford, or something like that?

Show me a human face and tell a story whenever you can. By all means use the stats to support the story, but that’s what they are – a support. My job is to relay stories; tell me a few and it could be to our mutual benefit.

Do you need help with storytelling or engaging with the media? I can help, just leave your details here and we’ll talk

From senior UK journalist Guy Clapperton

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