Tag Archives: broadcasting

Media mistakes 3: It’s a good idea to answer at length

One of the frustrations I often face as a journalist is that people answer my questions as thoroughly as they can. I’ve just got off the phone with a guy I’m covering for the New Statesman; he was genuinely interesting and had a lot to say and I’m going to share as much as possible with the readers.

Note, “as much as possible”. In other words I’m going to have to be selective, cut a bit, eliminate repetitions and turn it into journalese.

In this case that won’t be a problem because the guy was himself a journalist. He was, consciously or otherwise, aware of my need to make an article out of his comments. Not everybody is as informed.

Read the papers, look at the quotes

When I first started writing, I naively thought the seasoned commentators would speak in pure quotes. They don’t, of course. I was quite shocked when I asked a guy why he’d chosen to sell a particular gadget and he came out with about 200 words.

I did my best to select what the readers would need to know and probably got it about right at the time. That was, however, a risk on his part.

It’s worth looking at the newspapers, magazines and online sources, whether multimedia or otherwise, that you’re targeting. How long are the quotes that they use? There are unlikely to be any strict rules but you’re bound to notice there isn’t much waffle. More than 15 words in print is going to start looking like a soliloquy.

This needn’t be a problem to the journalist, we’re used to cutting and getting to the nub of the story. It’s what we’re paid for. But…do you want our choice of your words speaking for you, or would you rather have yours? The only way to ensure I use your choice of quote, that will serve your company well, is to make your point briefly and then, politely, stop speaking. And the only way to make sure those words work for you is to prepare carefully.

If I have a choice of 200 words, I’m going to choose those that fit my story the best. I won’t sabotage your quotes but my idea of “best” may not be yours. If I have only 30, I’m pretty much forced to use your choice.

So, how thoroughly do you generally answer questions?

Do you need help with interview technique? Contact me on 07973 278780.

Is body language important?

Media training candidates sometimes ask me whether body language matters. Some candidates (and more problematically their PR advisors) think there are fixed rules.

My only rules are as follows: first, try to watch yourself on video. Second, don’t get too hung up on what you see.

Try not to look like Thunderbirds

A couple of years ago a colleague and I were media training a CEO from a large international company. He was a nice guy and listened to people. Unfortunately one of the people to whom he paid most attention was his public relations person.

That should have been a good thing and it was, until we started filming him. Then she started giving instructions out. He looked relaxed, so she told him to sit up. He’d been speaking with his hands all the way through the session – so she told him to keep them rigidly by his side.

Honestly, by the end of it he looked like a particularly stilted puppet. It just didn’t work.

If you’re concerned about how you might look when you’re being interviewed, first bear in mind that everybody else feels the same – we hate to watch ourselves on television. Second, if you look comparatively relaxed, don’t formalise it too much – you’re better off looking human.

We all umm and aah a bit in conversation. Take it all out and you look as though you’re doing a speech rather than a genuine interview. The audience can spot a prepared question at some distance.

Be natural, be yourself, be prepared and well-briefed. It’s pretty much all you’re going to need. I can help with practice and interview techniques if you need them.

Do you need help with your media interactions? From December, all media training sessions with me will include a filmed HD interview – fill in the form below and we’ll talk.

Do you actually need the press? Jeremy Corbyn thinks not

Here’s a controversial thought: your business may not actually need the press. Those of you who haven’t been living under a rock will have noticed the UK Labour Party has a new leader. Here he is being asked questions about his choice of shadow cabinet in which nearly all of the top places have gone to men:

First, let’s accept a few things. He was knackered, for example. He’s been working hard and Sky News is no friend of Corbyn – he’s unlikely to be sending its owner Rupert Murdoch a Christmas card this year. He’d had a hard day – he may not have realised just how many of the existing shadow cabinet were going to retreat to the back benches.

Let’s also accept that the interviewer, although ostensibly polite, was definitely “in pursuit”, long after it was obvious Corbyn wasn’t going to give an interview.

But walking off and telling his staff member “these people are bothering me” is one of the least engaging media appearances ever. So, does Corbyn need the media?

Is Jeremy Corbyn bullet proof?

The obvious initial answer is yes, he may be, for the moment. After a 59% win in a leadership election in which the media said he was a rank outsider, you can understand an attitude that says “these people are second rate and I don’t need them”.

There are a few things to bear in mind, though, a great deal of which has to do with how changeable the public can be but the first of which has to do with the nature of the Corbyn “landslide”. A huge half a million voted in the election and 59% voted Corbyn – that’s around 295,000. It’s impressive but compared to the 11m that voted Conservative in the last election it’s a gnat-bite.

He needs, in other words, to reach voters he hasn’t reached before, and he needs to reach them before May, when the Scottish, Welsh and the London Mayoral Elections happen.

There are ways around this and he and many businesses are using them. Social media bypasses the press, by all means, and Corbyn’s outreach was superb when preaching to the supporters.

But is it enough? Some of the supporters criticised other candidates for wanting to win (ironic given the scale of Corbyn’s own victory) but if you want to change the country you’ve got to get to power eventually. This is going to mean talking to people and it’s likely to mean having a strategy to avoid unwanted interviews.

I always advise my media training delegates, who are typically in business rather than politics, to have a number of strategies available for those occasions on which they are “doorstepped”, as we call it:

  • Be polite
  • Offer an interview but not right now. Tell journalists you want to talk to them but you want to do their questions justice.
  • Explain that all of your interviews are conducted through the press office and ask that they respect that.
  • If you have to walk away, walk towards and past rather than away from the camera – don’t let them get that shot of you running away.

Had Corbyn said either of the above, and repeated it when asked a followup question, the journalists wouldn’t have had a leg to stand on.

You’re unlikely to face the same sort of scrutiny to which Jeremy Corbyn is about to face from now to the rest of his leadership – but if you need help with your engagements with the press, click here to email me and we’ll talk.

My thanks to David Bridson for drawing my attention to the Sky News clip

Robert Downey Jr. needs interview training but not from his current team

In a media interview yesterday for Channel 4 News, the subject being the new Avengers movie, Robert Downey Jr. walked out. Here’s the clip, if you haven’t seen it (skip to about 5 mins 30 to watch it go really sour, he walks a minute later):

The reactions have been fairly polarised. Either Channel 4 is an independent production company according to some, so the questions are fair, or they were supposed to be talking about the movie and it got personal.

I’m on the side of the journalist to an extent. It’s a free country and he’s allowed to ask what he wants (and Downey has every right not to answer, stemming from the same freedoms),

The thing is, like Christopher Eccleston a few weeks ago (the link there is about Eccleston hanging up on a journalist who wanted to talk about Doctor Who rather than a current project – although Eccleston has happily covered his Doctor Who year with the BBC, Radio Times and others so there’s presumably more to that story), the star had his expectations mis-managed.

Publicists and expectations

Journalists are obliged to be independent. We’re not part of a film company’s marketing department and our editorial sections are not advertising spaces for a business. Marvel and its movie entourage will not have paid for a space on the Channel 4 News programme. If they’d offered to do so there would have been a firm “no thanks”.

So the idea that a journalist will stick to what the subject wants to talk about rather than anything else they he or she thinks may interest the readers is plain wrong. The question that remains is: who’s telling these spokespeople otherwise?

My guess is that their publicists are assuming the papers and broadcasters will co-operate and brief the performers accordingly. As the Eccleston and Downey examples illustrate, the media doesn’t always do so. There’s actually no reason it should. It doesn’t work for the movie companies and if those movie makers want to threaten to withdraw interviewees, they’ll find we can interview someone else and fill the pages.

Like any business conversation it’s about compromise and understanding where the other person is coming from. In my view the Downey interview should have taken another turn when it became apparent he was uncomfortable and not going to answer in some areas; you can always switch back to talking about the film. There’s every reason to hope, but no right to insist, that he would be willing to answer the more personal stuff. Equally, though, I wish some interviewees, in the business world as well as in entertainment, would grasp the simple truth that the press is an independent entity in its own right and not an extension of their marketing operation.

For information on my media training offerings please click here.

Image: Flickr: JD Hancock

Media training isn’t about dissembling, Jezza

I was disappointed to read Jeremy Paxman’s comments in The Times (you’ll need to subscribe or hand over some cash to read it I’m afraid, Mr. Murdoch is like that) on Saturday in which he covered the political leaders’ debate. The specific passage that annoyed me was the reference to politicians who’d received media training “probably carried out by some shabby member of our trade earning a few bob”.

Now, I’m turning 50 next week, so as a mere slip of a lad had to ask my mum about this “few bob” thing. Apparently it’s not very much money, but leaving that aside the idea that there’s anything wrong with media training is utterly baseless.

Find an expert

Let’s say, for example, you’re a politician and you’re not a natural in front of the camera. For the sake of argument we’ll call you “Ed”. You have a lot to say but you know what? You know you’re perceived as a little awkward and the media has started picking on you even when you eat a bacon sandwich in public.

So, should you carry on regardless or should you get some help with your presentation skills? Just so you can make your view known on equal terms with some of the more fluent broadcasters present (we’ll call them Nicola, David and Nick, again completely at random)?

Note, I haven’t mentioned dissembling. I haven’t mentioned lying or avoiding issues, just speaking on equal terms. That’s what this is about.

Coaching can be good

Think about what happens when people want to do well in other areas. Three years ago we hosted the Olympics in London. Our athletes did pretty well, but they didn’t do it without a decent coach who had expertise. Andy Murray is no doubt preparing to try and win Wimbledon a second time; he is doing so with the aid of Amélie Mauresmo, same as he did with Ivan Lendl when he actually won.

Nobody accuses him of not playing his own game. Nobody says he’s avoiding the other player’s shots by making sure he’s prepared for them.

It’s not an exact parallel I grant you. However, the idea that it’s somehow wrong to get a bit of coaching for an event that’s likely to stretch you is frankly ridiculous.

Bad media training

There are instances in which people offer poor advice. I’ve sat there in media training sessions while the PR people who’ve commissioned me have come out with the dreaded Mehrabian myth – in which people quote Prof. Albert Mehrabian stating that 93% of communication is non-verbal – and it’s nonsense, his own view is 23 minutes into this interview here. He never said it and it’s quoted completely out of context.

I’ve also heard the PR person commissioning me stating that it doesn’t matter what the journalist asks, you should just come out with your statement regardless. Fine, go ahead, I’ll just find a more co-operative interviewee and you won’t find me quoting you in the future. I tend not to work with those clients again.

Nobody should say all media trainers are good or that it will all help you communicate. I agree, some of the polish on some of the politicians last Thursday was a little excessive.

However, at its best, media training is a perfectly respectable thing to have and to seek. It helps people who may not be the best interviewees to understand the process and put their view fluently and in language the journalist will report – so the reader or viewer (remember them?) can make up their own mind rather than have a journalist write someone off because they’re a poor speaker.

And that’s got to be a good thing. Hasn’t it?

For information on my media training service click here.

Image: Flickr: Duncan Hull

I should say something about Clarkson

The problem with writing a media blog sometimes (except when fierce deadlines get in the way as has been the case over the last seven days, but the next issue of Professional Outsourcing Magazine is my best yet, honest) is that everyone will express an opinion on whatever you wanted to write about so there isn’t a lot left to say. But you have to go ahead and say something nonetheless.

So, Jeremy Clarkson.

There’s been a lot said about the incident, in which he punched his junior producer in the face and left him driving himself to casualty because he didn’t get a hot steak. Not that the producer was a chef or anything, but logistics certainly would have been in his province.

There has been a lot of support for Clarkson, and on BBC Question Time only last night a young person in the audience was berating the BBC for losing the mainstay behind such a major brand.

Is it all about money?

I can see the logic. I’ve certainly been known to enjoy the odd episode of Top Gear – I don’t have to share anything in common with Clarkson and the team to rather like the idea that three middle-aged blokes pratting about pretending to talk about cars is good for a laugh.

Nonetheless, let me repeat that sentence from above. “He punched his junior producer in the face and left him driving himself to casualty.”

This isn’t behaviour that can be condoned. It might not be a sacking offence in some contexts – sources close to Clarkson have reportedly pointed out that worse things happen in the interval at rugby matches.

However, this isn’t a rugby match, it’s a publicly-funded TV programme. The question is whether the BBC, which apparently turned a blind eye to all sorts of appalling stuff in the past, is going to publicly condone one of its stars assaulting people.

Clarkson has apparently been in a bad place personally and is now likely to be in a worse one. I have some sympathy with that but this doesn’t mean my license fee should be spent indulging him. If someone, no matter who, punches a junior employee, they may expect not to have their contract renewed (which is different from being sacked, by the way). To me it’s really that straightforward.

The really regrettable bit isn’t Clarkson losing his job – let’s face it, he had a terrific long run and is probably worth millions. It’s the other people who work on the programme, not necessarily the other eminently employable presenters but the smaller people – the non-punched producers (and the punched one), even the merchandising folk. I wonder how many people he’s inadvertently taken down with him.

Nobody who doesn’t know him has any reason to wish Clarkson anything other than well, and whatever he’s going through I hope he gets out OK at the other end. But the decision not to renew his contract has to have been the right one.

Image: Flickr: Tony Harrison

Natalie Bennett’s car crash interview

Sometimes when someone gets something wrong you have some sympathy. Sometimes you may not, and when someone is seriously of the opinion that they should form part of the next Government, you might feel like giving them a little less leeway.

This is the position in which Green Party leader Natalie Bennett found herself yesterday as LBC’s James Ferrari asked her some pretty basic questions on costing her policies. The clip on this BBC reportage pretty much sums up her performance and it’s not good. For once Ferrari wasn’t being unduly tough – so what happened?

Bad day at the office

Bennett’s own explanation is that she had a bad cold, things didn’t come together, her memory blanked and she basically had a bad day at the office. This is pretty much beyond dispute. The question is what she could have done to avoid it – and whether someone who’s going to have such bad days is actually an appropriate leader for a political party.

There are a number of tips I can offer on preparing for an interview of this sort, although I’ve never briefed a politician. The first is simple: you don’t have to do the interview at all. If figures aren’t your thing or if you’re unwell and know you won’t do the subject justice, don’t do it.

The second is prepare, prepare and prepare again. The query about costs was not a surprise but the fact that Bennett didn’t know them was stunning. She probably did know them – but then claimed houses could be built for around £60K, which as Ferrari points out, would get you a small conservatory.

The third thing is that if you fluster, if you realise it’s coming to an end, stop. Take time. Make an excuse, take a sip of water – Bennett had a coughing fit, she could have taken advantage of that, had some water, apologised, all of which would have bought her time to gather her thoughts.

As it is, she made the classic mistake of speaking too quickly and then speeding up, allowing herself even less time to catch up with her thoughts. If you can feel your interview running away with itself, slow down – again, it allows you some time to think. She apologised later but she hasn’t done her party any favours.

As I type, she’s still leader. But at the beginning of the week I could have typed “Malcolm Rifkind is still in post”. Were I a Green Party member I’d be wondering about the person taking us into the General Election and how she’d cope if the questioning got any tougher.

Information on Guy Clapperton’s media training sessions is here.