Tag Archives: interview

Where do you look during a television interview?

Let’s say you or your client have landed some television coverage. You’re in the studio for the first time. I’ve been into the BBC news studios probably a hundred times. One of the first and most basic points I picked up was the answer to the question: where do I look?

There are in fact two answers to this. One is to look straight at the interviewer. Don’t worry about the odd glance around, you don’t want to go all rabbit-in-the-headlights, and if you’re going to glance anywhere try not to make it at your watch, but mostly look at the person to whom you are talking rather than someone playing at being on television.

I can cite many reasons for this approach. First, you’ll find it easier if you’re talking to one person rather than imagining yourself talking to a few million. That’s intimidating. Second, the interviewer will give you a focal point when all this other interesting stuff is happening around you. When I first did the BBC’s newspaper review a few years ago I was fascinated that the television cameras moved around without an operator attached and had to focus very hard on not looking at them (I was also thrown by the fact that the studio was actually in the news room, although why I should have expected otherwise I don’t know).

Third, you’ll look more sincere. Remember all those years ago when Bob Geldof launched Band Aid? That’s a reference for the teenagers, obviously. He kept looking at the camera and actually looked shifty and uncomfortable when he was delivering the most sincere and best motivated interview of his life. Look past the camera and at the person if at all possible.

Down the line

I said there were two possible answers. The other one is the “down the line” interview, when you’re not in the same room as the interviewer. You’ll have seen this on the news; Huw Edwards or whoever looks at a screen and a journalist or other expert/commentator appears to look straight at him. Of course they’re not, they’re looking at the camera.

That works and is a different sort of television interview – try never to get them mixed up and you should have a good start.

The picture above is of the TV studio in Bayswater from which I offer broadcast media training in my masterclass. If you’d like to know more, drop me a note by clicking here or filling in the form below and we’ll talk.

Cameron turns a drama into a crisis

The current turmoil surrounding UK prime minister David Cameron, including five different announcements about his tax affairs over the last seven days and culminating in the release of his tax return details, is a masterclass in how not to do media relations.

The root of the story is simpler than the hype might have you believe. His father owned a business and made an investment on the young Dave’s behalf. Dave sold the shares before he became Prime Minister alongside all the other shareholdings he had, and paid all appropriate taxes. Unless you have an objection to buying and selling shares, and I know some people do, that’s it. Experts have confirmed that the “offshore” element was not a tax dodge.

So on Monday the official line was that it was a private matter, said a spokeswoman. On Tuesday Cameron himself clarified that he had no shares. On the Wednesday the government issued a statement saying he and his family did not benefit from offshore funds and then added a further statement to say they wouldn’t in future.

On Thursday the PM confirmed that he’d owned shares and sold them and over the weekend he published his tax details.

Ridiculous delay

I have some sympathy with Cameron this time, but in spite of his request that people blame him rather than his advisors, who on earth was advising him about this?

Here’s a little trick if you want to avoid this sort of flare-up when you’ve done nothing wrong. Ask yourself: what’s the worst that could happen? In this instance, the worst that could happen was that people would find out that nothing illegal and probably not immoral happened. Had he come out with the whole lot on Monday and said “Of course, nothing to hide, this was actually reported by the press in 2012 but let me get you my tax details so we can have full disclosure as they do in America…” he would have looked a lot more transparent.

As it is he looks kind of shifty. The damage done is going to last a while. The PM needs to be seen as trustworthy, particularly with the EU vote coming up and although it’s evident that there has been no wrongdoing, he’s left a smell of “why was that such hard work, is he afraid something else will come out?”

For someone who was in the Conservative Party’s PR operation in the John Major years this is pretty embarrassing. The lesson the rest of us can learn from this is to play the “what’s the worst that can happen” game on ourselves; what if we give a full, honest and frank answer to a difficult question so it won’t come and bite us later?


My thanks to Alan Burkitt-Gray for the correction on the timing of the prime minister’s years in PR, also for the information that he was working for the Conservative Party and not the government at the time. I have amended the text accordingly.

Do you need help with your media engagements? Fill in the form below and I’ll get in touch – or call on 07973 278780. Unless you’re Prime Minister, in which case get an advisor to do it and I’ll coach them too.

Image: Flickr: Brett Jordan

Don’t say this to journalists

Last week I looked at things not to say to editors. Suppose you’re an interviewee rather than a writer: what would be my top five things not to say?

In no particular order I’d recommend against the following;

  1. No comment. Even if you genuinely have nothing to say, this sounds evasive and as if you’re hiding something. I was once told “I don’t want to comment and I don’t want to read your paper saying I declined to comment.” The thing is, the guy had declined to comment and it was my job to tell the truth. There’s almost always something better to say; bridge into another subject if you possibly can. “My customers aren’t raising that point with me, what they really care about is…” will get you out of a lot of trouble. I’m unlikely to argue with your customers.
  2. I’m not talking about that today: Frustrating though it is, journalists aren’t there to jump to your tune. Of course you want to focus on your own agenda but you wouldn’t be this rude to a client – so try being a little smoother with someone who’s going to communicate with thousands of clients. Your announcement schedule has everything to do with your internal schedule and nothing to do with ours – try not to pass the problem on to us, we’re probably not going to like it.
  3. Can we go off the record? Loads of people use this one. If you absolutely must, go ahead, but be sure the journalist is trustworthy, organised enough to remember what was on the record and what wasn’t and that you’re both talking about the same thing. To me, “off the record” means unquotable; I’ve seen others who assume it means “print it but don’t attribute it to me”. If it could only have come from you, you could still end up in trouble.
  4. Your paper is rubbish. Seriously, I’ve had this. You’re entitled to your opinion and for all I know you have a point. But what useful objective is going to be served by annoying someone – not just journalists, in any context?
  5. I don’t read the press. You probably do a bit, since “online” counts, but that aside, this is a subset of “your paper is rubbish”. Starting off an interview by trying to belittle the other person speaks loudly about your own insecurities, and most journalists are experienced enough to understand that. Try not to tell us you’re terrified, we’ll only scent blood…

Do you need help engaging with journalists? Contact me using the form below or call 07973 278780 and we’ll talk.

Tip Sheet: Before the media interview

Let’s assume you’ve done the tricky part and attracted the attention of the media. Whether local or national, you now need to prepare for the interview. Don’t assume you’ll get to see all the questions in advance (depending on what you might say, we don’t actually know all of them yet). It’s a free country and we’re going to feel free to ask whatever occurs to us on behalf of the reader.

So here’s a quick checklist of things to have ready before your interview.

  • Three clear messages. Ideally these should be tied to your desired outcome. If you’re looking for customers, tailor the messages around why buying from you is a good idea (but don’t be too salesy). If you’re looking for investors, prepare messages about financial solidity, and soforth.
  • Prepare techniques for getting back to your messages every so often. Don’t ignore our questions, you’ll look untrustworthy – but come back to your points, as you would in any business discussion. I look at techniques for doing this in my media training sessions.
  • Interviewed by phone? Great – have a list of your company’s figures and facts, and everything you really ought to know by heart but you know you’re going to be nervous.
  • Even if you’re going to be in vision, prepare a list of likely questions and make sure you can answer them.
  • Then prepare a list of questions you hope they won’t ask and prepare answers to those, too. If the journalist doesn’t ask, fine. If they do, you’ll be glad you prepared.
  • If you’re going to be seen on screen, remember patterned shirts and jangly jewellery can be distracting – blocks of colour and simple apparel is best.
  • If you’re getting a new suit/dress/haircut for the event, get it a few days beforehand so you’re used to it. Feeling self-conscious is the death knell for so many interviews.
  • Try to video yourself answering questions and without being overly critical, watch out for repetitious phrases and physical habits people might find irritating.
  • Take all the advice you’ve ever had about how to sit up straight and keep your hands to your side in an interview, and bin it. As long as you’re not actually assaulting the journalist you’re better off being natural.
  • Ask the journalist what his or her first question is going to be. If you’re live on a streaming audio or video show there’s nothing worse than the first response being “Umm…..” – I’ve been there, done that, it doesn’t end well!

Media mistakes 10: Your media trainer won’t write about you

“I would never hire a media trainer who didn’t guarantee to write about my client immediately afterwards, I wouldn’t be doing my job.” This was the dismissal I had a few years ago from a formerly trusted contact who’d seemed interested in using my services. It was wrong on so many levels.

I don’t come across it often but it happened so it’s worth addressing. Here’s the deal with ethical, proper media trainers:

  1. We’ll tell you that nothing is off the record when you’re dealing with journalists – except when we’re training you. On that occasion we’ll keep confidences as we’re acting as your contractor (or if you’re going through a PR company, a subcontractor).
  2. Very importantly, we’re in your pay while we’re doing this contract work for you. No, I don’t care if there’s no formal contract, a court will recognise the fact that we’ve been hired as contract enough. We therefore can’t claim to be independent or unbiased – you owe us money,  we have a vested interest in your continued existence. And even if only for a few hours, we’ve been insiders.
  3. Now, our only value to editors is as unbiased sources of information – so, would you commission a writer with vested interests if you were that editor?

Of course you wouldn’t. And no decent media trainer will pitch stories about companies they’ve trained for months after the training has happened. One guy with whom I trained a decade or so ago told all his clients not to bother pitching to him for six months after the training session, he had a distinct cut-off point.

Not just trainers

I’ve seen a number of dubious practices over the years. The PR person who approached me with a view to getting stories placed, which would involve payment to me and there was no need to tell any editors as this was “commercial reality” that “most journalists” would understand. I didn’t bother calling him again. The people who called me once about how much I’d charge to write about them in the national press and who were genuinely surprised when I told them any payment would come from the publication, assuming there was a decent story in it. They’d apparently been paying another journalist good money every time their name was mentioned and hadn’t been aware that the paper would have been paying for the work, too. Then there was the journalist who couldn’t be bothered to write anything so got a PR person to write an entire article, to which he added a first and last paragraph – and took full credit and payment from a national newspaper.

None of these practices are ethical or fair to the editor or reader, both of whom have the right to know what they’re reading.

So no, if you want to hire me as a media trainer there’s no point in insisting I should write about your client immediately afterwards – that would be a clear conflict of interest and no decent journalist will do it. A PR person will do this and will declare their interest to an editor, so there’s no difficulty because everyone is aware of the circumstances. But if a trainer claims they’re going to place an interview with you in a publication shortly after your session with them, be careful – if the editor finds out about the deal ,the piece probably won’t appear, and your trainer will vanish shortly afterwards.

Do you need help understanding how the media works? I can help – email me by clicking here and we’ll talk.

Media mistakes 9: (Most) Journalists aren’t trying to trap you

Why did you hire me for media training? That’s a question I ask every training delegate I come across and the most common answer is that they want to avoid the traps journalists will lay. They’ve done interviews before and they weren’t sure of the journalist’s agenda or what he or she was up to.

They are often disappointed when the answer is “nothing, mostly, just trying to write a decent story for the readers”.

The most extreme example of this was when I asked one candidate to “tell me about yourself and your organisation”. She panicked, said she couldn’t answer that, asked to stop the exercise and said, accusingly, “Why would you want to know anything about me?”

The answer was that I didn’t. A name and job title would have been fine, then move on to the company information she wanted to press.

Another time – a favourite story, this – I asked a guy the same thing during a session. “Tell me about yourself and your organisation”, I said. “Ah, I think I know what you’ve heard,” he said. “And it’s a fact that if you asked my last boss whether I resigned or whether I was pushed he’d disagree with me, but let me tell you, I resigned!”

I was no longer remotely interested in anything else he had to say. I just wanted to know more about his sacking SORRY resignation.

Sometimes the agenda is in your mind

In both of these cases the difficulty was in the mind of the person answering the question. In most of my media training sessions my first question is “Tell me about yourself and your organisation” – it’s me clearing my throat, trying to lower the temperature, just to make sure we have the basics covered. There’s nothing more to it than that.

Most journalists, in fact, will approach businesspeople with a view simply to writing the story up (or broadcasting it, webcasting or whatever they do). They aren’t looking to stitch you up, trash you or humiliate you.

One or two might, and of course a lot of the tricks they play and the strategies to deal with them are very much at the heart of my training offering. A lot of the time, though, you’re going to have straightforward questions from people who aren’t playing mind games, they’re just doing a job, the same as you.

Do you still need help with your media interaction? Want to know what to do when a journalist asks that question you were hoping they wouldn’t, or fails to ask the question that would lead in to your big sell? I can help – call me on 07973 278780 or email by clicking here and we’ll talk.

Media mistakes 8: The interview won’t be on your terms

Press interviews can go wrong for a number of reasons. One I’ve seen often is that the interviewee believes that by stating what they want to be interviewed about, they can stop the journalist asking difficult questions or straying into other areas.

I heard an interview on BBC Radio 4’s “Today” programme once in which someone had a press launch of an innovation coming up at 10.00am. Their PR had got them a slot on “Today” when they said they would be launching at 10 – the interviewer pointed out that they’d come on a radio show at 7.30, so presumably had something to say, and the interviewee declined to comment any further. The obvious question, which the interviewer was too polite to ask, was: in that case, why are you on this programme?

Another time they had an interviewee on talking about something and they slipped another question in at the end. The answer was “That’s cheeky, you’ve already asked me to come on and talk about that and I refused.”

The fact is, we don’t work for you – we might well co-operate and it can work really well, but we’re not your employee and you may not tell us what we may and may not discuss.

We’ll think it’s our interview

When I had a staff job in the 1990s I had one of the worst interview experiences ever. The idea was promising: a PR person had a client who sold into the education sector. They suggested my magazine should sit in on, and report on, a negotiation. We all thought that was a terrific idea.

The trouble started when the client’s client turned up 45 minutes late and claimed my publication had changed the time (which was entirely fictional). He then produced an old copy of the magazine, from a time before I worked on it, and said he was following up the interview that had been published in that issue.

This was of course drivel.

He then accused me of not doing my research, said I should have spoken to his PR person who would have explained this was a followup to the original piece. My guess is that this was how she’d sold the idea to him; when we put it to him that we should witness a negotiation, he said that was out of the question.

It wasn’t a great interview and I don’t think we ran anything. I suspect the main culprit was the troublemaker’s PR, mis-selling and failing to explain stuff to the stroppy individual in question and no doubt hoping he’d co-operate once he was on site. He didn’t.

His own problem was that he assumed (wrongly) that his PR person had set the meeting up, but even if she’d done so, his assumption that the journalist would be writing what he wanted us to was flawed.

Freedom of speech

The thing is, our duty as journalists is to our readers. We have obligations to our sources and subjects of course. If I write something inaccurate about you, I won’t enjoy hearing about it but I’m human and I know I can make mistakes. I will want to correct it very quickly indeed. I am also obliged to be fair. If someone is saying something about you and your company, I owe you the right of reply if I intend to report their comments.

But we have the freedom to ask and write whatever we wish beyond those parameters. Obviously you have the right to decline to answer a question, or to refuse an interview that’s unlikely to be good use of your time. Those things stem from the same freedoms that allow us to ask the questions we want in the first place. And very often it’s in our interest to ask about the things your business is promoting – when it works, it works very well.

But when you’re inviting a conversation with a journalist, remember we’re independent, we don’t work for you any more than you work for us and we’re going to ask whatever questions we think our readers would want us to address. That’s how it works and it’s unlikely to change. And that’s why it’s important to prepare for interviews and have strategies in place in case the conversation starts to move away from the areas you want to discuss.

Do you need help with press interaction? Email me by clicking here and we’ll talk.