Tag Archives: interviews

Is there a reason you can’t answer my interview question?

A while ago I did an interview a guy who’d sold his company. He had every reason to be very pleased with himself. Having started a small software operation he had, his PR people told me later, gone off on a world cruise, bought a yacht, you name it.

I asked, not unreasonably, whether all of the staff would be moving over to the new owner. “There may,” he answered very stiffly, “be some duplication and so not everybody will find a role. We will try to look after everybody.”

Given a company acquisition, and bearing in mind he was a business owner rather than a social enterprise, I thought that was a fair answer. So I asked: will you be staying on with the company? “There may,” he answered very stiffly, “be some duplication and so not everybody will find a role. We will try to look after everybody.”

I tried again. How many of the staff will be moving over, I asked? “There may,” he answered, as if you hadn’t already guessed, “be some duplication and so not everybody will find a role. We will try to look after everybody.”

No need to avoid an easy question

Now, in my media training sessions and indeed my online offering I offer techniques to people who need to get around a difficult or impossible question. This wasn’t one of those, though.

The techniques are relatively simple, and if you can’t answer a question then saying “I’m unable to answer that question” is, believe it or not, a perfectly good solution. It may be due to stock exchange rules, it may be because of client or staff confidentiality, there can be a number of reasons. Just tell me – you don’t work for me, I should accept it.

But don’t make it difficult for yourself. Apparently once I’d left the room this particular guy got quite a rollicking from his PR people, who felt they spent enough time protecting him from genuinely awkward questions. They didn’t have time to protect him from harmless, straightforward ones as well.

There isn’t always an agenda. The journalist isn’t out to get you and not every question is loaded with traps. If you can answer a question in an interview straightforwardly and harmlessly, just do it.

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Journalists: the non-specialists need to be informed

Journalists don’t know as much as you think. At least not every time. People assume we’re experts and that we know loads of stuff. We may have fewer resources than you imagine.

A friend of mine is a composer. He was on Facebook a while ago complaining that a noted contemporary composer had his name pronounced incorrectly on a small radio programme on the BBC. I pointed out that the announcer may have been stuck making his best guess, and my friend said “I imagine there’s a team of researchers for them to consult”.

Laugh, I nearly…

Journalists do their own research

Here’s the big secret: Google has pretty much killed any advantage journalists had in terms of research about an interview into which they’re going “cold”. You can see the effect in a few stories that came up recently in the news.

You’ll recall, perhaps dimly, that before the current news storm about the budget, it was all about Jeremy Corbyn’s tax return and whether he’d declared all of his income. He had not declared a full year as leader of the opposition.

Now, I’m also someone who submits a tax return, as a company director. So I’m well aware of the tax year running April to April and personal returns being due on 31 January, at least until the latest reforms kick in next year. People employed by other people don’t have to concern themselves as much about those deadlines.

So it was perhaps no surprise that the many staff reporters writing up the stories didn’t stop to think that if Corbyn submitted a tax return on 31 January it had to cover the year ended 6 April 2016. And since he wasn’t leader of the opposition for the full 12 months before that, it would actually be factually wrong for him to declare a full year’s income on leader’s pay.

So many of the press didn’t spot this. Likewise, they’re not all specialists in how legislation works. Today’s headlines (like the one in the Daily Mail: “Tory tax retreat after just 24 hours: Theresa May steps in to pause the £2billion Budget blow to the self-employed after a rebellion by furious Tory MPs”) refer to a climbdown by the prime minister. But is it?

The original plan was to increase taxes on the self-employed from April 2018. Instead of debating it now while everyone is furious the PM is now going to have the debate in October, which will allow plenty of time for new rules to be enacted before April, indeed there will be another budget at around the same time.

Remind me: what’s actually changed, other than the presentation?

You can make this an advantage

So, why am I telling you this? The answer, quite straightforwardly, is that you can use it. Journalists may have limited resources. They may not all be specialists in the area in which you work (some will be, never be afraid to get a PR company to find out). We need to sound authoritative when we write, and that’s where you can help.

Yes, you’ll want to push your company’s agenda. Yes, you’ll want to use an interview to publicise your business. You can also use it to brief the journalist on stuff he or she needs to know.

When I started as a tech journalist I wrote a lot about printers (livin’ the dream…). One contact was very helpful: not only did he tell me about his company’s products, he took the trouble to explain exactly how the printer worked and how the contents of the toner drum ended up looking like words and pictures on paper.

Obviously, every time I needed extra comment on the printer market I’d go straight to him. He picked up a lot of extra coverage for his business.

There may be ways you can do the same. Is there something in your announcement that may not be obvious to a non-specialist? Is the publishing professional in front of you really a specialist in your field?

If he or she isn’t, you could be in a position to pick up a hell of a lot of brownie points without even trying.

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Donald Trump can tell a story – can you?

This is not a political blog so I am not going to comment on whether or not Donald Trump winning the US election was a good idea. His ability to tell a story, however, was instrumental in the victory and speakers and media interviewees can learn a great deal from it.

On the surface he broke many rules. He insulted former presidents and even members of the same party (specifically John McCain for being captured whilst in the army). He made derogatory comments about women and where to grab them…you don’t need me to tell you this stuff. So what went right?

Hillary could never win

First let’s get the hindsight out of the way. America was hungrier for change than many people realised, So the continuity candidate, who whatever her capabilities was actually married to the last-bar-the-current Democrat president, was always going to be working at a disadvantage. Writing off her rival’s followers as a “basket of deplorables” was never going to change that.

We’ll return to that in a second. However, first it’s worth looking at how Trump, and indeed the Brexiters before him, formulated their messages.

Tell me a story

Whenever I’m media training I remind people that it’s a journalist’s job to tell stories. It’s the same for a blogger. An analyst will want raw facts and logic, but the general reader who has no vested interest will probably not read their reports, even if they’re going to be more factual and less biased than the journalistic alternatives.

This point has been missed repeatedly by politicians in recent generations. In the 1960s it was well understood by Harold Wilson, who spoke of the “white heat of technology” – dated though it seems in these ecologically sensitive times, it was a powerful image at the time and told the story of Britain at the forefront of the new revolution. Tony Blair is now far from in favour but in 1997 he appeared to be a beacon of hope, and his story of a resurgent Britain – a “cool Britannia” – resonated with the times. Across the Atlantic, five years previously, Bill Clinton had centred his first presidential campaign around the word “change”, which makes Hillary’s defeat all the more ironic.

For a while, though, moderate and left politicians used stories to make their points. They painted images and were memorable. Now fast forward to more recent times.

Consider the Scottish Independence referendum. OK, on that occasion the guys with the better stories lost and logic won the day, but my guess is that a number of people spotted the narrowness of the win. Threatening economic meltdown or ice cold facts was not as attractive to, say, the people of Glasgow as the story of how their country could be independent again.

Storytelling has a knack of winning the day at the moment.

Continental or full English Brexit

The UK has never been more divided than it is now, and a lot of that is down to the vote on Brexit. For my money, Nick Clegg nails the effect in his book, “Politics: Between The Extremes“. There’s a lot of self-justification in this and a load of political theory that demonstrates that liberal politics will be back, of which there is as yet scant evidence, but his comments on storytelling are key.

He points out that few if any people will have believed that an extra £350bn would be found for the National Health Service. They liked the story, though, because it chimed with the theme of “taking back control”. Objectors could point to the idea that there was no £350bn (even Nigel Farage was quick to backpedal on that one) or that the country passed its own laws and was therefore already in control; the appealing narrative said otherwise and although it was on a knife-edge, the appealing storytellers won. The opposition’s retorts with narrative-free rebuttals, whether you accept their premise or not, was never going to gain traction (particularly once the “project fear” narrative had been established – whatever your view on the issues, the ability to write off any stats your opponent throws at you with a single phrase was a masterstroke of communication).

Their current postscript is the story about how decisive the referendum was – they’re repeating it a lot and it’s gaining traction, when a 51.9% to 48.1% result is just about as close as it gets without being a draw.

Trump will have picked up on the effectiveness of this storytelling technique. In fact he’d been using it for some time already and the opposition was failing to respond.

Mexico, Muslims, rigged systems…

Among his earliest claims during the campaign were that he would get the Mexican government to pay to build a wall to keep their criminals in their own country. There would, he conceded, be a door.

A lot of people saw this as ludicrous at the time. Persuade a foreign power to pay for their own incarceration? Not a chance. That became the standard riposte, but Trump appeared to be gambling that his audience would respond well to the story. Whether or not there was a wall afterwards would be something to deal with, but as part of a narrative it was stronger than the logic. Crowds chanted along with it – “What are we going to build?” “A wall!” It sounds mad but as a piece of entertainment it was very much part of a storytelling strategy.

Likewise Trump’s claim that he would ban Muslims from the US. Quite how you’d know (clue: the extremists might claim to be from another faith all together, the law-abiding majority are the ones who’ll have no problem identifying themselves) or enforce the idea is almost irrelevant. The narrative, “you’re alarmed by extremists so here’s a story about what I’m going to do about it”, resonated with the people whose votes he needed.

Clinton’s response was to tell a story about a “basket of deplorables”. That might be right but it was never going to play well. Her only story said she detested a lot of her voters. Finally Trump came up with his own masterstroke: the claim that the election would be rigged. His victory suggests, as many people had said, that this was a complete fiction. Crucially, though, it chimed with the rest of his claims – and even more importantly it gave his supporters permission to vote for him rather than do something more conventional. It’s a rigged election anyway, you might as well…and they did.

What’s your narrative?

In business there are lessons to be learned from this. Some are in place already. Apple’s marketing is subtly (it used to be blatant) based on the idea that you’re a slightly better person if you use their products. It’s a story rather than an objective analysis of how, say, a phone actually works. In the late 1980s, Michael Dell launched his computers not on the back of their quality or efficiency but on the strength of how crazy people were to pay so much for big brands.

So when you’re speaking, or when you’re being interviewed, try to have some narrative in mind for your brand. First, people respond to them, and second, it offers you a consistent set of values when you’re asked an unexpected question.

Changing the values

The interesting bit, at least in Trump’s case, is coming up right now. A lot of his narrative was about a return to old fashioned conservative values and there was some concern about equal marriage legislation being repealed. Over the weekend he rowed back on this, although retained his aversion to abortion in any circumstances. The immigrants he wants to deport are illegal ones and the famous wall has been scaled down to a fence in places and famously he may be modifying rather than scrapping Obamacare. Contrary to statements during the campaign he appears to be in no rush to imprison Hillary Clinton and has been positively respectful towards his soon-to-be-predecessor Barack Obama.

The questions facing him now will be first: what can he do to make at least some of his pledges a practical reality, and second: if the new, post-campaign, slightly softer Trump is the real one (and I honestly don’t claim to know), can his change in tone carry his supporters with him?

There’s a lesson here about making your own narrative sustainable. If you and your business have strong messages, you’d better be certain you want to stick with them for longer than it takes to achieve a single objective. Otherwise, once the objective has been met, you’ll find they’re still there – and if you didn’t really agree with them they could haunt you for a while.

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.

Lessons from Europe: don’t forget emotion

I’m not going to start ranting about Europe. I’ve done enough of that on Facebook, which is a better place for personal opinions. I wonder, though, whether the debate that led up to the referendum has told us something about communications and the place of emotion in them?

As a media trainer I generally urge people to offer their point and then substantiate it with evidence. Proof points, customer testimonials, analyst reports – the sort of thing that will stack up in the business audience’s mind.

The EU debates were about more than a business audience of course. They were also filled with untruths from both sides (Leave said the UK could have £350m a week extra for the National Health Service and then recanted; George Osborne for Remain said he’d have to raid pensions and put more austerity in place if leave won, instead he’s talking about tax reductions for business). Nobody covered themselves in glory.

To understand what happened you have to look at other reasons people voted. You also have to look at the reason they continue to behave as they do.

Show some emotion

What the leave campaign did, brilliantly or despicably depending on your point of view, was to tap into people’s emotions. Boris Johnson saying “Let this be our independence day” may not have chimed with much reality, and a country that was already allowed to take a referendum on membership was logically already sovereign and in control or the EU could have stopped it.

The words and the passion resonated, however, with people’s emotional reaction to what was going on. Whatever your view, Johnson and Farage were rousing (or rabble-rousing if you prefer).

Contrast this with the colder, more logical approach of David Cameron, who often appears remote during interviews due to a serious air, and you have the recipe for electoral loss. The exaggerations and dishonesties were many on both sides, but the Brexiters succeeded in making people want their vision.

The anger that has followed has caught many people unawares. I believe it’s a mix of a lot of things; the key players’ almost indecent haste in leaving us to it (Cameron, Johnson and Farage have all resigned and it’s been only ten days) and the assumption by many that at least some of the warnings from the logic side were not scare-mongering but accurate has left a lot of people bewildered. The absence of leadership inevitably means there’s nobody to offer a coherent plan afterwards.

Emotion in your interviews

People who measure social media look at “sentiment”. In business interviews the smart money often says you should be logical and ensure your points are substantiated.

The EU campaign was not exclusively about business. It did, however, offer some evidence that to win an argument (or possibly steal a march on your competitor) you need to engage with people’s emotion as well as with their reasoning faculties.

So, this interview or presentation of yours: once more, with feeling!

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What sort of interview are you doing?

A lot of my media training is based on dummy interview sessions, and I’m often surprised that people just leap into the first exercise. They rarely ask for a scenario, for which publication I’m pretending to write, and what is the purpose of the interview.

Interviewers have to prepare for different sorts of event. If you know what they’re after you’re more likely to be able not only to help them but to use the opportunity to your advantage. I’ve also come across a handful of interviewers who don’t consider the sort of piece they’re trying to put together afterwards; these tips could help them, too.

Fact checking interview

OK, here’s a completely fictional example: I hear a rumour that Facebook is going into the pizza delivery business. I’ve been bitten too many times by writing things off according to my instinct so I pick up the phone. My questions will be primarily factual, If my Facebook contact understands this, he or she will answer appropriately. On the other hand, they might assume I’m after something else.

A variant on this is the reactive news interview, in which I’d be asking Facebook what it had to offer the pizza customer. Trust me, they’d think of something.

Interview for a feature, looking for quotes

If tI’m writing a feature on the pizza delivery industry and hear the Facebook rumour, the company might want to help by offering all sorts of quotes to pad the thing out.

This is great for me, maybe they say something like “Facebook has no immediate designs on the pizza delivery industry but we’d never say never. And we admire the people who ride those bikes and always deliver a hot product.”

It’s a deliberately extreme example but you’d be surprised how many people will try to say something vaguely relevant to help and end up with an on-the-record quote about something in which they really shouldn’t have become involved.

From the interviewer’s point of view I’ll have asked more open-ended questions to elicit comments rather than facts. I’m likely to have put in more abstract questions to get opinions rather than hard truths and falsehoods.

The grilling

Perhaps I’m convinced there’s a genuine story and that the underlying theme is that Facebook is losing money. It’s hiding this and is desperate to deny it. So I go in harder – as a quoted company, Facebook is accountable to its potential shareholders. Remember the famous Jeremy Paxman and Michael Howard interview from years ago? Howard was home secretary at the time and therefore accountable to the electorate. As a trained lawyer he was determined to stick to his script. He’s quite defensive because Paxman is being ruthless with his questioning. Paxman, meanwhile, can’t think of another question (no, seriously, he admits it here) so he more or less machine guns the thing home.

Sometimes I’ve found people take Howard’s defensive view (appropriate in this case) when there’s no need.

The profile interview

Sometimes you genuinely want just a chat with someone, some personality, a bit of background as well as the facts. In 2010 I went to Malaysia to promote my book, “This Is Social Media”, and one of the journalists asked me about my favourite gig. There was no side to this, no agenda, she just wanted something more than “an author has written a book”, which is hardly newsworthy.

I grant you, she then asked whether I’d actually seen the Beatles in the 1960s. I must have looked rough that day (I was five when they split up).

I’ve had interviewees behave as if they were expecting a grilling and acting defensively in the past when all I was asking was either fact checking or personality stuff.

A variant on this is the in-house interview, for a company magazine or website. I’ve done plenty of these on the understanding that I’m working for the interviewee’s employer, client, publisher or whatever. The questioning will be softer and I’ll often be mindful that as a corporate piece the interviewee is going to be allowed to check their quotes afterwards (and “I wish I hadn’t said that” is an acceptable response). Occasionally I still find someone takes a defensive attitude.

 

Finding out what sort of interview you’ll be involved in is not always a pushover but it can be worth asking. If you use a PR company it’s easier for them to put the question; if I ask “will you be giving me a hard time” it sounds a little needy, whereas a PR person saying “where will this be going?” sounds routine.

A good PR agency will also be able to find out about the journalist and the publication, whether they have a habit of going in with the hard questions or are more likely to stick to the easy stuff.

Do try to find out what sort of interview you’re doing. And if you’re the interviewer, consider what sort of article, podcast or video you need at the end – taking the right approach will help.

I can help with dummy interview sessions and media training, including work in a fully-equipped TV and radio studio. Drop me a note by clicking here to find out more.

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.

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Image: Flickr: Brett Jordan