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Key Messages are magic

Key Messages are magic: you almost certainly need some

Key messages are something that when I was a journalist I would have scoffed at. I remember the BBC Radio 4 presenter John Humphrys saying that anyone who says you need three key messages to do a radio interview is talking rubbish. Now with more than 10 years media and presentation training experience, I am confident in saying he is utterly and completely wrong.

Key Messages are magic

A few hours with a trained journalist could save you days of frustrating email negotiation

Key Messages helped George

To illustrate let me introduce someone we will call George. George is an old friend of my family. I have known him since he was 12 and he is now in his late 20s. He is ferociously bright with a brain that is capable of holding huge amounts of detailed and diverse information. He has encyclopedic knowledge of geography, global politics and the railways of Europe (!). But when he went for his dream-job interview, he lost out. They gave him very specific feedback; he had bombarded them with too much information and too much detail and they had not fully followed his arguments. (My interpretation is they were not sure if they were dealing with a genius or a nutcase.)  So he came to spend an afternoon with me and we sorted out his messages: how he would describe his professional skills and how projects he had completed in other jobs were evidence of his knowledge and ability.

I see myself as a …

What I feel I would bring to this organisation is…

Etc…

We also worked out what he was going to say, if asked, about a ‘hole’ in his CV. There is a perfectly reasonable explanation but it was complicated.

And then we rehearsed.  Which is exactly what we do in Media Training.

Key Messages organise thoughts

It is understandable that John Humphrys would not see the necessity for this sort of preparation for either a job or a media interview.  After a lifetime as a journalist and broadcaster, Humphrys and his ilk need only to think about something to be able to articulate it as a simple argument. It is their professional skill. (Interestingly, journalists rarely recognise this as a skill. They assume everyone can do it despite daily evidence to the contrary.)

Let’s take another example. Imagine someone has spent the last five years managing clients and designing an ‘end to end process solution’ for automating the work of people who pick the items for your on-line order in a vast warehouse. What are the chances of that person being able to articulate the advantages of 3D barcodes or warehouse management software in simple language?

Absolutely zero.

This does not mean that particular professional is inadequate.  It just reminds us that experts often find it hard to articulate a helicopter view. Under questioning they often get lost in the detail and led down blind and unhelpful intellectual by-ways.

Key Messages are useful everywhere

I recently facilitated a meeting helping draw up the talking points for a new international strategy for tackling a specific set of problems in emerging economies. It sounds a long way from media and presentation training but actually is remarkably closely related.

This gutting of a detailed strategy document to identify a few easy-to-grasp core ideas is a task regularly faced in many different forms by all sorts of teams in business. But it can take weeks. Putting all stakeholders together with a former journalist will save hours if not days of frustrating email negotiation.

Back to George. I am delighted to report that George got the next job he applied for and is now being offered a promotion and a new role in another European country. Well done George. And another triumph for the magic of messaging.

If you know people who need help sorting out their messages give us a call.

 

Key Messages: online articles

There are plenty of online articles explaining the basics of key messaging. Here are a few:

Zaha-Hadid1

The P Word

Dame Zaha Hadid is a giant in the world of architecture; the most famous woman in a male-dominated profession, she is one of its three-four best-known names.  Her ambitious, tradition-shattering designs are famous – or infamous, depending on taste – around the world.  She has won every top accolade in the profession, capped now with the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Gold Medal.

Zaha Hadid

As a result, last week, she was invited onto BBC’s “Today” ( to listen click to 2hrs 35 minutes into the show, but it’s only available until 23rd October). The programme is a major agenda-setter for news junkies, and the interview was in honour of her Gold Medal. For someone so feted, and experienced, you would think she would be prepared for the occasion. Apparently not.

The interview was something of a car crash, ending with the celebrated architect declaring “Let’s stop this conversation right now, I don’t want to carry on” and terminating the conversation.

Dame Zaha had failed to prepare. Here are some of the preparations she failed to make.

Key Message

This interview is a stunning opportunity to address a highly influential audience. Dame Zaha is a fascinating person and may have had a really interesting idea or campaign to share. We will never know because she was entirely reactive. The first question, on discrimination against women in architecture, should have been easy to exploit. But she had no strong message, wavering between saying that things had got much better and that prejudice was still a problem. On this latter angle, she declared: “I don’t have any examples”, squashing the subject flat on the spot.

Hard Questions

British journalists are renowned for giving tough interviews – it’s part of the “macho” culture of the media here. Dame Zaha has had plenty of brushes with controversy in her distinguished career so even here, on an occasion for celebration and congratulation, she might have expected a hostile question or two.  When it duly came – deaths of workers in Qatar – she was clearly unprepared.

Dealing with Death

Dame Zaha has a strong argument – the deaths occurred before the start of construction of the stadium designed by her practice. But instead of stating this clearly and calmly, she angrily denied any connection between her project and the deaths, pointing out that allegations on these lines had been withdrawn after she threatened to sue.  While expressions of sympathy would have been ideal the lawyers are always advising against such things, but Dame Zaha could at least have prepared some phrases about how seriously her company took the welfare of workers in Qatar.

Twitter reaction to the interview was mixed

Media-friendly Style

“Today” has a relatively leisurely pace by the standards of current affairs programmes, but it still operates at a level of intensity far above normal conversation. Interviewees have to say what they want to say in two-three sentences, even when the matter is complex. Dame Zaha was asked about the failure of her bid for an Olympic stadium in Tokyo and was still listing the members of the jury after 30 seconds. Inevitably she was cut off.  She had not prepared a short and media-friendly version of events.

Keeping Cool

Finally she lost her temper. She argued with the interviewer, complained about being cut short, and in the end declared the interview over. To do Dame Zaha justice, the interviewer did not seem in total command of the facts and the emphasis on controversies of the past may have seemed to some excessive. In fact the BBC has since apologised for factual errors in their questions.

The resulting headlines were all about Dame Zaha Hadid “storming out” of a BBC interview and not about celebrating one of the great creative figures of our time, or about any other theme – discrimination in architecture, planning restrictions, the direction of modern architecture, etc ­ – she could have chosen to highlight.

This commentary is not to criticise Dame Zaha Hadid, the architect. She is a genuine star and behaved in a natural way that everyone can sympathise with.

But her failure to prepare properly for this interview turned it into a disaster.  Any competent media trainer would have had her delivering strong Key Messages in a concise and media-friendly format, calm and measured responses to hostile questions, and the patience to deal with badly-briefed interviewers.

Leading figures in public life, not just business and politics, need to take note.

Paxman

Top Tips for Surviving Aggressive Interviews

The tricks journalists use in an aggressive interview are small in number and well known; and in reality, really aggressive interviews are rare. But if you think your spokesperson or you could be facing aggression here is a checklist of things to do or think about.

1. Rehearse your messages 
As with all interviews there is a need for rehearsed, thought through messages. Always ensure there is something credible to say.

2. Tough questions 
Once you have your messages, work out what the tough questions are likely to be. Politicians and even senior bosses are in a much more difficult position than most because they can often be legitimately asked about a very wide range of subjects. For most others the scope is more limited and anything outside the scope can be ‘closed down’ by simply explaining you are not the right person to answer the question.Top tips for aggressive interviews

3. Work out the answers!
Now you have worked out the tough questions, work out the answers but keep them as short as possible. These are called ‘reactive lines’ and are different to your messages. You don’t offer a reactive line unless asked the question.

4. Don’t lie
The hardest ‘reactive lines’ are the ones where you can’t tell the truth and you can’t lie. In my experience there is always a way but it can take a few minutes to work it out. However tempting it is, never ever lie.

5. Beware the rabbit-punch
Beware the ‘rabbit punch’ question: a tough destabilising first question, often unexpectedly personal. It’s a technique that was often used by the now retired UK journalist, Jeremy Paxman. A couple of his classics: to politician and former cabinet minister Ann Widdecombe ‘Were you a little in love with Michael Howard?’ To the Iranian ambassador ‘Sir, your country is lying to us isn’t it’. To deal with this you need to respond briefly and if appropriate with wit and then move on to saying something credible and relevant.

Newsnights Jeremy Paxman perfected the 'rabbit-punch' question

Now retired, Jeremy Paxman perfected the ‘rabbit-punch’ question

6. Slow down
If the questions get tough, slow down your answers, it will give you more thinking time.

7. Avoid jargon 
Do not start using jargon and technical language; you will immediately loose the sympathy of the audience.

8. Be reasonable
Stay reasonable, even if the journalist isn’t, and be humble.

9. Say sorry 
If you have made a mistake admit it and say sorry.

10. Don’t say ”you’re wrong”
Don’t fight with the journalist. It’s better not to say ‘you’ at all i.e. don’t say, ‘you are wrong’, ‘I don’t know where you got that number from’, ‘you guys are all the same’, etc. If you make it personal the journalist is likely to increase their aggression. Your job is to stay reasonable and professional. In this recent Sky News interview Kay Burley uses that classic question, ‘if nothing was wrong before, why are you fixing it’. Note that Nick Varney, the CEO of Merlin Entertainment, the owners of Alton Towers, never loses his cool.

alistairphillipsdavies

The moral is: Be Prepared

Pity Alistair Phillips-Davies. He was clearly never a boy scout. His PR team won him a coveted spot on the Today programme on Radio 4 this morning. What is more he was to talk about a survey that throws a positive light on his company. But the outcome was a three-minute car crash which left  Phillips-Davies, CEO of energy firm SSE looking as if he a) was complicit in some meaningless PR stunt and b) didn’t know what was going on in his own company. The reason it was a car crash was the CEO was not prepared.

Alistair Phillips-Davies

He was there because SSE has paid for some research to show why the new Fair Tax Mark, a government-backed endorsement of a company’s tax policies from an influential NGO, is needed to counter public cynicism about big business. SSE was the first FTSE100 company to get this kitemark, surely a great PR opportunity.

But it all went painfully wrong.

Phillips-Davies was first led into accepting that the public promise to pay tax meant his company was morally superior, really setting himself up for the next two questions. He then got hit with evidence of previous company wrongdoing.

SSE was first FTSE100 company to win the Fair Tax mark

 

Interviewer James Naughtie mentioned two incidents both outlined in a Guardian piece in March this year: A £100,00 fine for overcharging the National Grid for wholesale power and an earlier fine by Ofgem for failing to meet obligations to provide free insulation to low-income households. I mention the Guardian piece because that is likely to be where Naughtie’s information came from. When researching questions for an interview, the journalists will do a Google search on the company and see what has been written previously. It is not rocket science.

 

It wasn’t a particularly aggressive interview, in fact Naughtie seemed to pull his punches. It would have been a lot more embarrassing for SSE had it been John Humphrys asking the questions.

James Naughtie BBC Radio 4 presenter asked the questions

From where we as media trainers sit, the negative questions were so obvious: cynical journalists will always throw the odd curve ball if someone is suggesting they are better than the rest.

Also as a ‘professional listener’ it was clear that Phillips-Davies only had one message, and he was rather hesitant on the delivery of this. It certainly did not have enough substance to sustain the interview. He never seemed to talk about the actual survey, or indeed the ‘big picture’ mission to rebuild trust in big business.

So just to be clear – if you are going to get any but the simplest argument across in three minutes, under potentially hostile questioning, you need to have rehearsed it a few times. You also need to anticipate the tough questions and work out what you are going to say.

By the way, our rates are very reasonable.

Today Programme 54:06

 

 

 

syria-children-730_2f65a1d2eb0e2049466364f6676f9345.nbcnews-ux-680-440

How to bring numbers to life

I am posting here a link to a brilliant bit of radio that brings to life the impact of the Syrian civil war by relating it to the UK.

The opening sentence gives you a chilling flavour of what is to come.

“Say you are one of the two and a half million people who live in the huge conurbation of Greater Manchester, and then you leave; all of you.”

The Syrian cause is close to our hearts here at The Media Coach. We have more than one client working in this now dangerous and desperate country. People we have trained in the last year, daily put their own lives at risks to provide a desperately needed lifeline to others.

Have of all Syrian children are no longer in school

But this is a blog about bringing numbers to life. Particularly large numbers. Getting an audience to really understand huge numbers of people can be done visually – by an arial shot of a vast refugee camp, for example, or most memorably in the past few weeks by the sea of ceramic red poppies around the Tower of London to represent the dead solders from the First World War. But to do it on radio, giving your audience something they can relate to is a surefire method and this is great example. Much later in this two and a half minute clip Michael Blastland of BBC Radio 4s More or Less programme, turns his attention to the millions of children in Syria who are no longer getting an education. He asks us to imagine this happening in the UK.

Michael Blastland, author and BBC Radio Presenter

“Go to every school in the land and throw out every other pupil, send them home, wherever home may be. About five million of them, to correspond with the fifty percent of children in Syria who have been forced out of formal education.”

The ability to make numbers mean something is a real skill and one that is often overlooked.

Thanks to Michael Blastland for bringing these particular numbers to life.