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media training lessons for spokespeople

Lessons from the Brussels lockdown: Belgium’s foreign minister reminds us that even the most experienced spokesperson can’t always manage the news

There’s an expression used by media trainers called ‘breaking into jail’. This is when spokespeople get themselves into trouble in interviews (and get the wrong sort of headline) without the journalist having to do much to provoke it.

A recent interview with Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders reminds us that even the most experienced spokespeople can have very bad days and lose control of their story.

On 25 November, Mr Reynders (who is fluent in English) was interviewed by ABC journalist Matt Gutman about the security situation in Belgium in general, and in Brussels in particular. He had clear messages he wanted to push (the need for countries to share more intelligence, and the importance of protecting the Belgian population from harm) and he managed to link back to them several times throughout the interview.

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Unhelpful headlines from an undisciplined interview

However, in spite of this, the interview yielded the following type of headlines in international and Belgian media:

Belgium’s Foreign Minister Warns of Attack With ‘Heavy Weapons’ and ‘Suicide Bombs’ (ABC)

Didier Reynders: “We are looking for 10 heavily armed people” (RTBF)

‘Belgian foreign minister: ‘We are looking for 10 heavily armed killers’ (New Europe)

This subsequently prompted a U-turn from Mr Reynders’ cabinet (who said he was quoted out of context) and a backlash from the Belgian media who pointed out that other ministers had been far more careful about quantifying the exact nature of the threat to the Belgian public.

You can watch the entire interview here. Below are some quick PR takeaways that I picked out.

Don’t speculate


Spokespeople who speculate or entertain journalists’ speculation during interviews have only themselves to blame.  Mr Reynders qualified a lot of his comments throughout the interview. For example, he said the Belgian government was looking for a group of ‘maybe 10, maybe more’ people with ‘heavy weapons’. He then fell into the trap of speculating on what ‘heavy weapons’ might be.  For example, he agreed that they might be ‘Kalashnikovs’ and ‘maybe more’.  This was hardly precise but it allowed ABC to run with the headline they went with because he had signed off on it all.

Beware the friendly but focused journalist

Lindsay, our MD, has a saying: ‘Always a journalist, sometimes a friend’.  This was a soft interview, which was even in tone and questioning (you can tell that Mr Reynders is relaxed from his body language) but it came back to sting.   George W Bush used to say that David Frost was the toughest interviewer he had ever faced because his questions were ‘nice’ but often yielded an afterburn. I would say the same is true of Mr Gutman’s approach here.

Spokespeople need to prepare reactive lines, not just messages

Most of Mr Reynders’s problematic comments were reactive rather than planned. (He also offered the information that schools and the metro in Brussels (both of which were closed at that point) were not the real targets and that shopping centres were at biggest risk).  Spokespeople need to plan reactive lines in advance so that they don’t let information casually slip. For example, at one point in the interview Mr Reynders  confesses that the Belgian security services don’t actually know how many people they are looking for.  In turn, this begs the question what on earth he was thinking by trying to put a figure on it?  A far better line than ‘maybe 10’ would have been something along the line of ‘we are looking for a small group of people. I can’t quantify the exact numbers’ and then hold his nerve if pushed.


Beware questions that are repeated several times

Mr Guttman did not jump on the answer about the 10 terrorists straight away. He came back to it several times (three in total throughout the interview).  But throughout, he kept his tone and body language even and didn’t betray a particular preference for this angle over any other. This gave Mr Reynders the false impression that he hadn’t said anything too sensational.  However, an experienced interviewee should have realised that the journalist’s decision to return to the question multiple times during an interview was a sign that the interview was going a certain way and should have been controlled.

These are just a few PR take-ways from the Brussels lockdown. Do you have any others you’d like to share?

 

 

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The Brussels challenge: how to deliver better speeches

On Wednesday 9th September, Jean-Claude Juncker, will deliver his first State of the Union (#SOTEU) speech as President of the European Commission.

Despite being a comparatively recent addition to the EU’s political calendar (the SOTEU was introduced less than a decade ago), in its short life the speech has nonetheless managed to attract the kind of political sniping and rhetorical mockery (gentle or otherwise) that is usually reserved for much higher profile events.

To tune in to this have a look at some of the fun Jon Worth (euro blogger and creator of JunckerBullsh*tBingo) and Craig Winneker (a journalist at Politico EU) have been having ahead of the speech.

In a way, these digital digs are a back handed acknowledgment that the SOTEU has ‘arrived’ as an event.  But behind the perennial moans about mutated metaphors, stiff delivery and awful Eurish phrases lies a broader point – doing public speaking well in multi-lingual environments is fiendishly hard.

More broadly, what continues to amaze me about Brussels is that despite the amount of money sloshing around in communications and public affairs, very little gets spent on improving the actual quality of public speaking. And much of it is really quite awful.

Unfortunately, it’s also prolific – a partial inversion of Woody Allen’s 1977 Annie Hall Joke in which his comedian Alvy Singer tells the following anecdote:

‘There’s an old joke – um… two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of ’em says, “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.” The other one says, “Yeah, I know; and such small portions.”‘

Only in Brussels, the portions are big.

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Doing public speaking well in multi-lingual environments is tough

I am not going to go into detail about the reason for the bad public speaking – although it does have to do with some non-natives speaking in their second or third language and a political culture that has long divorced policy expertise and substance from performance, as well as the fact that many policy experts are not natural orators.

However, whether it’s a roundtable, keynote speech, expert panel or Parliamentary hearing, there is no excuse for boring your audience to tears and leaving them hating you and your organisation.

So, here are a few tips specifically aimed at those who have to write or deliver speeches for EU policy audiences.

The speaker must put themselves in the audience’s shoes

Remind your speaker that a speech is a piece of theatre and that their job is to keep the audience’s attention throughout. No one can or should assume that an audience will be persuaded by or remember a piece of text that has been read in a dull and passionless way. This does not mean they have to turn into Laurence Olivier but it does mean getting your speaker to acknowledge that more is expected of them than simply turning up to read a speech that could otherwise have been e-mailed. If it means getting them into the ‘zone’ 10 minutes beforehand by taking them to a quiet room and going through the opening paragraphs, then do it. It can make all the difference for concentrating the mind on the task ahead.

Play to your speaker’s strengths

Not all cultures favour boldness in public speaking. Many take a more low-key approach and if your speaker is of the humble variety then work with it. If they are uncomfortable using imagery, tricolons or other kinds of rhetorical devices, don’t fight to include them while the text is being prepared. It will look much worse if they are clearly uncomfortable during the speech and it is your job to make them feel comfortable with the material, not to turn them into something they aren’t. But jargon should be removed and I think relevant anecdotes and examples work well for all personality types and should be included, provided they are authentic.

Help them improve eye-contact

Break the speech up into chunks and consider organising it onto numbered index cards rather than pages. Ideally each card should only have one or two paragraphs on it but I appreciate this may be too radical for some. Breaking up the text not only helps the speaker to make appropriate pauses and allow the audience to digest but also encourages them to look up because they have fewer words to read on the page.

Highlight key phrases

Embolden key words that you want the audience to take away from the speech. Add the verbal connectors such as ‘for example’ or ‘however’ to introduce new ideas. You could also write (PAUSE) and (BREATHE) at the points where you want your speaker to pause for effect or to allow the audience some space before introducing new ideas.

Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse

Get your speaker to rehearse several times, ideally on camera, then play back their performance and give honest but constructive feedback (if you can’t be that person then get someone who can be honest with the speaker). If they aren’t convinced that rehearsal is essential, getting them to look at the hard evidence of the video tape can make all the difference. It will also help to weed out fast or monotonous delivery, as well as words that are hard to pronounce or get lost if the speaker has a particularly strong accent.

Less is usually more

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Mid career many of us are expected to speak in public

Not many speakers can hold an audience’s attention for as long as they think they can. Just because you know a lot about a subject does not mean that you have to say it all on every occasion. Persuade your speaker to make the point he or she wishes to make, with power and passion, and then sit down.

These are just a few tips. What others do you have?

 

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The Greek crisis in soundbites: this week’s top 5

Greece has been getting our attention at The Media Coach this week, meaning that quotes about the impasse over the debt crisis are grabbing headlines and making an impact.

As our clients know, our word for quotable language is ‘Sizzle’ which comes from the old marketing phrase ‘Sell the sizzle not the sausages’, meaning you need to put a spin on the language of your key message if you want journalists to pick it up as their quote.

In Greek I believe the word is το τσιτσίρισμα (to tsitsírisma) although please do correct me if I am wrong.

Here’s a quick analysis of some of the main quotes we liked this week (unfortunately, the Juncker cow metaphor was last week’s fodder, so it doesn’t make the final edit).  And for once, the Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis isn’t leading the charge (which just goes to show how serious the crisis must be if all the key players are out there being quotable).

1. Zoe Konstantopoulou
The Greek Speaker of the Parliament scooped headlines by describing the Greek debt as ‘illegal, illegitimate and odious’. This no-holds barred tricolon is classic Syriza – uncompromising, hyperbolic and immensely quotable (both in Greek and English).  This kind of approach served the party’s leaders well when they were building their media profile in opposition. It’s not working so well now that the reality of being in power and the compromises they need to make with the Troika (European Commission, IMF and ECB) are kicking in. Beware excessive hyperbole – once you’ve used up all your red-hot phrases you’ve got nowhere to go and can look foolish. But in the meantime, it’s catnip for journalists.

2. Christine Lagarde
On Thursday the ever cool IMF boss opined that Greece can only arrive at a deal with its creditors through a proper dialogue ‘with adults in the room’. This put down is all the more withering because the colloquial language paints word pictures of squabbling children (no question who Lagarde is wagging the finger at) and goes against our idea of  the stuffy bureaucratic language that is normally used to characterise these kinds of talks.

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IMF boss Christine Lagade said ‘adults’ were needed to resolve the Greek debt crisis.

3. Angela Merkel
You can’t really do a piece about Greece without featuring the German Chancellor Angela Merkel somewhere. Not exactly known for her pithy soundbites (even German-speaking journalists find it tough to edit her) Merkel put her head above the parapet on Wednesday with an uncharacteristically sharp comment that Greece had received ‘unprecedented help’. This is quotable, clear but still measured. It’s not the most exciting but given Merkel’s position and the context it’s still arresting.

4. The Bank of Greece
On Wednesday the Bank warned for the first time of Greece’s ‘painful’ exit from the Eurozone and (probably) the EU if the talks failed. We all get what painful means…. so nothing too remarkable here but how much more striking because the message is not expressed as a ‘sharp fiscal and monetary re-adjustment’ or something generic and dull.

5. Peter Kazimir
Slovakian Finance Minister Peter Kazimir, who can always be relied on for a frank statement, injected a bit of tongue in cheek colour to the emergency eurogroup meeting yesterday by telling reporters: “I do believe in miracles. I am Catholic so I believe in miracles’. A bit of well-judged irony can do wonders for a quote, particularly in this context which has consistently been characterised by the media as  Greek tragedy. Maybe Kazimir should have said ‘deus ex machina’ at this point…

These are just our top quotes of the week. Please do tweet me other suggestions (@mediawhizz) or favourites or comment on the blog.

Have a good weekend.

eu commissioner hearings scorecard

EU Commissioner Hearings Scorecard

In Brussels over the coming week, the new EU Commissioners (technically Commissioner-designates) are presenting themselves to the European Parliament. I’m working with other communications consultants in Belgium to ‘live blog’ the hearings and assess how each of them does.

We decided to do this project partly because the EU’s standing is at an all time low and partly because President Juncker has promised to make his Commissioners more accessible to the media and ordinary Europeans. So this is our first chance to see just how much of the common touch they really have.

Of course, we will be looking at the usual stuff as well – i.e. knowledge of the brief, EU affairs, credibility etc. But this is the Brussels Bubble’s bread and butter (try saying that after a few drinks) and we want to measure the candidates’ impact (or potential impact) outside this sphere. So we will also be ranking them for energy, enthusiasm, vision and basic likeability.

If you would like to follow the assessments click here.

stories

Telling tales: how to develop a storytelling culture at work

Barely a day goes by without some communications tsar or journalist evangelising the benefits of storytelling for business and politics. And regular readers of this blog and our clients will also know just how much emphasis we place on the value of stories for making arguments concrete and memorable for the media, politicians, voters, customers or other members of the public.

“The manager of a bottling plant in Alsace told me the other day that …” can lead to an illustration of the importance of new labour regulations, environmental controls, human rights legislation, etc, etc.

“I was travelling in Eastern Spain over the Christmas holidays and came across a …” could introduce a killer example to support an immigrant rights campaign, social welfare legislation, drought/flooding alleviation measures, language-teaching subsidies, etc, etc.

That’s fine, in principle. But how do you develop a storytelling culture in organisations or industries whose staff see this kind of approach as purely something for the communications department to focus on?

stories at work

A well crafted story makes messages memorable and sticky

Brussles doesn’t do story-telling well. Here are some tips for beleaguered communications staff to wield with recalcitrant colleagues.

1. Remember the big picture

Unless you are seriously odd, or read the rightwing British press (or both), EU regulation and legislation are not end-goals in their own right. Whether you’re talking to MEPs, journalists or members of your trade association, the particular directive your colleagues are working on is always part of a bigger story, be it about public health, the environment, or data protection. Encourage colleagues to take a step back and recognise the purpose and impact of their work outside Brussels. I accept this is tricky but it’s important.

2. Sort out the messaging

If you don’t have decent messages, work with the public affairs team and policy experts to refashion them into a proper story, which uses the legislative process to supply the detail (and not the narrative).  Less is often more. My heart sinks when I see unambitious and overcomplicated messages that are full of unsubstantiated assertions and meaningless proof points.

3. Know what isn’t a story

Resist the urge to comment on every single micro development that comes out of the Parliament, Commission and Council. There is far too much position paper and press release writing going on in Brussels as it is. I know I am not the only (ex) journalist who would be happy to never read another Brussels missive ‘welcoming’ some Commission announcement or announcing that the European Pencil Sharpener Association (also known as P.O.I.N.T.L.E.S.S.) held a conference. Don’t do it. These things are not interesting and they are not stories. Communications directors must stand their ground on this one.

4. Get your pipeline sorted

You can’t have a storytelling culture without stories and numbers (often known as proof points). If you are in a trade association or NGO coalition you may struggle to get decent material from your members.  But they are like gold dust in Brussels (because they are painful to source). Try to set up relationships with colleagues or wider association members who understand what you need and can help feed your pipeline. Tell them what you are looking for and ask them to give you examples and numbers that are memorable, show a relationship or can be put in context (i.e. which tell a story).

5. Apply this approach to everything

Whether it’s company notepads, posters, presentations, social media output or infographics, make sure all your organisation’s communications reflect its values and impact. If you are a grant-making body, this means putting an end to photos of meetings and handshakes and getting more action shots of children being taught in school, or fishermen using new nets.

Here are five ideas for how to encourage a storytelling approach in your organisation.

Let me know what’s worked for you?