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Election and other bits and bobs

It’s election time –  unexpectedly – in the UK. This gives those of us that follow public communications lots to think about and discuss. Instead of our usual article I decided to just share a few things I have been thinking about:

Just to restate a basic – this blog is apolitical. I comment on communication style, skills and lessons. Not on who people should vote for.

Watching Corbyn’s election communication style

Having become something of a lame duck leader Jeremy Corbyn gave a rather good first speech of the campaign last week. You can both watch and read it here. He has since spoken in Scotland and been interviewed on Andrew Marr and he looked relaxed and reasonably happy. Somewhat more in control than he was at the start of his leadership. He could still learn a thing or to from us about controlling interviews. 

Election and other bits and bobs

Someone pointed out to me that Corbyn is looking as if he is going to follow Trump and the Brexit referendum Leave campaign and concentrate on big picture assertions and ignore the detail: Shout loudly about ‘enemies of the people’, threaten big business, Philip Green etc. and avoid the complexities of reality. It has worked for others.

Blair steps into the fray with a confused message

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair – in my view normally a brilliant communicator– stepped into the campaign with a very confused message in an interview on BBC Radio 4. What he was probably saying was vote liberal or vote tactically but it was not clear. I know he was trying to avoid the wrong headlines but he needs to rehire Alistair Campbell.

Theresa May loses key comms personnel

And a final observation about the UK election this week: we note the departure of two key people from Theresa May’s PR team as explained here in the FT. Katie Perrior Downing Street Director of Communications resigned immediately after the election was called, while Lizzie Loudon, the Prime Ministers personal press secretary announced her resignation last Friday. This is a significant change and it will be interesting to see if May’s buttoned-up ice-maiden style changes.

French elections fascinate

We are also watching with fascination the French Presidential election. Not much to say about this today yet but more (from Laura in Brussels) in the near future. But we did notice this article in the FT which suggests politics is all about style over substance.

Election and other bits and bobs

Airline apology: how it should be done

In other news, there was this snippet you may have missed about an unfortunate incident on an American Airlines flight. Clearly, there were echoes of the United Airlines story of earlier in the month but this time the apology was swift and apparently unmuddied by ambiguity.

Lucy Kellaway shares her embarrassing public speaking experience

I am a dyed in the wool Lucy Kellaway fan, she is always an entertaining read. Assuming you have a subscription to the FT, this column from her is about how she got over confident and did a bad speech. It is worth a couple of minutes if only to remind ourselves it can happen to any of us. I did something very similar many years ago. Pride comes before a fall!

And finally…we make the news (in Estonia)

And finally, Laura Shields the Brussels Director of Media Coach International Ltd made the media herself in Estonia. The Environment minister there blogged about his training with her – including posting pictures –  and it was picked up by a prominent online news site. If you can read Estonian you will find it here. We suspect google translate doesn’t do it justice.

 

Photos used under creative commons licence, Wikimedia etc. 

 

 

 

When Offence Goes Viral: What can PR do?

Whether or if offence goes viral is one of the really unpredictable bits of PR.  We saw a couple of high profile examples of ‘offence taken’ in the last week.

Offence goes viral

When Offence Goes Viral: This Week’s Tally

The National Trust managed to ‘offend’ the nation (or some of it) by dropping the word Easter from its annual Egg Hunt. Previously called the Great Easter Egg Trail, it is  this year the Great British Egg Hunt.

The next example of offence comes from across the Atlantic, where Pepsi put out an advertisement that took images (or imagery) from a Black Lives Matter movement demonstration and used them as part of an advert suggesting that all people needed to live together in harmony, was a can of fizzy drink. They quickly apologised and withdrew the advert.

A few days earlier Ken Livingston got himself into hot water again, this time by saying that, in 1933, Hitler’s government supported Zionism. This caused him to be suspended from the party a few days later. In this case the offence was completely predictable. Livingston, who has a lifetime’s experience of the British media knew exactly what he was doing and did it anyway. 

Offence goes viral

There are a few things to say about these incidents.

Offence is not always predictable, there is an element of luck

First there is an element of luck or bad luck about something said or done in public going viral. Once it has happened, lots of people will claim it was obvious, inevitable and predictable that there would be an outcry. But in my view lots of things are said and done that should cause outcry and don’t. The pick-up is pretty random.

Sometimes ‘outrage’ is manufactured by someone with something to gain. In the case of the missing word ‘Easter’ I am suspicious. If the Archbishop of York, Dr. John Sentamu, a charismatic and much-loved Church leader, hadn’t chosen to be offended, I rather think no one else would have noticed. I have no idea whether this was cynical manufactured outrage to get publicity for the Church at an important time of the year (and remind us of the religious story behind the Easter Public Holiday) or whether the Archbishop was genuinely outraged and felt something had to be said.

[Some have been surprised the Prime Minister Theresa May was prepared to step firmly into the fray and voice her opinion as ‘a vicar’s daughter’ but I am not. This would have been judged by someone as a safe and fluffy thing to be outraged about, rather similar to John Major talking about not enough places to have a pee on the motorway. It gets good publicity with very low risk.]

Pepsi advert objections could be cynical

The Pepsi case is more likely to be cynical. If you watch the advert, which is half way down the New York Times report linked to here, you would have to be a pretty close observer to even spot the Black Lives Matter connection. However, even as a supporter of the campaign, I can observe that it was certainly worth rallying the troops against the Pepsi advert. The move generated lots of publicity for the cause and by calling for a boycott, increased the sense of community and ability to contribute to the campaign. It gave a focus for that eagerly sought after ‘call to action’.

Ken Livingston is Ken Livingston, some will say he hates being out of the limelight and, every now and then, he needs to either be outraged himself or outrage others to prove he is still alive. I am less cynical about Livingston. He believes what he believes and is fearless about saying it. He learnt a long time ago that there was little point to softening his radical views for public consumption. I suspect he is immune to others disapproval.

When Offence goes Viral: What are the Options

Let’s turn to the PR takeaways. What do you do if you, your spokesperson, or organisation causes outrage by mistake? Well in my view the options are pretty simple.

The big decision to make is do you want to fight or explain –  or do you want to take the path that gives you as little publicity as possible.

Here are my options in the first category:

  • Tough it out and explain at length until it is no longer newsworthy. The downside of this is you will generate lots of copy and search engine results in the process.
  • Apologise at length and explain on the airwaves and in the newspapers. Again the downside of this is that it generates lots of coverage that will forever link the original offence with the person or organisation. This was the Ken Livingston approach. 
  • Claim loudly and often that the offensive remark was taken out of context and it was all the media’s fault. (My least favourite option.)
  • Claim someone else is making mileage out of an incident that does not really cause anyone else offence. Again, the danger in this is that you create a ‘them and us’ version of the narrative which the media will run with. You may end up with a lot more coverage than you started with.

And if you want the minimum of publicity:

  • Tough it out and explain as little as possible – a simple statement perhaps – and hope it goes away. This seems to be the choice the National Trust took 
  • Apologise with a statement. Again hope it goes away.
  • Claim you or the spokesperson misspoke (and apologise).
  • Make amends by withdrawing the comment, the advert or making a donation to charity etc. This was the tack Pepsi plumped for. 

Of course, if your PR minders spotted a potential land mine and stopped you stepping on it in the first place, then please – give them a pay rise.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PR Basics

PR Basics: Don’t overpromise  

PR basics include a rule that you don’t promise something you may not be able to deliver. If there was one outstanding headline from last week’s UK budget it was that the Tories had broken a promise not to raise National Insurance. Chancellor, Philip Hammond announced in the budget on Wednesday measures that included a tax rise for the self-employed despite the previous manifesto promise not to do so.

PR Basics, Philip Hammond

UK Chancellor Philip Hammond is said to have broken a manifesto promise not to increase National Insurance

According to the Guardian newspaper: ‘The Conservative party’s 2015 manifesto was unequivocal, promising four times that a Tory government would not increase National Insurance. It did not mention the self-employed and offered future chancellors no wriggle room.’

PR Basics: Avoid public U-turns if possible

For us, the PR Rule broken here is don’t say something that you might later have to backtrack on.

If we want another hugely damaging example from politics we have only to remember the Liberal Democrats 2010 manifesto promise to scrap tuition fees. This was an election promise made before they found themselves in a coalition with a Tory party.  Personally, I feel that makes a material difference but the electorate is much less forgiving and the tuition fees broken promise seems to have ruined the career of Nick Clegg, one of the most able politicians of his generation. Not to mention wiping out the LibDem presence in the House of Commons. 

PR Basics

Even incorrect forecasting can be damaging. During the Brexit debate in the UK, those who argued the markets would ‘punish’ the UK if Vote Leave were to win, have since been publically lambasted because their predictions did not (fully) materialise. The public often does not make the distinction between a forecast – a best guess about the future – and a firm warning of what might happen. (My mother constantly rails against the weather forecast, which she says is ‘always wrong’. No amount of me pointing out it is a ‘forecast’ and not a promise makes any difference. These people are ‘misleading’ her.)

PR Basics: Avoid any ‘hostage to fortune’ 

Businesses too can fall foul of overpromising. Way back when, I clearly remember the, to me, avoidable pressure on the Chief Executive (later Chairman) of Rentokil who had overpromised. Sir Clive Thompson was always described as the ‘self-styled Mr. 20%’. I am not sure who used the phrase first but Sir Clive was certainly not unhappy with it. He delivered something like 20% growth in Rentokil profits every year for 13 years! But when in 1999 he moved to lower the target investors took their revenge. Even as a journalist I thought Sir Clive crazy to set this near impossible target for himself. He was ‘kicked upstairs’ to Chairman and finally ousted in 2004, apparently for ‘being too obsessed with meeting short-term targets’.  It seemed he could not detach himself from the Mr. 20% label.

It is something we come across often in training. Enthusiastic executives of course have a vision they are working toward. But while talking in broad brush strokes is fine, often it does not do to share the detail of that vision with journalists. The media just love to write that people or companies have ‘missed’ their target, done a U-turn or a flip-flop.

PR Basics

Executives are often tempted to overpromise in an interview

 PR Basics: Highfalutin promises can cause negative headlines 

Good PR people always caution against this. They know that being too clear about targets or making highfalutin promises can often cause negative headlines further down the line. Here is an incomplete list of mundane things we would advise against being too definite about.

  • There will be no further job losses. Who knows there might have to be?
  • We are expecting 20% growth in sales/profits etc. You might be confident but such a public prediction turns a 10% increase into a failure.
  • We want to be number one in the market within two years. Better to say one of the leading players in the market.
  • We expect to be profitable by Q4 2018. This is a difficult one because it is the sort of information you have to share with investors and therefore it may already be in the public domain. My advice would be not to lie if asked outright – stupid if it’s already published – but if possible not draw attention to it in media interviews, and if asked be cautious about it rather than bullish. If it is a major important element of a story that won’t help but hubris is easy to spot and may lead to mischief from the journalist. All in all, this would be more of a judgment call and our advice would depend on what else you have to say.
  • Margins are set to rise to 25%. Here again being vague is the standard. Unless they are published in your annual accounts you may be best to avoid talk of margins. Again you may have an internal forecast but is there really any benefit to being specific?

PR Basics: There are always exceptions

As with all rules, there are exceptions. I have taken part in discussions where CEO’s or other senior bods have weighed up the pros and cons of a ‘hostage to fortune’ pledge and decided to take the risk  – because the benefits outweighed the possible costs.  That is sensible and their prerogative.

Often our role is to bolster the PR advice and ensure ‘enthusiastic’ interviewees don’t make casual public promises or forecasts without understanding this basic rule of PR: avoid a hostage to fortune comment unless there is a very good reason not to.

Don’t forget, if we can help you prepare your spokespeople for a public announcement – results, product launch or a new direction – give us a call 020 7099 2212 to discuss the options.

Photo used under Creative Commons Licence

Power of the Personal: How a Great Story can shape a Political Campaign

The power of the personal story can shape a campaign and a political career. Skim any article about Martin Schulz, the Socialist challenger giving Angela Merkel a run for her money ahead of Germany’s federal elections in September, and you will almost certainly learn four things about his life before he became a politician.

Power of the personal story

  • Schulz played football so well during his childhood in West Germany that he was tipped for a professional career.
  • A knee injury put an end to these ambitions.
  • As a result he fell into depression and alcoholism.
  • He overcame both, stayed sober and worked in the same bookshop until he became an MEP in 1994.

Martin Schulz successfully uses his personal story in his political campaign

Sticky details form a political narrative

Taken in sequence these kinds of ‘sticky’ details form a political narrative that is used to imply character and grit, often in the face of adversity or under-privileged origins. Journalists frequently adopt it as a shorthand for explaining motivation but skilled campaigners are also masters of their own personal story.

As Gavin Esler notes in his book Lessons from the Top; the three universal stories that all successful leaders tell’, everyone who runs successfully for public or commercial office tells a version of a ‘Where I’m from’ story as a way of creating a quick connection and instilling trust among their target audience or voters.

This is the reason why most of us know that Angela Merkel and Theresa May are both vicars’ daughters or, that Sadiq Khan, London’s first Muslim Mayor is the son of a bus driver.  In Barack Obama’s case, we had two full autobiographies and a barnstorming speech to the 2004 Democratic Convention to ram home the point that the first term Senator from Illinois was simultaneously the embodiment of the American success story and the change the country needed.

Strong personal stories also hit audiences in the gut*, which is one of the reasons they often survive contact with facts that present the protagonist in a contradictory or unfavourable light. This partially explains why George W Bush, despite being a Yale graduate from a political dynasty, was able to use his folksy charm and cowboy hat to convince enough Americans that he was less blue-blooded and more down to earth than both Al Gore and John Kerry. 

[*If you have read Don’t be Such a Scientist you will be familiar with Randy Olson’s core theme that cerebral communication is less effective than communication that hits people in the heart or the gut. If you haven’t read this and you are in comms, please catch up.]

Outsider bonus

In the absence of an authentic personal story, a fabricated ‘outsider’ one can often do just as well. In the US and France, Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen’s supporters have been able to overlook their privileged backgrounds, often outlandish behaviour and criminal investigations (in the case of Le Pen) because they have consistently and successfully portrayed themselves as anti-establishment types willing to take on a political elite that is actively conspiring against them.

The Power of the Personal Marine_Le_Pen

Le Pen portrays herself as anti-establishment

And it’s interesting to note that Marine Le Pen’s main (for the moment), presidential competitor Emmanuel Macron, himself a former investment banker and Economy Minister, has also styled himself as an ‘outsider-change’ candidate in the mould of a young Tony Blair or Barack Obama, even though his CV would suggest he’s anything but.

Which brings us back to Schulz.  While no one doubts his authenticity or political credentials, his absence from the German political scene for the last 23 years means he is able to combine experience with a genuine outsider status into a convincing change story.

Judging from his reception at the polls, it’s working.

EU doorstep interviews: 4 expert tips

EU doorstep interviews should be seen as an opportunity not a threat. Prime Ministers and Heads of State recognise the PR value of a good EU doorstep – a mini interview or statement done on the way in or out of Summits. Small countries that hold the EU’s rotating presidency, ambassadors and other officials often miss this opportunity to raise their profile and punch above their weight with an agenda setting doorstep quote. Often all it takes is a little preparation. 

EU doorstep: recognise the PR opportunity

Even for smaller meetings where ministers or ambassadors need to broker an agreement, there will almost certainly be one or two news agencies covering it as well as the Council’s host broadcaster, which will then publish footage. So advisers and spokespeople should always prepare for Council meetings in expectation that there will be some form of press waiting for them when they arrive.

EU doorstep interviews should be viewed as an opportunity.

EU doorstep interviews should be viewed as an opportunity.

EU doorstep: prepare

The EU Presidency may hold the role of agreement broker but that does not mean spokespeople should do a read out of the shopping list of tasks and processes that need to be managed (or were managed) at the meeting they will or have hosted (see the example of the Lithuanian Ambassador to the EU below). This is tedious and journalists will struggle to find something interesting they can use. Advisers and spokespeople should focus on one main message with a clear soundbite and then prepare a couple more in case they are happy to take follow-up questions.

Angela Merkel is a good model to follow. She gets out of her car, goes straight to the German cameras, does a well prepared 40-second statement and then walks straight into the meeting. EU Commission Vice President, Frans Timmermans is also a good example of this kind of discipline. There is no reason why ambassadors and ministers shouldn’t do the same.

EU doorstep: rehearse

Usually, spokespeople do an EU Council doorstep in English and one in their mother tongue. All spokespeople should rehearse, particularly if they are not completely confident in English. One way to manage this could be for PR advisers or aides to do a quick run through of the main messages/reactives in the car on the journey to Council (or just before if the PRs aren’t going as well). Switching to English at the beginning of the journey would be even better because the ambassador or minister will be ‘warmed up’ by the time they get to Council and won’t have to consciously change languages when they get out of the car and see the waiting media.

EU doorstep: behave confidently

Confidence is key to a good doorstep. A lot of the time inexperienced spokespeople are caught off guard and look slightly surprised and suspicious when they see TV cameras and press waiting for them at the back of the Council.  This is then picked up on camera and doesn’t do anything to give the impression of authority. Advisers should give spokespeople a steer on what to expect and between them, the spokesperson and aides should decide if they plan to take follow up questions.

The spokesperson should then get out of the car (or leaving the building) in a decisive manner, stand with firm body language and focus their eye contact on one particular journalist. This will look far more authoritative than a shifting gaze. If they have planned to take a couple of follow up questions they should take them before ending the exchange gracefully but firmly and moving inside.

There is a technique to this. David Cameron was roundly mocked for stalking off the minute he had finished speaking and not even saying ‘Thank you’ or ‘That’s all for now’. He probably thought it looked powerful and decisive but most journalists and PR consultants I speak to think he came across as afraid to be challenged.

So there is a lot that spokespeople and advisers can do to deliver a good doorstep. And done well, the journalists will be grateful because they’ve got something interesting and colourful and PR advisers will be happy because their spokesperson has been quotable and in control.

Here in Brussels I train officials and politicians to handle doorsteps and other media opportunities. If you think you or your spokespeople are missing out why not get in touch and discuss how I can help.

EU Doorstep: advice from elsewhere

Politicians and officials are not alone in facing doorstep or ambush interviews. Here are some tips from elsewhere that apply more widely.

This one from a PR company  gives tops for dealing with aggressive and persistent ambush interviewers.

Here is some advice to would be journalists on how to do an ambush interview. Its included here as it is good to understand what happens in the mind of the doorstepped. In the same theme here is the BBC’s guidelines to staff on the rules of doorstepping.

Here is a very old article from PR week on the subject. I guess not much has changed except the removal from public life of Max Clifford!

Twitter and PR

Twitter and PR: Crisis, Trump and Trolls

Twitter and PR are now, in my view, inseparable. Preparing material on Crisis Comms for a major international organisation in the last week, I was struck by how my thoughts turned immediately to social media, and in particular, Twitter.

If you are in the public eye and something goes wrong, or you are criticised by a person or organisation that matters, our advice at The Media Coach is that the first thing you should do is assign someone to monitor Twitter.

Twitter and PR

In a crisis it is now essential that someone monitors Twitter

Twitter and PR: In a crisis it must be monitored

Twitter has many faults but it is searchable and it will pretty instantly give you a range of views that tell you how the public is reacting, and also how other organisations and players are reacting. This picture will start to emerge in a couple of hours or in some cases minutes. 

Equally important, it will be the first port of call for the mainstream media; journalists follow Twitter the way they used to follow the news agency wires. I haven’t done an audit but Twitter seems to be mentioned in almost every news bulletin these days. For journalists there is no need to ring someone up to get a comment on an interesting development, just look on Twitter.

Of course, if you have a good Crisis Comms strategy, you will also be using Twitter and other social media to put your point of view across. But the idea that you would not consider checking Twitter before putting out your first statement is now frankly crazy.

Twitter and PR: Donald Trump continues to astound

And while on the subject, I cannot but mention President-elect Donald Trump. He did once say he would give up his Twitter account when he moved into the White House. We shall see. But meanwhile he continues to use it to rage at, provoke, criticise and some would say bully whoever he happens to be annoyed with today.

The Tweets pouring scorn on North Korea’s nuclear ability are such a departure from all diplomatic norms that they are astonishing, but I find Trump’s Twitter criticism of the US motor industry much more fascinating.

Twitter and PR Donald Trump tweet

According to two stories in Forbes and Fortune magazines (among others), Trump’s ‘industrial policy by Tweet’ has already saved jobs in the US from going over the border to Mexico.  The idea is that ‘naming and shaming’ CEOs in 140 characters or less persuades them to reverse decisions to invest in Mexico and instead keep US jobs that would otherwise be at risk. Well maybe. I am no fan of Trump but I do find this new use of Twitter absolutely fascinating, if a little scary.

Twitter is now part of the mainstream. It is how we tell the world anything we want to get out there, and how we understand what other people are thinking about … well, anything at all. But it is not all good news. Trolling is widespread and for some, highly damaging. Worse, extreme political groups propagating hatred do effective and uncensored advertising on Twitter.

Twitter and PR: It is not all good

There have been a couple of articles in the last week or so showing former aficionados falling out of love with Twitter.

Lindy West – an American feminist writer – wrote a piece for the Guardian entitled “I’ve left Twitter. It is unusable for anyone but trolls, robots and dictators.”  And a response in Politico from former Hillary Clinton Foreign Policy wonk Emily Parker explained why she thinks Twitter cannot be fixed because it is simply reflecting human nature with all its flaws.

Meanwhile, if you are interested in Crisis Communications training or bespoke Social Media training for your organisation, please do get in touch. You can call the office on 020 7099 2212 or you can Twitter direct message me @themediacoach.

Twitter and PR

Articles about Twitter and Crisis Comms:

One from MTI Network, a specialist agency; Twitters Growing Importance in Crisis Communications.

Here is an LSE blog with some useful tips for searching twitter: Twitter and crisis communication: an overview of tools for handling social media in real time.

A short introduction, rather simplistic, from the writer of Twitter Marketing for Dummies: How to Use Twitter to Communicate in a Crisis.

A very interesting article written two years ago but still relevant. Using Twitter in Times of Crisis.

And a research student who believes Trump’s use of Twitter has changed political communication forever. Trump, Twitter and transformed political communication.

 

Trade Association Business People

Trade Associations: Breaking Bland

Trade Associations have a structural problem when it comes to PR. Getting timely agreement to say anything that is not just bland.

I once e-mailed a Brussels journalist friend to compliment his choice of quote from a trade association in an article he had written about a controversial European Commission ruling.

Trade Associations Brussels

There are hundreds of trade associations in Brussels that struggle to get their voice heard

In response he wrote:

‘Their press stuff is rubbish. I harvested it from their submission to the Commission consultation, which no one expects a journalist to read. I was just fed up by the bland stuff all these groups spoon feed us’.

Trade Associations: hampered by structural challenges

And herein lies the problem particularly here in Brussels. Hampered by structural challenges including speed and disagreement among members, most Trade Associations struggle to deliver something clear, credible and concrete in a timely fashion. However, the final diluted version is often unusable for journalists, meaning they either ignore it or, as in the case above, go digging around for something juicier elsewhere.

Trade Associations Business people

Journalists get frustrated with bland comments cobbled together by committee.

Below are some tips from my own workshops and clients on how trade associations (both at a national and EU level) can get agreement on sticky’ media messages.

Trade Associations: insider tips from Media Coach workshops

Be strategic
Sounds like a no-brainer. It’s not. If you want to make an impact with your message then the person doing communication at the trade association needs to be empowered by the Secretary General to act strategically, and not just be a service provider for colleagues who want a fact sheet printed.

Get the board involved early
Work with visionary board members to identify broad socio-economic issues that go beyond narrow sectoral interests and disagreements over positions. Invite them to take part in dedicated messaging sessions and get them to own and sell the outcome to their peers.

Think big
This may be controversial but I would try to avoid messaging positions/narrow reactions to legislative changes. It’s boring, technical and usually ends up having to be watered down to mask internal divisions.  You may be the two people Euro Widget Association but you should still try to aim big, inclusive and visionary and to link the messages to bigger issues that have a societal dimension. As Simon Sinek argues in his Golden Circles talk, the most successful communicators are those who can explain at a very fundamental level of ‘why’ they do what they do and why it matters.

Don’t confuse being interesting with being provocative.

A good message is clear, succinct and uses language, numbers and examples in interesting ways. This does not mean resorting to hyperbole. As EurActiv journalist James Crisp noted in a recent blog: if a piece of legislation is likely to be damaging, then use the word damaging. But if it’s not going to destroy the sector, then don’t say that it will. No one will believe you and you’ll look silly.

These are just some thoughts.

What’s worked for you?

great science presentations

Great science presentations: TED Talk case study

Great science presentations are something of a rarity. As an academic scientist and a media and presentation trainer I am caught between two worlds. I know science has to be credible and sourced and that detail can be necessary but I have also sat through way too many fascinating subjects made dull by a bad presentation. So here are some tips for science presentations to non-specialist audiences.

Great science presentations: a great source of best practice

To help illustrate what works, we’ve found a recent TED Talk that is based on real science but has been ‘moulded’ to fit the TED Talk formula. If you don’t know TED Talks then you are in for a treat. It is an impressive library of 13-15 minute presentations with the tag line ‘Ideas worth spreading’.  For those of us who often have to present to audiences of varying levels of scientific knowledge TED Talks provide a huge resource that illustrates best practice.

Great science presentations: case study

great science presentations

Can you really tell if children are lying?

The talk I have picked to illustrate my tips for science presentations is this one by researcher Kang Lee. It’s called ‘Can you really tell if a kid is lying?’ – which is always going to pull in a bigger audience than a title like “Novel applications of transdermal optical imaging” – which is what many academics would have been tempted to title this talk. Watch it here and then see if you agree with me about what works.

 

  • Lee starts with a personal story. Professional communicators are often reluctant to talk too much about themselves, but a short personal anecdote will engage your audience from the outset.
  • He speaks at a good pace. Many people rush their presentations. This may be to do with nerves but it may also be a fear of being boring. Lee has a strong accent which can be an obstacle to comprehension, but his careful pacing ensures the audience has time to process what he is saying.
  • The slides are very simple – little data and picture led. This is not always possible in scientific talks and you will likely need to share some detailed data but if you mix this with some pictures and anecdotes it makes your talk more engaging. When Lee does use data it is very simply presented with minimum information on the slide. Again most scientific presentations need more, and in particular need ‘sourcing’ but it is good to keep it as simple as possible.
  • Lee has kept his own appearance simple so there is nothing to distract from his presentation.
  • Another professional presenters’ trick is to ensure the data is revealed to follow the narrative, rather than all arriving at once and then being dissected by the speaker.
  • Lee asks his audience questions but not ones that expose or challenge. Asking a question that you know the answer to and the audience has little chance of getting correct is not a good way to build empathy. But asking for a ‘show of hands’ to gauge life experience is a good way to keep the audience interested.
  • A bit of humour helps keep people engaged. Humour is difficult especially when addressing multicultural audiences. Lee uses the well known fairy tale (or Disney Film) Pinocchio and his humour is gentle and unchallenging.

Great science presentations: make it relevant

  • Lee also works hard to make ‘transdermal optical imaging’ relevant to the audience. He says, for example, they might in the future use it when they Skype their parents to check if they are being truthful about their health, or when they want to reveal that a politician is lying. Making science relevant is good but I personally found some of Lee’s examples a bit ‘Big Brother’ and unsettling and would have chosen different ones myself.
  • A trick he didn’t use but could have done, was to tap into a more sci-fi reference. Transdermal optical imaging is very much like the Voight-Kampff Test used in the movie “Bladerunner”. This would have been another way to make the subject accessible to a general audience.

  • Lee in several places makes use of the ‘power of three’. This is a technique whose effectiveness was noted by Aristotle in his work Rhetoric written in the fourth century BC. More on this technique here. 

Great science presentations: keep it short

  • Finally, Lee doesn’t go on too long. At 13 minutes 30 seconds, his presentation is actually considerably shorter than allowed by the TED talk format, which demands that presentations be no longer than 18 minutes – “long enough to be serious and short enough to hold people’s attention”.  While you may well be allotted a longer time-slot, remember that people rarely complain that a presentation was too short – especially if previous speakers have over-run.

At the Media Coach we help people make their presentations and interviews more entertaining and interesting by using these ‘tips’ and many others. But the key take-away is:  just because a subject is technical doesn’t mean it has to be dull.

humour in pr quidditch goal posts

Humour in PR: hats off to hospital PR team

Humour in PR is rare and for good reason. It is difficult to get right. But this week, amidst all the EU In or Out campaign headlines in the UK, was a story that brought a smile to all Harry Potter fans. And a very well-judged response from the Bristol Royal Hospital for Children’s PR team.

Pictures of giant hoops, reminiscent of Quidditch goal posts, were all over the news because it came to light that an official-looking plaque set up alongside the art installation was anything but official.

humour in pr quidditch goal posts

The art installation outside Bristol Royal Hospital for Children

Humour in PR: the Quidditch goal posts

Two years ago the plaque was conceived, funded and installed by a former Bristol University student Cormac Seachoy. He found the art installation outside the hospital constantly reminded him of the goal posts in a fictional sport that forms a central theme in the Harry Potter books. He raised the money from crowd funding and with a mate, stuck the plaque up in the middle of the night in November 2014, then posted it on Facebook and tweeted it.

It reads: Dedicated to the children of Bristol, the 1998 Quidditch world cup posts enchanted by Adou Sosseh. Have a magical day.

humour in pr quidditch goal posts

The plaque looks official but was added without any authority or approval

If you are not a Harry Potter fan you might not know that Quidditch is played by wizards and witches on broom sticks. You would have to be a real Potter aficionado to know that Malawi won this fictional sport’s world cup in 1998 beating Senegal. Or that Adou Sosseh was the captain of the losing team.

humour in pr quidditch goal posts

Cormac Seachoy wanted children to believe a wizard had magically installed the ‘goal posts’

The prankster, Cormac Seachoy, was subsequently diagnosed with terminal cancer and died almost exactly a year later. The story of the plaque was out there on twitter and Facebook but went largely unreported. The hospital administration had either not noticed the plaque or assumed it was part of the art. They only realised the whole story when asked about it by the Bristol Post last week.

Humour in PR: Bristol Children’s Hospital response

This is their response: “The appearance of this plaque was a magical and mysterious event that we did not know anything about – but we are sure that our patients and their families will appreciate it. We do plan to keep this but ask that any other magical beings that wish to erect plaques on our site do speak to us first so that the muggles amongst us can say thank you and look after and maintain these gifts”.

(Muggles are non-magical beings in the Harry Potter books).

Of course, had the hospital administration said or done anything else they could have landed themselves in very hot water. Taking the plaque down could have made them very unpopular. Being anything other than appreciative of the prank would have seen them branded spoilsports, dishonouring a good man who died too young. But whoever came up with this response got it just right.

Humour in PR: some pointers

If you are inspired to use humour in your own PR here are some pointers:

  • Be careful, something that is funny to one person can easily offend another.
  • Self-deprecating humour is probably safest.
  • Paying homage to someone or something else often works well. In our example, the use of ‘magical’ and ‘muggles’ in the response does, in its way, pay homage to JK Rowling the author of the Harry Potter books.
  • Referencing something that is well known and understood by your target audience helps to create the idea that you and your business are all part of the same community.
  • Almost too obvious to state, but use colloquial not formal language.

Humour in PR: other examples

Picture credits: Art installation, Bristol Hospital Education services. The Plaque, Cormac Seachoy Facebook page. Cormac Seachoy Facebook.

 

How to survive a TV debate 1: Cameron the smooth

Those wanting to study how to survive a TV debate could do a lot worse than dissect the performance of UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, in a high-profile, live-grilling on Sky News. However, the headlines Cameron got after his one hour marathon by both a political correspondent out to make his name and a live audience, were universally negative. The Week ran ‘Cameron mauled by TV audience’ and most of the coverage focused on a rather rude student who accused the PM of ‘waffling’.

You can watch the whole one hour here.

How to survive a TV debate: Cameron did an excellent job

All of which seems unjust if not plain misleading. Not normally a fan of Cameron I have to say I think he did an excellent job. He was superbly well briefed, he did not get caught out by any question, from either the correspondent Faisal Islam or the audience. I am pleased to see that I am not completely alone in my assessment. Rather begrudgingly, the Chief Political Commentator for the Independent newspaper at least, agreed with me as you can read here.

How to survive a TV debate: anticipate the tough questions

For students of the PR lesson, it is important to understand that one of the tricks of the journalist is to find a damning nugget of information and then go on and on about it. If the question hasn’t been anticipated the interviewee is left struggling to confidently and credibly answer. The problem is, of course, that there are a huge number of possible ‘damning nuggets’. Faisal Islam started with the manifesto promise from 6 years ago that net migration would be reduced to tens rather than hundreds of thousands, something that the government has failed to deliver on. He moved on to the recent promise that VAT would not rise and noted that the European Court of Justice had overruled a UK law that made solar panels VAT free, suggesting that UK government did not have sovereign control over its VAT rules. He also tried to challenge the Prime Minister with the number of times that the EU Council of Ministers had over-ruled the British government. None of these were questions the Prime Minister looked surprised by or did not have a clear response to. He dismissed the last as a ‘totally spurious figure’ before Islam could actually say it.

Once the set piece political interview was over the PM faced a studio audience. The problem with responding to a public audience is they are, by definition, very diverse and you have even less idea what is coming up. Cameron faced questions about issues as unrelated to the debate as the funding of mental health and his previous pronouncements on the new Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. Again he had clear credible arguments to all of these questions.

How to survive a TV debate: use examples

The Prime Minister not only answered questions credibly but repeatedly landed his main message, that leaving the EU would be ‘an act of economic self harm’; he used lots of examples to back up his points. He talked about why Britain sells no beef or lamb to the US (no trade deal), how the UK’s car industry currently sells all over Europe but outside the EU it would be likely to face a 10% tariff. He also explained that it is easy now for someone from Bolton making fan belts to sell them to all 28 countries, rather than outside the EU trying to meet 27 different sets of rules.

How to survive a TV debate: stay polite

When dealing with the audience he was endlessly polite. The question from the student who accused him of waffling was incoherent and much more waffly than the answer. And despite her rudeness the Prime Minister did his best to answer her.

I saw no evidence of mauling.

I do happen to agree that the missing bit from the whole Remain campaign has been an articulation of the positive vision for a better functioning EU. But this cannot be a mistake. The campaign must be polling, researching which arguments play well, and must be concluding that the positive vision piece just doesn’t work. Perhaps the EU fails in so many ways it is better to not draw attention to what it could do and could achieve.

The question remains, if the Prime Minister did such a good job why did he get negative coverage for the debate and why did it not get ‘cut through’.

The answer, I suggest, is that no one believes anything he says. This is not just Cameron’s problem. It is a problem throughout the world. Since the financial crisis of 2008 cynicism about politicians in power and anything that can be called the establishment has never been higher, at least in the countries commonly called ‘the west’. In the wider Brexit debate there is an endless call for real facts and yet every attempt to deliver serious analysis, projected numbers or explanations are dismissed as unreliable or untrue. It is difficult to see how democracy is going to adapt to this new reality.