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The Art of the Quote: Sizzle with Care

The art of the quote and the power of a good one is something we at the Media Coach think about every day. But last week in Europe we had another example of someone being a bit more quotable than perhaps the man himself had predicted. Many people outside Brussels or Holland haven’t heard of Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Dutch Finance Minister who is currently President of the Eurogroup of Eurozone countries. But he got himself into hot water this week after comments he made in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper offended politicians from Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece.

The Art of the Quote: Dutch Finance Minister in hot water 

The Art of the Quote

Dutch Finance Minister, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, was perhaps a bit more quotable than he had realised.

The offending quotes relate to this particular passage of the interview:

In an attempt to emphasise that being in a currency union carries responsibilities, Mr Dijsselbloem said that northern Europe had shown “solidarity” with the south during the crisis, but that solidarity comes with “duties”. “I cannot spend all my money on liqueur and women and beg for help afterwards.”

He then qualified his remarks by adding that this applies equally at a personal, national and European level.

Despite this, the response from politicians from southern European countries was swift and predictable with accusations of stereotyping, calls for Dijsselbloem’s resignation as head of the Eurogroup and the Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa going so far as to call the remarks ‘racist, xenophobic and sexist’.

The Art of the Quote: Best to avoid cultural stereotypes

If we’re dealing in cultural stereotypes then Dijsselbloem’s quote is an absolute belter, folding characteristic Dutch bluntness into a purse-lipped, highly quotable metaphor loaded with puritanical disapproval of feckless behaviour.

But it was actually out of character.  Mr Dijsselbloem has built a reputation as a calm and authoritative euro-dealmaker, who has been instrumental in the Greek debt talks and is seen as a reassuring media spokesperson who doesn’t resort to flashy imagery.  He’s due to lose his position as Dutch Finance Minister anyway (his Socialist Party recently got thumped into fifth place in the Dutch elections) but, it would be a shame to see his term as Eurogroup President (which is due to end in 2018) prematurely cut short because of one misguided quote. 

The Art of the Quote: qualifying your words after the event rarely helps

If there are any media training lessons to be drawn from this it’s that spokespeople not only need to plan and test their sizzle (deliberate quotes) in advance but also be judicious in their choice of words. Qualifying provocative comments afterwards won’t help either. It doesn’t matter that Mr Dijsselbloem’s defence was that his remarks were equally directed at himself, the point still stands that sensitive people will always react badly to comments that they perceive as primarily directed at them and this will be more likely to happen if the words play to cultural stereotypes. 

Of course we would also say that being dull and overly cautious also has its drawbacks. Namely, nobody notices what you are saying. So sizzle but sizzle with care, forethought and judgement. If you or your organisation need help crafting quotes as part of prepared messages, we at the Media Coach would be delighted to help. 

 

Photograph of Jeroen Dijsselbloem used under Creative Comms licence. 

How to avoid unplanned headlines

How to avoid unplanned headlines

How to avoid unplanned headlines: do not criticise using a metaphor, interesting or flowery language. [If you are a student of The Media Coach we would say don’t ‘sizzle’ on the negative.]

The firestorm that surrounded the comments from Ofsted chairman David Hoare, about the Isle of Wight ‘ghetto’ with ‘inbreeding’ caused a deep sigh from me. When will they learn!

How to avoid unplanned headlines

How to avoid unplanned headlines: be cautious in your language

Here is a man who is in public life, and has been chairman of Ofsted, the school’s regulator, for two years. Before that, he had 30 years in business and was a trustee of the Academies Enterprise Trust which runs 60 schools. Why does he not know that, unless you want headlines, you should be very cautious in your language when you are being negative.

How to avoid unplanned headlines: journalists love criticism

Journalists love criticism. They live in a world of black and white, heroes and villains, goodies and baddies. They love to report conflict. They love it so much that they often manufacture it. If they don’t actually make it up, they will certainly fan the flames of even a tiny spark in the hope that it will become a two-week long conflagration.

When I was a local radio reporter at the beginning of my journalistic career I worked out quickly the way to deal with a boring interviewee; persuade them to criticise someone or somebody. I had a list: the council, the public, the government or the landlord. Any one of these would give me a headline. Teacher slams councillor, Norfolk councillor blames the government, Norfolk landlord criticised, etc. Usually it didn’t work, interviewees saw the danger and declined to be led into controversy. I can’t remember but perhaps occasionally it did because I went on trying.

How to avoid unplanned headlines: don’t play with fire

And that is my point. How can these senior people not see that they are playing with fire.

Last week I blogged about how Kevin Roberts of Saatchi and Saatchi aggravated his first crime (suggesting women in advertising lacked ambition) by criticising a well-known campaigner Cindy Gallop.

Here are a bunch of other people who have criticised without thought and had to apologise:

Boris Johnson accused Liverpool of wallowing in disproportionate grief for Ken Bigley who was killed in Iraq.

Ken Livingstone had to apologise after suggesting North Durham MP Kevan Jones, needed psychiatric help and was “obviously depressed and disturbed”.

Michael Gove was forced to apologise for comparing pro-EU experts to Nazi propagandists.

Labour MP Pat Glass had to apologise after calling voter a “horrible racist”.

How to avoid unplanned headlines: check the mic is off

There is a whole other category of gaffes made when the perpetrator thought they were in private but their comments were caught on microphone.

There was the one that contributed to former Prime Minister Gordon Brown losing an election, when he called a Rochdale pensioner ‘that bigoted woman’.

A famous one from long ago, well 1993, was ‘those bastards in the cabinet’, an unguarded remark from the then Prime Minister John Majorabout three of his colleagues.

Another Prime Minister, David Cameron, was caught on mic telling the Queen that Afghanistan and Nigeria were two of the most corrupt countries in the world. 

This was shortly followed by the Queen being caught on camera saying the Chinese officials had been very rude’ to the British Ambassador during an earlier state visit. 

I cannot really write about gaffes without mentioning Prince Philip, who has a whole file for which he has never apologised. But then he is married to the Queen.

 

trump Mike Licht CC by 2.0

Shock horror: simple language reaches people

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Academic research shows Donald Trump uses grammar of 11 year olds

The news that a bunch of academics, have shown that Donald Trump, Republican front runner for the nomination as US President, uses the simplest language of all the presidential hopefuls is a gift for mocking headline writers. But it is no surprise to me.

I love the company of intelligent people. I enjoy interesting and diverse conversation. But honestly; do I like it if I feel people are using long words or long sentences that I’m not sure I understand? [My son is very good at this!] I am sure a psychologist would have a fancy term for it, but it makes me feel small. It also makes me feel that the clever person is ‘not one of us’.  In fact, it is clear that sometimes the clever person is deliberately using language to make the point that he or she is not one of us but in fact much cleverer!

Why do I draw attention to this? Because the 101 of media and presentation training is to speak in layman’s language as much as possible (I often say colloquial language but don’t want to fall foul of my own rules).

[In crisis media communications, we teach that being colloquial, not sounding like you have just swallowed some procedural handbook, is pretty essential to winning the sympathy of your audience.]

Usually, when we point out that jargon, acronyms and conceptual language (think access, product, solution) should be replaced by more down-to-earth phrases, people get the point quite quickly. But one in ten, on my reckoning, will push back with one of three resistance lines:  perhaps ‘ I want to speak to the FT not the Sun’, or ‘What will my colleagues think’ or ‘Isn’t this just dumbing down?’

The reality is that if you want to speak to a non-specialist audience, and I would include here most external stakeholders, they will hear you, understand you, and feel more sympathetic towards your argument, if you make the message simple. It needs to be instantly understandable. You do not need to add arrogance, aggression or rudeness (à la Trump).  You just need to talk the way you would talk to your Mum or an intelligent 14-year-old. It is fine to introduce some technical terms in, say, a business presentation or interview, but just make sure you explain them.

Being able to tell a story simply is an amazing gift. The world would be a better place if more people could do it.

Simple language is far from the whole story. Donald Trump is not a good guy, or fit for President, because he uses simple language. But those of us scratching our heads and asking why he is still in the race, should try and learn what we can from his extraordinary and rather frightening success.

Photo credit: Mike Licht CC by 2.0

getting media interview basics right

Remember to get the basics right

You’d think that being the chairman of a high-profile group campaigning for Britain to stay in Europe would at least require you to remember the name of the organisation concerned.

You’d think.

But as Lord Rose, chairman of the ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’ group discovered in an interview with Sky News, even such obvious details can slip from the mind in the heat of the moment.

“I’m Stuart Rose and I’m the chairman of Ocado,” he started telling political editor Faisal Islam before realising that whilst true, that role was not relevant to the interview that was about to follow.

“Sorry – chairman Stay in Britain… Better in Britain campaign,” he stuttered, before trying to clear the decks with “Right, start again!”

Sadly, the next two versions were no better.

“I’m Stuart Rose and I’m the chairman of the Better in Britain campaign…er… Better Stay in Britain campaign.”

Four attempts, none of them correct. Not only embarrassing, but also a mistake which went onto overshadow his key message – the claim that the EU brings in an additional £670,000 a year for the average British business importing or exporting goods within the union. Very few of the media reports which followed that interview made mention of his key statistic, and chose to highlight his opening errors instead.

A mistake like that matters. If the chairman of an organisation can’t remember what it’s called, why should anybody else? And with a plethora of different pressure groups campaigning variously to stay in or leave the European Union, yours needs to stand out.

So how can you make sure you don’t forget something so fundamental?

The key is good old-fashioned practice. As well as going through possible interview scenarios in advance, something called ‘tongue-memory’ comes into play, making it easier to remember those words and phrases which have actually been uttered out loud beforehand.

You should also seize any useful mnemonics available out there. The more unusual, the better – and as far as Lord Rose was concerned, he had already been offered a helping hand by his rivals.

Eurosceptic campaigners positively enjoy referring to the ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’ group as ‘BSE’ for short – the unfortunate acronym also standing for Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, which led to the EU banning British beef in the 1990s.

All he had to do was take their acronym on board, and use it to spell out the correct order of the letters beginning the words in his group’s name.

Simple, dramatic and effective – and even more powerful because it uses an intended insult from the very people opposing you, to help you on your way.

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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.

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The dangers of sizzle without evidence

As a lesson in self publicity, it was exemplary.

But the backlash following recent comments made by the chairman of the Independent Schools Association, highlights the importance of speakers having sufficient evidence to support what they are saying.

Richard Walden entered the media spotlight last week by claiming that state schools were failing to produce pupils with a moral compass. Specifically excluding the independent sector from the problem, he said:

“the country is turning out too many amoral children because schools cannot find the time to teach the difference between right and wrong, as so much school time is spent on ‘teaching the basics’.

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Richard Walden failed to support his claim that Britain is turning out too many ‘amoral’ children

As the vast majority (93%) of children educated in this country are in the state sector, this is quite an extraordinary claim. And as American astronomer Carl Sagan was keen to point out, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

So whilst we applaud Mr Walden’s use of media-friendly sizzle with remarks like “amoral children” and “moral compass”, we would also look for evidence. Where is the proof for this headline-grabbing assertion? Therein lies the problem. He says his comments were based on a survey he read several months ago, although he could not remember where he read it.

No statistics, no sample size, no explanation of its methods. He can’t even tell us who conducted the survey, so that we can evaluate its authorship and conclusions for ourselves. Instead, there’s just a sweeping generalisation, with nothing to back it up.

Whilst his audience at the Independent Schools Association Annual Conference might accept his comments at face value, the public in general – and the state school sector in particular – are likely to be a little more sceptical.

Indeed, some of them may conclude that using his influential position to publicly criticise huge numbers of children without any evidence whatsoever, and in order to promote his organisation’s interests, was somewhat “amoral” in itself.

My end of term report for Richard Walden: must try harder.

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The words you think make you interesting to journalists are anything but

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Interviewees overuse certain phrases which devalue them for journalists

When, if ever, is it acceptable to describe something as a ‘game-changer’ to a journalist?

One exception might be when a multibillion dollar tech company suffers a shock defeat in a court case which has landmark implications for the rest of the sector. That’s probably acceptable. Just about. But only because it’s probably an accurate reflection of the facts, and spoken by a lawyer, which means he will have chosen his words with precision.

However, I was still disappointed that I couldn’t find a better quote in this morning’s FT when reading about the Google data-privacy verdict. Not with the journalists, but with the people giving them the quotes. If the hacks had to resort to ‘game-changer’ for the quote then we truly are in a sorry state when it comes to word smithery.

There is a pervasive trend for media spokespeople to use phrases and soundbites that they think make them sound as though they are being interesting and profound when they are being anything but. In media training we call it ‘ positive-bland’ and it refers to people who use language incorrectly, or pick phrases that are so dull or overused so that they become meaningless, if not vacuous during interviews. This is not the same as using jargon, which carries its own evils, but positive-bland can flirt dangerously close to management-speak.

Game-changer is, indeed, a guilty culprit in the lexicon of positive-bland. Other usual suspects include ‘passionate’, ‘innovative’, ‘tragedy’ (really: when was it a tragedy that a football club fired its manager?) and ‘it’s all about the customer-experience’. PRs should also take note when trying to pitch to journalists. As one journalist friend mournfully notes, the most overused pitch phrases are ‘exclusive’, ‘unique’ and ‘I’ve got a scoop for you’. Invariably, they haven’t.

When crafting soundbites, it is important to pick words that are not only creative and fresh but also accurate. Otherwise, if everything is a ‘tragedy’ or ‘game-changer’, how are people going to take you seriously or find you interesting enough to quote? This was particularly evident during the financial crisis when certain prominent business journalists got very overexcited when Northern Rock went bust. But when the big American banks started going under six months later they had no way to capture the seriousness of what was happening because they had already used up all their superlatives.

If you are happy to use boring yet hyperbolic phrases that make journalists roll their eyes, then carry on being bland. Or you could spend ten minutes thinking of some different words that set you and your organisation apart. It might be an incredibly useful, if not game-changing, shift in approach. But it almost certainly won’t be a ‘paradigm shift’.