Not a Good Look for Someone Who Wants to be PM

Not a Good Look for Someone Who Wants to be PM

Paul Brand pointed out on Twitter last week what was obvious to any viewer. The leader of the opposition looked very uncomfortable in his set-piece interview on Good Morning Britain.  You might even say scared.

Not a Good Look for Someone Who Wants to be PM

It is not a good look for someone who wants to be Prime Minister.

He, of course, has a right to be on his guard: Beergate revelations were getting a lot of traction, and a week after this interview led to his promise to resign if found guilty of an offence.

On this occasion he was being interviewed by the GMB duo of Richard Madeley and Susanna Reid. Reid positions herself as a tough aggressive journalist and she has clearly put a lot of thought into how to be an intimidating interviewer. The BBC no longer allows disrespectful aggression and will publicly and privately criticise presenters who step over the line as Nick Robinson did with the Prime Minister last year, but other broadcasters still encourage some interviewers to make this style part of the brand.

Others on Twitter were irritated by such superficial analysis of Sir Keir Starmer’s performance.

Not a Good Look for Someone Who Wants to be PM

At The Media Coach, we do think body language matters and on TV it can – as it does here – undermine the message.

If you listen to Starmer in this interview without watching the footage, what he says is strong, clear and credible. He doesn’t sound as if he is struggling to cope with the aggression or the questions.

But if you watch you have a totally different impression.

What is strange is that Starmer has not already been coached out of looking rattled. Given his job and his ambition you would think some work would have gone into this.

As someone who coaches people to look comfortable on TV (among many other things) I would say it is not particularly difficult to tackle and simple coaching techniques are pretty consistently effective.

How you behave on camera when being ‘grilled’ by a journalist is no different to any other unconscious behaviour.  You cannot change it until it becomes conscious. And then you need a feedback loop so you can constantly ‘improve’ and get to where you want to be.

In training we use the video camera, record an interview, play it back and identify the unwanted behaviour, then suggest alternatives. Trying these different things out on camera then watching it back can fairly quickly produce behaviour change. Clearly, this has to be ‘topped up’ at regular intervals but if you are always appearing on the media that is not a problem. You can ensure each event is recorded and watch some of them back.

Media interviews (and presentations) are a performance. As soon as you realise this you can apply a whole range of tools and techniques honed by actors and broadcasters. Slow down. Speed up.  Drop your shoulders.  Breath differently.  Pretend you like the person interviewing you, etc.

My colleague, Eric Dixon, says your audience needs to ‘Believe, Like and Trust’ you – giving the acronym BLT,  just like the sandwich. I look for ‘Warmth, Authority and Animation’ which is a less elegant acronym but works better for me in training.

I know of a number of politicians and others who fought against media training (Jeremy Corbyn was one apparently) and who rather too late in the day embraced it out of necessity. London is full of great media trainers, someone should persuade Starmer to invest. If it’s not too late.










aggressive interviews feature

Ten 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.

aggressive interviews

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. Identify the 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 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.

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. If you lie and are caught out which in these days is highly likely, you will lose credibility for ever.

Aggressive questions

Jeremy Paxman, former BBC Newsnight presenter perfected the ‘rabbit punch’ question.

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.

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 lose the sympathy of the audience, and provoke the journalist to be more aggressive.

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. If lawyers tell you, you cannot say sorry you will have to say you ‘understand’ concerns.

10. Don’t get personal
Don’t fight with the journalist. It’s better not to say ‘you’ at all. What I mean by this is 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 a Sky News interview from 2015, Kay Burley did her worst with the head of Merlin Entertainment, owner of the Alton Towers Theme Park, just after an accident on a ride called the Smiler. Five people were  seriously injured in the incident and Burley ridiculously aggressive and unpleasant. Nick Varney, managed to survive a long aggressive interview, without ever losing his cool.

This blog was first published in July 2015.

rehearse aloud

The One Simple Thing Most Presenters Don’t Do and Why You Should

There is a simple, time efficient practise that will massively help you sound more professional, get your ideas across more efficiently, give better presentations or be more confident in that media interview: and yet most people simply will not do it.

What is it? Rehearse aloud.

rehearse aloud

I recently came across the golden nugget “Practise Analytically, Perform Intuitively” in an essay by David Perell on golf and writing.

In golf this can be explained simply. Practise analytically can mean videoing your swing, being critical, study what you are actually doing when you strike the ball. Perform intuitively: means once you are actually playing, just do it.

“Practise Analytically, Perform Intuitively” can be applied to many things, including communication skills. Spend time planning, analysing, tweaking, editing and above all rehearsing before you actually do something. Then when you get to the moment of delivery, you just do it. Clear your mind and let it flow.

Rehearse during not after the preparation

Rehearsal, in my view, is part of the work you do before your creative process has finished. My advice: rehearse aloud, before you are ready. I read somewhere, rehearse aloud once you have done about 40% of the work on your speech, your presentation or your message prep.

Speaking aloud during the writing will make the whole thing better, as well as prime you for your eventual performance.

And to supercharge your productivity and effectiveness, record your rehearsal (audio or video) and listen or watch it back.

rehearse aloud

Why do most people not do this? I think it is because it takes self-discipline and because you have to confront the problem that initially you are not that good! And that is painful. But there is likely to be some really interesting psychology going on behind the extremely widespread reluctance to rehearse. As a communications coach, I come across it every day.

[I would love to hear from anyone who has research or science behind the reluctance to rehearse aloud. I am looking for ways to help my clients overcome this hurdle faster and with less discomfort. There is also an army of PR people who would love to know how to manage the dozens of justifications and excuses that spokespeople use to avoid rehearsing.]

In summary, why you should rehearse aloud:

  • You will develop ‘tongue memory’, reducing the stress of performance and the likelihood of blanking.
  • You will improve your final performance 5-10% every time you actually rehearse aloud.
  • Recording and listening back may initially be painful but it is super useful: you won’t realise how fast you speak, how flat your delivery is or how boring your content is until you listen back.
  • If you are reading a script, rehearsal will help you ensure you are using ‘standard intonation’ i.e. putting all the stresses on the right words. You would be amazed how many people stress the wrong words during a performance and have no idea.
  • Preparation and rehearsal will allow you to find your flow. You may even enjoy it.

In summary, when you should rehearse aloud:

  • For your presentations. Chunk it, do a section at a time. Refine as you go.
    • Do a full run-through, record it and time it. Listen back, make a few notes.
  • For your media interviews. Rehearse your argument or your messages aloud.
    • Chunk it: rehearse one message at a time. Practise moving from questions to relevant messages.
  • For your job interviews. Practise articulating and evidencing what you are selling.
    • Ask yourself, do you sound competent? Do you sound boastful? Do you sound like a leader (if the job requires this), do you sound like someone nice to work with?
  • For any Town Halls. Chunk it. Record it. Time it.
    • Ask yourself what the audience will think, feel and do as a result of your address.
  • For any Speeches. Rehearse aloud in full performance mode.
    • Time it. Listen back. Ask is it clear? Is the tone right? Is it entertaining?

If you can’t find the self-discipline and the diary space to prepare and rehearse aloud, you should know that it is one of the services we provide either online or face to face. Choose either Presentation Training, Media Training or Personal Impact Training.


Why are journalists so rude to PR people? Feature

Why are journalists so rude to PR people?

This weekend I read this on LinkedIn.

“Working in PR is tough. I’ve received hefty abuse from some journalists, including death threats. I took a PR role because I struggled financially as a freelance journalist. …I always see tweets criticising PRs. Granted, there are some rogue PRs out there. But I think some people forget we’re only trying to do a job – ultimately to pay the bills and put food on the table. Let’s be kinder to each other.”

I don’t know the writer, and his industry and role were not clear.  The reference to death threats was unexplained and is thankfully rare, at least in the UK.  However, some journalists do behave quite badly.

And I know there are PR professionals all over the country who are scared to answer the phone to journalists!

Why are journalists so rude to PR people?

That may be hard to imagine but it’s true. The Media Coach has, on several occasions, been asked to work with such teams and explain how journalists think and why they can be so challenging.

I can only imagine that as a new graduate, in your first PR job, keen to get it right, with no experience of the rough and tumble of a newsroom, it must be highly disconcerting to have journalists speak to you with disrespect or even rudeness.

So, to all newbie PRs, this is my guide to how journalists think, and how to deal with them.

Professional Juxtaposition

First, let’s remember the context: given the two professional roles, it would be impossible to avoid tension. Journalists both need PR people but sometimes, despise them. And vice versa.

Journalists want seemingly simple information and access to senior people, the right people on the right day, for a story. Journalists believe their job is to find the facts, hold people to account, to shine the harsh light of truth into the murky corners of spin. And to do all that today.

PRs are sensible gate-keepers and often refuse to provide information or deny access, judging the information is not so simple and any interview comes with some risks, and might not be in the best interests of an organisation. And besides, they can’t get access to the right senior leader until next week. In this case, the PR has the power, and they use it to thwart the journalists.

And then a week, a month, or a year later the boot is on the other foot.

PRs are tasked with winning coverage for a positive story. Suddenly, they become salespeople.

Most journalists, who are busy professionals like everyone else, are fighting off press releases, emails, phone calls, or Twitter DMs, from PRs. The PRs are often peddling a half-baked story to the wrong person at the wrong time.
In this case, the journalists have the power.

So, we have two groups of people that need each other in different ways at different times and both have to be firm, steadfast and sometimes robust in holding the other at bay.

Of course, there are some occasions when PRs and journalists want the same thing, but this happy overlap of the Venn diagram of life is rather a thin slice.

Why are journalists so rude to PR people?

Culture Clash

Mostly, we have two types of professionals tasked with ‘managing’ each other.  Each living in a very different professional culture. PRs are typically in large organisations with lots of rules and clear hierarchies, not a lot of shouting.

Journalists work in newsrooms which can be very intense places to work. Here are some of the reasons why.

  • Tight deadlines. Most journalists’ deadlines are a few hours in the future, sometimes in broadcast it is minutes or seconds away, and the pressure can be intense. Journalists who miss deadlines do not stay in work for long. This makes for short conversations and abrupt responses.
  • Journalism is highly competitive. It’s not just one team against another team. As a journalist, you are competing with your colleagues for the best stories, top billing, the front page.
  • Journalists need to think differently. The job is to cut through the misleading spin of political and corporate life. Their holy mission is to think ‘if this is costing £3m, who is paying?’ ‘If 85% are successful what is happening to the other 15% and how many people is that?’ This can mean if you walk in and say ‘Good Morning’ you might find someone disagreeing with you!
  • Related to the point above, as a journalist, you must not be taken in by charm, or money, or power. Your job is not to be influenced by these things.
  • Journalists are lied to. If you are a journalist, people lie to you all the time. Clearly, you end up assuming people are probably lying, even when they are not.
  • You have to hustle: to get to the bottom of stuff, to get interviewees on camera, to find the person who knows, you have to hustle. Newsnight would never get on air and The Times would never get published if the journalists did not hustle. Journalists push people when others would give up.
  • And finally, as a journalist you are rewarded for getting the story, writing the scoop, getting the interview. No one, but no one cares (in your newsroom) that you upset the PR woman or were rude to the receptionist, in order to get what the story needed.

To take an extreme example of this, the BBC’s World Affairs Editor, John Simpson and his cameraman upset almost the entire Muslim world by posing as women – disguised in burqas – while being smuggled into Afghanistan in 2001. In his book ‘News from No Man’s Land’ Simpson talks about discussing the plan and weighing the future cost of such upset. He was totally aware that there would be a huge outcry, but he decided to do it anyway, to get the story. Simpson narrowly escaped having a worldwide ‘fatwa’ issued against him.

I realised a long time ago that journalists are good company, their take on life is refreshing but the profession rewards bad behavior. Of course, not all journalists succumb to rudeness, disrespect or aggression. Some remain courteous and reasonable whatever the pressure, whatever the story. But perhaps not so many.

And it should be noted that there are many PR-journalist relationships that are cordial, even friendly. The two parties have mutual respect, perhaps have some good history together or just hit it off. An experienced PR person will have built trust along with their media list, they will have dropped an exclusive, or bought lunch, maybe even given some useful background in the past. Maybe they’ve just been straight. These relationships don’t need a blog.

How to Deal with Journalists

This is written for those who find it challenging to handle the Fourth Estate. So, assuming you are a polite, diligent PR person how should you deal with journalists?

  • First understand, if they do sound a bit aggressive, it is not personal.
  • Second, accept that journalists live by rather different rules than you do. You don’t have to approve, but just as you would accept a tantrum from a child, or swearing from a drunk, understand journalists tend to be very direct, very RED if you are familiar with the Insights Discovery psychometric testing tool.


Why are journalists so rude to PR people?

  • Third, you are more likely to get the respect of journalists if you are direct. You don’t need to be aggressive (even if they are). Just be happy to say ‘Sorry I am not able to answer that question.’ ‘We are not putting anyone up for interview’, etc. Directness shows strength and builds trust. [Just remember not to be quotable as you do this. If you say ‘wild horses would not drag Mr X to a media interview in the middle of all this’ – you may find the quote all over Twitter and on the front page!]
  • Don’t waste journalists’ time. Make sure you have your story straight before you pitch. Pitch in a very few words and explain what you are offering them i.e. data, an interview, a quote. Don’t worry about being nice. Worry about being clear and succinct.
  • Call or email back when you said you would.
  • Don’t ring just before a deadline.
  • Finally, always think about helping a journalist add value to their viewers and readers. Journalists will always respond to a good story. They would never – in my experience – say I am not running or writing that story because I don’t like the PR.

For journalists, it is always all about the story.

Final Irony

And as a footnote, there is a final irony to all this. Many of those grumpy self-obsessed journalists may one day decide to become – guess what – a PR person! What is more many will try and fail because it is a very different job. I will leave the last thought with Neil Henderson, once a television journalist and now a senior PR. He responded, on LinkedIn, to this post’s opening quote:

‘I could paper the walls of my entire house and my neighbours with CVs from journalists who want to work in PR. Some of them were truly awful to me or my colleagues. When I first moved into PR/Communications from national television news in the mid 2000s I quickly realised that a lot of the PR people much derided by journalists, are more intelligent and better writers.’



Insight Discovery




Shape of Sheeran

The Shape of Sheeran

As a multi award-winning musician, songwriter and lyricist, you’d expect Ed Sheeran to be able to turn a decent phrase.

And with years of performing experience behind him, you’d also expect him to connect successfully with his audience.

Last week he combined several of these skills when he appeared in his own video, following his success in a court case after he was accused of plagiarism.

The High Court judge ruled that an element of his 2017 hit ‘Shape of You’ was not copied, “neither deliberately nor subconsciously”, from the Sami Chokri (stage name Sami Switch) song ‘Oh Why’, released two years earlier.

You can listen to a comparison of the two clips for yourself here:

Whilst Ed’s words were spoken a little too quickly for our liking – and consequently he lost some of the natural stress and emphasis of normal conversation – here’s what we liked about it:

Short duration

Even if what lasted 1’04” should ideally probably have taken around 1’15” to say, he’s packing a lot of material into a minute and a bit. No one is going to resent spending that amount of time hearing his response to the ruling. The single ‘Shape of You’ lasts over three times longer than this; it was short, punchy and to the point.

Good eyeline

OK – it looks like he’s reading an autocue (probably why he’s speaking so quickly) and so has to look at the camera. But, crucially, this means he maintains eye contact with his audience throughout, and that creates connection and adds credibility.

Natural gestures

Occasional, simple hand gestures are used throughout, helping to emphasise what he is saying, and making him appear more natural and relaxed.

Conversational language

Despite the seriousness of what he’s just been through, no long words are used when they’re not necessary. Instead, the approach is direct and chatty: “Hey guys… I wanted to make a small video to talk about it a bit… claims like this are way too common now…”. What’s more, he doesn’t resort to legal jargon and say ‘sub judice’, but instead “I’ve not really been able to say anything whilst it’s been going on.” The result – everyone understands what he’s talking about immediately.

Numbers as evidence

Numbers do the heavy lifting of convincing in the moment – even if the details are quickly forgotten afterwards. Here, Ed uses three persuasive statistics, two of them rounded up or down for impact: “60,000 songs every day on Spotify…”, “22,000,000 songs a year…”, “only 12 notes available…”.

It got personal

This is the real crux of the video – by far the most personal and powerful part of the whole thing. As a result, it’s the bit which was destined to be quoted and used in newspaper headlines (as indeed it was). This section contained two ‘Power of Three’ statements (known in the trade as ‘tricolons’).


“I’m not an entity, I’m not a corporation, I’m a human being.

Directly followed by:

I’m a father. I’m a husband. I’m a son.

It offered humility

Whilst he could have been seen crowing over his success, that’s simply not Sheeran’s style. Instead, we get “I don’t want to take anything away from the pain and hurt suffered by both sides in this case…”.

He used a contrastive pair to finish

Contrastive pairs are ‘see-saw sentences’ – phrases which hinge around a mid-point, balancing each other in style and structure. They are powerful and memorable:

“Hopefully we can all get back to writing songs, rather than having to prove that we can write them.”

So, all in all, as far as the writing and structure of his statement were concerned, we think it was – in the title of another of his number one hits that year – ‘perfect’.

As you can see, powerful presentations are far from being down to just luck. With careful crafting, you can create the best possible opportunity to make sure your messages hit home too – something we explore in our Presentation Training sessions.

And you don’t even need to have had a number one hit single to get involved…

Refuse to answer a question on air

How to refuse to answer a question on air

What do you do in a media interview if you get a really uncomfortable question?

The answer is remarkably simple: tell the journalist you are choosing not to answer.

Daniel Radcliffe demonstrated this on GMB when asked about the Will Smith slapping incident at the Oscars ceremony.

Radcliffe did not hesitate: he said he was so dramatically bored by hearing other people’s opinions on the incident, that he wasn’t going to give one.

There are lots of ways to tell a journalist that you are declining a question. My advice is, where you can, give a short clear reason but the reason is not essential. Here are a few suggestions for close down phrases:

‘I’m sorry that is commercially confidential.’

‘I don’t have that number to hand.’

‘This is not a question for me’

‘I think I’ll leave that for others to comment on.’

‘That’s a question for the regulator or the politicians.’

It sounds so obvious. And it is liberating to realise that you have a choice.

However, having these lines to hand is not the whole answer.

The real challenge is to be in the right mindset during any interview. You should know what you are there to say, and be clear where your red lines are. Journalists are allowed to ask anything…that is the deal. It doesn’t mean you have to answer them.

When I suggest this close down strategy, I get push back:

‘Am I allowed to say that?’

‘Won’t the journalist think I’m rude?’

‘I don’t want to sound like a politician not answering questions.’

First of all, there are no external rules about what you say to a journalist, only internal ones – from your employer perhaps. I don’t think they will ever include a ban on declining a question.

Second, journalists are hard to offend and declining or ‘closing down’ a question would barely register. They hear such responses all the time.

Finally, I believe politicians rarely say ‘I am not answering that because it would be speculation’ or ‘I haven’t looked at it this week’. Interviews would be much less annoying if they did.  Politicians, for reasons I do not fully understand, normally try to ignore the question and answer something else. That is what is so irritating.

It’s much better to be upfront and say ‘that’s not a question for me’.

Practising how to deliver a close down is just one of the many techniques we cover in our media training courses, which can be delivered in person or via video link.



Voice of a woman feature

The Voice of a Woman

One of the best news stories of the year so far, was the return of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe after 6 years imprisoned or held in Iran.

She and her husband Richard Ratcliffe held a press conference in Westminster, and I was stunned at how composed and articulate she was after her ordeal. And also, how fearless she was in her criticism of the UK Government. She appeared to speak without notes and even disagreed with her husband in public (whilst also thanking him for his incredible campaigning to bring her home).

It would have been completely understandable if Zaghari-Ratcliffe had appeared tearful, and ready to give an Oscar-style thank you speech and no more, but that is clearly not her style.

I particularly noticed this because I am suddenly aware of lots of calls for women to find their voices, be inspired by women in history, and speak more in public.

Voice of a WomanRecently, waiting for a train, I was browsing the book section in Oliver Bonas, a fashion and knickknacks shop. I was stunned to realise I was looking at a shelf and half of the books were about women speakers. From beautiful books about the words of Michelle Obama and Dolly Parton to ‘She Speaks’ Yvette Cooper’s anthology of women’s speeches that changed the world.

I also found comedian Viv Groskop’s book ‘How to Own the Room: Women and the Art of Brilliant Speaking’. Groskop is not looking at the words you use but the mindset you need to acquire, to speak up as a woman. I have found no new tricks in her book, but it is an easy, entertaining read with a clear theme that speaking in public is something you can learn.

Seven years ago, a New York Times article written by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant was headlined ‘Speaking While Female’. It pulled together a raft of evidence that shows often when women do speak up at work they are spoken over or ignored. I wonder if that is true today? I meet so many impressive women it is hard for me to judge.

‘Speaking While Female’ is now the name of one woman’s project to put together a Women’s Speech Bank. American former journalist and now executive coach, Dana Rubin pops up daily on my LinkedIn feed. Her purpose is explained on her website:

Voice of a woman

Madeleine Albright, former U.S. Secretary of State

Historically women have not been silent, but their words have scarcely been noted in the history books. What they said was seldom valued, recorded, or remembered…..It’s time to change that. Because it wasn’t just “great men” who gave great speeches in history. 

And in the week as Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe stepped briefly into the limelight, another slipped out. The world lost Madeleine Albright – the first woman to hold the post of US Secretary of State, who died at 84. “She famously said in an interview with Huffington Post in 2010 “It took me quite a long time to develop a voice, and now that I have it, I am not going to remain silent”.

I am privileged in my work to help people including many women, to find their voices: to overcome nerves, to stand proudly facing forwards using a few tricks of the trade to lead an audience through an argument in a way that is clear and memorable. But perhaps there is more that can be done to help under-confident women to develop a voice? Answers on a postcard, please…


Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe – YouTube
Madeleine Albright -
slgckgc, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Rapport Feature

Do you know how to build rapport?

Rapport is that easy-going relationship which good speakers have with their audience, indicating that they understand their world.

But in business presentations, the quality is often as elusive as it is desirable.

Like the concept of gravitas (which we can help with too, by the way), it’s also something that critics suggest presenters try to convey when talking to others – even if they are at a loss when it comes to explaining how to do so.

These three tips are essential:


The best presenters seize the audience’s attention from the very start, indicating immediately that they understand where their listeners are coming from. Of course, this is considerably easier if you are recognised as “one of them” already.

Take the brilliant Rita Pierson, a teacher for 40 years, carrying out a TED Talk to fellow educationalists in 2013 just before she died. Her opening words did lots of heavy-lifting on her behalf: ‘I have spent my entire life either at the schoolhouse, on the way to the schoolhouse, or talking about what happens in the schoolhouse.’ That sentence also demonstrates clever use of the “power of three” approach and is gently amusing (a genuinely useful quality; the audience’s positive reaction can be heard before the line is finished):

Eye contact helps, it’s true. Pierson manages this admirably – but despite the fact her presentation is in-the-round, even those seated behind her seem to be following her every word. As Terry Wogan, probably the best broadcaster of his generation, proved on his Radio 2 Breakfast Show; rapport doesn’t need a visual connection at all.


But what if you as a presenter have little in common with your audience? What if you have little or no connection with their world? Perhaps you don’t even speak their language? None of this need be a barrier to building rapport – as Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky has demonstrated repeatedly in the last few weeks. When he addressed British politicians in the House of Commons via video link, as his country continued to battle the Russian invasion, he quoted the English bard Shakespeare (‘The question for us now is to be or not to be…’) and echoed Britain’s wartime leader Churchill (‘We will fight in the forest, in the fields, on the shores, in the streets…’). His words eliminated the one-and-a-half-thousand miles between Kyiv and London, and was nothing less than a stroke of genius:

Similarly, when speaking to the US congress, Zelensky made reference to Pearl Harbour and 9/11 and, over the weekend, when addressing Israeli parliament he quoted the late Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, saying ‘We intend to live, but our neighbours want to see us dead’.

Despite the huge losses to his country and the considerable risks to himself, Zelensky’s ability to take time to strike a chord with each of his separate audiences is remarkable – as my colleague Lindsay Williams points out in a recent interview with Fortune magazine (‘He does what all good public speakers do – he looks at his audience and thinks, “How can I make them relate to me?”):


Finally, rapport is impossible if you are dull. Not only do you need to use simple words (even if you are conveying complex material – indeed, I would argue especially when you are conveying complex material; we call it “coming down the language ladder”), but you should also craft powerful key phrases so that they become more memorable. Using metaphor and simile can both help here (we call it adding “sizzle”). It’s also about using the full bandwidth of stress and emphasis so that – even if you are reading from a script – it sounds like you are having an animated and interesting conversation with your listener by “lifting the script off the page”. Our presentation training course covers these aspects in full.

I am also teaching exactly this, and a few other tricks and tips, to a new generation of broadcasters in my Podcast Training.

So, as you can see, rapport doesn’t need to be that hard-to-pin-down, ethereal quality which many recognise but few can explain. It should be as much a part of your nuts-and-bolts planning as preparing your slides.

And if you are not sure where to start, that is where we can help.

Like everything else in our bespoke training sessions, we convey real-life practical tips; genuine ‘views-you-can-use’, all of them honed after years of experience in the field, where our ideas and methods have been tried and tested against a harsh dose of reality. Although, admittedly, not quite as harsh as a schoolhouse in an under-privileged neighbourhood in the US, or an underground bunker in Kyiv.

weaponising history feature

Stories Leaders Tell

Three things came together in my head this Monday morning:

  • On BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, I heard a BBC reporter talking about ‘weaponising history’. He was referring to the story, or the narrative, President Putin has crafted around why Ukraine needs to be part of a greater Russia.
  • This reminded me of a very good book by Gavin Esler – Lessons from the Top, Three Universal Stories All Leaders Tell.
  • And this directly sparked a previously missed connection with the Public Narrative Training of Harvard Professor, Marshall Ganz, a version of which is sometimes taught by my former colleague, Laura Shields, in Brussels.

weaponising history


Weaponising history is a very interesting phrase. The BBC interviewer, Amol Rajan, was introducing Professor of International Affairs, Nina Khrushcheva from The New School in New York, and together they explored the historical perspective or in other words the ‘stories’ that are motivating Putin and that he is using to justify war, including of course the evidence that Ukrainians and Russian are in fact the same ethnic group. (Interview is on BBC Sounds at 8.52am Monday 14th March)

‘Weaponising history’ is just a way of saying that a leader is telling a story that motivates, inspires or justifies aggression. Whilst it is a great and emotive phrase, the truth is that we have long understood there is not one version of history. To some extent, all leaders do this all the time.

A leader will create a ‘narrative’ – from selected facts, from half facts or (at worst) from fantasy, that influences others. That is what leadership is all about.

So, while we may hate the message, there is nothing new about the tactic.

One of the interesting challenges is that it is easier to make a compelling story out of great battles, do-or die-dilemmas, moments of decisive action, and so on. All the stuff of action movies. Finding wonderful narratives for peace, reason, not over-reacting, and living peacefully with one’s neighbours, is much harder.

weaponising historyGavin Esler’s book Lessons from the Top came out nearly ten years ago. His premise was that there are three stories all leaders must tell: Who am I, who are we, and where are we going together?  He uses examples from Barack Obama, Jack Welch and even Lady Gaga and Angelina Jolie to demonstrate this idea. He doesn’t mention Putin, but he could have done.

At the time, these ideas were new to me, and I thought the book a great read. I actually bought a dozen copies and gave most of them away.

It was a few years later that my former colleague Laura Shields introduced me to Public Narrative Training – as taught originally, I think, by Marshall Ganz; a left-wing thinker and activist. Funnily enough, his thinking is almost exactly the same – I assume Ganz influenced Esler, but I am not sure.

Anyway, Ganz believes any leader must have three strands to their core narrative. Self, Us and Now.

By the way, if you have worked with me and know how I teach the use of a Message House, you can see that these ideas map straight onto a Message House.

weaponising history

Of course, not all leaders chose to do this. Boris Johnson talks little of himself but a great deal about who ‘we the British’ are. Keir Starmer similarly does not have a powerful story about who he is. Margaret Thatcher did, of course; famously often referring often to her father’s grocery shop. One current British politician who comes to mind is David Lammy MP: a man with a rich heritage of Caribbean ancestry, north London immigrant poverty and English Public School. All laid out in his book Tribes. So, some politicians do and some don’t.

I think those that don’t are missing a trick here.

Working with senior leaders as I do, I often find that this narrative is missing. If I suggest that as an ambitious person he or she should perhaps put some thought into how they tell their personal story and what motivates them, half the time I will be met with resistance. People feel it is ‘not about me’ or ‘I am uncomfortable talking about myself’.

The point for me, is that if people know why you think what you think, they are more likely to trust you.

Hopefully, none of the people I train will use this to justify aggression, hatred or harm.

Presentation Feature

5 Tips for Delivering a Good Presentation with a Bad Slide Deck

‘Please can you help us improve our pitch – but, by the way, we can’t change the deck’.

This is a brief we get all too often, ahead of Pitch Training or some Presentation Training.


In these cases the people we work with know that their slides have too much information on them, too many bullet points, the font is too small and with three different charts and a tiny legend any audience is likely to turn off in three minutes flat. But there are legal and regulatory reasons why the slides have to be as they are.

So how can you do a good presentation with a slide deck that is also a pitch book or a handout?

Well, the first things to say is please don’t carefully and diligently verbalise every bullet point on the deck. Just accept that the deck is not really a presentation, it is a document that has another purpose. Your job is to simply guide people through the document and highlight the points they should not miss. You should make available a copy of the deck and invite them to read it at their leisure.

That is tip number 1.

          Tip #1.   Be prepared to provide a brief expert guide to the information, rather than deliver it all.


Secondly, understand that your job is to simplify, clarify and focus. And to achieve that, try to work out an opening key message. It doesn’t have to be complicated but it does need to be clear. Feel unembarrassed about stating the obvious.

For example:

‘In the next 15 minutes I hope to demonstrate that we are a great fit as a consultant for your project.’

You should also consider circling back to this message at the very end. For example:

‘So I hope I have demonstrated that we are a great fit as a consultant for your project.

               Tip #2.  Have a clear message at the beginning and circle back at the end.

My next tip is to clearly summarise or headline the purpose of each slide as you change slides.

For Example:

‘Next, let’s take a quick look at our org chart.’


‘In the next slide, we have pulled together the numbers you need to compare us to our key competitors.’

This really helps any audience keep track of the whole argument. Do not expect them to work out what the slide means while you are talking.

                  Tip #3.  Summarise the purpose of each slide as you introduce it.


The slide above would greatly benefit from an opening phrase: Now let’s look at the timeline for the project and a few key markers.

Now, assuming every slide has way more information on it than you want to actually say, my next tip is to give the audience permission to ignore most of the information on the slide (or read it later), and highlight one or two key points. I think of this as a verbal highlighter.

For example:

‘There is a lot of detail here on how we choose each investment in the portfolio and our process of evaluation before we buy. But perhaps I can draw your attention to two key things that make us different…’

                 Tip #4.   Use a verbal highlighter – giving permission to ignore some detail.

If you do use this technique, it is important to ensure you appear open and transparent, not trying to distract from the detail. To ensure this, I suggest regularly giving the audience permission to ask questions.

‘I am happy to take questions on any of these points’  or

‘If there is anything you want me to explain please do just ask’

This has the added benefit of making the presentation more interactive.

                 Tip #5.  Let the audience choose the focus. Be open, to answering questions as you go along.

So, there you are. My five top tips for delivering a bad slide deck. Of course, you also need to speak slowly and clearly, use good intonation, look at the audience not the deck and all the other best practice that all presentation trainers and coaches will tell you.

And always, always, ask, can we not just simplify the deck? It will make it so much easier to present well.

My final bonus tip is to consider creating a copy of the deck, strip out all the less important information and while you provide the original deck to the audience for them to study if they want to, you put the simpler version up on the screen.