Composite Marr quotes

A lesson in the need to prepare for obvious questions

Nine minutes into a 12-minute interview on Remembrance Sunday this short bit of dialogue sparked an apparently unplanned controversy.

Composite Marr quotes

The interview is between Andrew Marr, on the Sunday Morning current affairs programme The Marr Show and General Sir Nicholas Houghton, Chief of the Defence Staff. (Sorry but the link will only work until mid December 2015.)

‘Manoeuvred into criticising’ 

As a result of these two phrases from Sir Nicholas, Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the UK Opposition Labour party, is complaining to the Ministry of Defence. He says Sir Nicholas crossed the line on the military’s political neutrality. In an attempt to defuse the row, on Monday the former head of the Navy and a Labour Peer, Lord West said in another interview, he thought Sir Nicholas had been ‘manoeuvred into criticising’ the opposition leader.

Corbyn Complains compositeFor those who haven’t followed this, Corbyn is a life long member of CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) and is hoping to persuade his party and the country to vote against spending between £20 and £100 billion on renewing Trident – Britain’s nuclear deterrent.

Watching the interview (the comments come at one hour and two minutes in if you are looking at the whole programme) you can clearly see that Sir Nicholas realised the danger of the question and tried to choose his words carefully: but still ended up in hot water.

Learning Points for us PR professionals:

–  This was a long and wide-ranging interview, over 12 minutes. The longer the interview the greater the risk. The comments come about nine minutes in.

–  The more senior the person and the less often they appear in the media, the more difficult it is for them to do what we would think of as a ‘disciplined’ interview. They are used to holding court and not used to having to be careful with every word knowing it can be elevated to a headline.

–  The ‘would you support Corbyn if he was elected?’ questions, of which the offending question here was just one mild version, are obvious and predictable.Huff Puff composite

–  It is not credible to imagine that Marr plotted to lead Sir Nicholas to that point with some Machiavellian line of prepared questions. But it is entirely likely that Marr knows what Sir Nicholas thinks and wondered if he could get him to say it on air. However, from a journalistic point of view it was a totally reasonable question in the context of the interview. This was not a bit of mischief tagged on the end.

– Actually Sir Nicholas got off very lightly. It’s obvious to us, that a different interviewer would have seized the phrase and been much more challenging on what exactly it meant. Marr let it slide.

– If Sir Nicholas was being supported by an efficient PR machine he would have been rehearsed in the line to take on this question and would not have been left trying and failing to stay out of trouble whilst in front of the charming Andrew Marr and a bank of TV cameras.

Possible answer

So how should he have answered it? We don’t know all the considerations but how about : ‘As you know, the military is politically neutral so I am not going to be drawn on that but what I would say is…’

At The Media Coach we call preparation for tough or politically sensitive questions ‘reactive lines’. The difficult questions need to be identified by someone who has professional PR (or journalistic) skills, and appropriate responses need to be crafted. Then, the interviewee needs to rehearse them aloud. Reading reactive lines in a document ahead of an interview is not an adequate way to prepare; role-playing them a couple of times is.


How to banish nerves from public speaking

At the start of my career I worked with a well-known and popular broadcast journalist with a ton of experience in presenting live TV.  He was confident, energetic and highly skilled at building empathetic connections with interviewees in a short space of time.

He was also crippled by nerves and once told me how he used to experience acute attacks of butterflies and adrenaline surges just before the lights went down and the cameras came on at the start of 3 hours of live TV. His description was so intense that it amazed me that people watching from home weren’t able to see what he was going through. It also made me think he was a fool for working in live TV if he still couldn’t handle his physical responses and stress after 15 years in the business.

Of course, what I later learned was that riding the adrenaline was his ‘thing’. But the broader point here is that people who get nervous about public speaking or media interviews often assume that those they consider to be good don’t suffer at all.  But that often isn’t true. Many good speakers get nervous – they just have strategies for helping them cope with stage fright.

Here are a few tips that our clients have often told us they find helpful for managing public speaking or media interview nerves.

1. Manage your expectations of yourself

Accept that that your personal experience of discomfort is not the same as the audience’s view of your performance. You might be dying inside but there is often no correlation between how you feel and what an audience (live or TV) sees.  And don’t forget that a bit of nervousness can sometimes endear the speaker to the audience, provided it doesn’t get in the way of what they are saying.

public speaking

Nerves are one of the most common issues people have with public speaking

Not comfortable with speaking into microphones or to cameras? You aren’t alone. Many seasoned speakers don’t like the podium, or staring down the barrel of a massive broadcast camera. However, they are good at accepting the artifice and managing their response to it.  Practising regularly on camera can also help, partly because it gets people into the habit of treating speaking as a workable skill, while reassuring many that they aren’t as bad as feared.

2. Preparation includes practice

Preparation of message houses, PowerPoints or speaking notes is not complete unless you have rehearsed your prepared material aloud several times and got your tongue familiar with what you want to say. Trust me, it will help the nerves enormously. Particularly if you are not going to be speaking in your mother tongue.

3. Get familiar with your environment

Clearly, you aren’t going to be able to walk into a live broadcast studio and conduct your own pre-interview audit but you and your PR team can do as much due diligence as possible on what to expect in terms of technology and interview flow.  Likewise, if you are speaking at a conference or an event, it’s worth getting into the room early to see what the room layout will be like and where the podium or desk is. If you can rehearse your opening points even better.

4. Centre yourself

Everyone is jumping on the mindfulness band wagon these days but many people do find it enormously helpful for centering themselves, putting things into perspective and remaining calm. As a keen but poor runner I can also add that doing several mental run-throughs of the Brussels 20km route ahead of last year’s race helped me enormously when it came to not giving up on the final nasty uphill stretch. This may sound touchy-feely but anyone who has seen me run and done the 20km will know what I am talking about.

5. Fake it

Seriously. Lots of people worry about being in the ‘zone’ when it comes to public speaking or an interview. And while I do agree that taking a few minutes ahead of time to get into ‘performance mode’ can be helpful, I also think that a good way to create confidence is to fake it.

And who knows, you might even get so caught up in your performance that you find yourself enjoying it…

What tips work for you?

Farage Image

Farage reminds us the ‘frame’ of an argument is crucial

Much of our work with clients focuses on building key messages and developing the techniques to say them powerfully, along with presenting the evidence to make sure they are clear, credible and memorable.
However, we also concentrate on the use of language – not only getting rid of jargon, but also demonstrating how it can play a significant part in framing what the participants of any debate are talking about.

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Farage accuses BBC of ‘dishonesty’ in the way it uses word ‘Europe’

BBC accused of ‘dishonesty’

This was something that came to the fore last week when Ukip leader Nigel Farage accused the BBC of “dishonesty” in its reporting of the referendum on staying in the EU.

His complaint was that the broadcaster was using “Europe” as shorthand in discussions about the forthcoming vote, saying that to do so benefits the ‘In’ campaign. His point was that the phrase ‘European Union’ can be something of a toxic label for voters, so using ‘Europe’ instead can help soften the blow for those in the pro-EU camp.

Europe not EU

Private polling suggests Farage is right: voters seem to have less of an issue with the name of the land mass than the political organisation. It’s no doubt why ‘In’ campaign leader Stuart Rose repeatedly used the word ‘Europe’ in his launch address. It’s also explains why an email from pro-EU campaigner Laura Sandys called on supporters of Britain remaining a member to “always talk about Europe rather than EU”.

Importance of language

Whether you agree with Mr Farage’s opinions or not, the very fact that an individual phrase has become the subject of contention indicates just how important language is in shaping what is being discussed.

Less experienced interviewees than Mr Farage may not find it as easy to spot how the terms of reference can influence the issues under discussion. In short, to see the whole picture clearly, it’s important to check the frame.


How to manage a Flip-Flop

A new phrase has crept into the British political reporters’ lexicon – to Flip-Flop. The phrase has come from the US and it means to say one thing one week and something different the next.

Flip-Flops and U-Turns

flip flop

Flip-Flop has a whole new meaning


This used to be called a U-turn, a phrase that regularly made the headlines in the eighties. As a journalist, spotting a change in a publicly stated position still instantly provides an angle and a headline. I stumbled across this quote from Bernard Ingham, Thatcher’s chief press secretary, who suggested in PR Week fifteen years ago that U-turns deserved a whole chapter in any book on political PR.

“I spent the first two and a half Thatcher years playing spot-the-U-turn with the Lobby until she told her party conference: ‘You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning’. That didn’t stop ’em looking for one but it did slightly reduce the expectation.”

Clinton Flip-Flop

In the US  Hillary Clinton is getting a lot of Flip-Flop headlines. She is said to have changed her mind on at least three key points during her run for President:  whether she supports illegal immigrants being allowed drivers’ licenses, whether she supports a trade deal called TPP and whether she opposes same-sex marriage: all changes widely dubbed a Flip-Flop.

McDonnell Stumbles

In the UK John McDonnell the Shadow Chancellor won the Flip-Flop headline and a lot of stick for firstly saying Labour should support the government’s Fiscal Charter and then deciding it should not.  (For those that have missed this bit of political theatre the bill enshrines in law the principle that the government must maintain a budget surplus in ‘normal times’.)



McDonnell Sky composite

McDonnell wins the Flip-Flop headline


The PR Rules

If you are in the public-eye, changing your mind about something of substance always carries the risk of the U-turn/Flip-Flop headline. And yet of course leaders, both business and political, can and should change their minds, it would be a crazy world if they didn’t.

As PR people know, such changes just need to be managed carefully.

Rule number one is, avoid making pronouncements which you may have to change later: I am often suggesting to clients that are not quite so definite about something, if its not crucial to the story then why provide this ‘hostage to fortune’. I would also caution against making up a policy in the middle of an interview! Sounds unbelievable but happens all the time. I have several examples in mind but would be breaking client confidentiality to share.

Secondly, if you are going to change your mind, plan it and explain it in a coherent and open way.

Managed U-Turns

The news this week gave us just such an example: a carefully stage-managed U-turn. President Obama held a news conference to explain his change of heart on his plans to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan. He still got the odd Flip-Flop headline – or indeed in a new iteration ‘Flips’ in the Huffington Post, but mostly the story was not used as evidence of a weak and indecisive president.

Negative reporting is reduced if you go public on your own timetable, and provide a reasoned argument. It also helps if some time has elapsed between any original pronouncements and the reversal. McDonnell did explain his change of heart to the House of Commons but the fact that it was just a couple of weeks after the first announcement, meant it was his ‘Flip-Flop’ rather than the bill itself that got all the headlines. As in this example from The Guardian. 


Flip Flop picture courtesy of clourblindPICASO under a Creative Comms licence.

The cost of negative bias when good news is not newsworthy

The cost of negative bias: when good news is not newsworthy

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Lindsay Williams (the only blonde head) in rural Ethiopia where she was visiting land management projects

Every now and then someone wants to hijack a media training session with a detailed discussion about why journalists are as they are; why newspapers and broadcasters obsess about celebrity and the royal family, for example, when there are more important things to be writing about. Another often-heard complaint is that so much journalism is negative, whining, knocking or finding fault. My stock reply to this is ‘All planes land safely at Heathrow today’, is not a headline or a news story because this is what happens almost every day and it is what the public would expect. One plane crashing is out of the ordinary, shocking even, and therefore is to be written about. In fact, I see news as the professional and hopefully trustworthy version of gossip.

But the negative bias in news does sometimes have ‘unexpected consequences’. As many of you know I work a lot with one major UN agency, which is very close to my heart. As a team we have almost a dozen humanitarian clients (Laura has a lot more of this in Brussels than we do in London, and Oliver Wates knows more about international development than most professional aid workers).

Oliver wates Addis training

Oliver in the classroom in Addis Ababa

As a result we are aware of the huge progress that is being made across the globe in ending poverty, fighting hunger, promoting equality and health and getting children into school. There are of course huge exceptions. Anywhere where there is a war, everything goes backwards, from Syria to South Sudan. The problem I see is that most people don’t realise how much progress is being made. The negative bias in the reporting means most people think the global situation is dire and getting worse. How many people know for example that Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, now has a modern light railway or tram system. On the bigger picture, here is a piece from the BBC reporting on this week’s World Bank figures showing extreme poverty across the globe has fallen to below 10%. And here is another piece from the Guardian, which is more mixed but tries to audit the success of the international Millennium Development Goals. They were set in 2000, signed up to by all member countries of the United Nations and 23 international organisations and end this year. Although not all goals have been met, there are some spectacular successes. The MDGs, as they are affectionately known, are about to be replaced by the SDGs – or Sustainable Development Goals. And there is plenty of negative reporting about those. The negative news bias means the good news on development is almost hidden. Meanwhile all those agencies raising money for development projects feel they need to emphasise the bad. I think this is a worldwide strategic mistake. We in the developed world mostly suffer compassion fatigue and feel the situation is hopeless. Whereas if everyone realised we are nearly there – it is entirely possible to have a world in which no one dies of starvation, most children survive beyond their 5th birthday and every child goes at least to primary school –  we might all feel more energised for the last big push. The solution: I recommend all videos by one of our heroes, the Swede Hans Rosling. They should be compulsory viewing for all of us who care about current affairs. If you have never watched a TED talk by Rosling, start today with this one and work backwards.

Journalists will continue to write “interesting” stories about disaster, suffering and conflict and less often highlight the dull reality of constant improvements and gradual progress. That is not going to change in our lifetime. But we as consumer of news need to remember that is not the whole story.

Zaha Hadid picture

The P Word

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

Zaha Hadid Image

Zaha Hadid

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

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

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

Key Message

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

Hard Questions

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

Dealing with Death

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

Zaha tweets

Twitter reaction to the interview was mixed

Media-friendly Style

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

Keeping Cool

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

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

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

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

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

important of traditional media interviews

4 reasons traditional media interviews should still be part of your PR strategy

In the digital age, should PRs still bother putting their spokespeople up for interviews with journalists from the traditional media?

As Lindsay has blogged previously, you don’t have to look too far to find statistics that confirm how the proliferation of new media is eroding the business model and audience share of more traditional rivals. And, it’s also not hard to see why many organisations use social media to bypass journalists, particularly if an issue is contentious or they simply want to put a message out directly to the public.

That said, here are four reasons why talking to traditional journalists on the record should still have a place in your communications strategy.

1. Third party credibility

With trust in corporations and politicians (and to be fair, some of the media) very low, the fact that a spokesperson is prepared to put themselves up for a two-way grilling shows a willingness (or appearance of willingness) to take questions publicly. This is enormously valuable for credibility, as it shows the exchange is not self generated corporate or sponsored puff masquerading as objective news.  There’s a reason it’s called earned media..

2. Catharsis

Likewise, in a crisis, companies who put their CEO’s up for a mea culpa interview often do a much better job limiting damage to their brand, provided the CEO plays by the rules i.e. appears to be genuinely empathetic, follows the crisis messaging formula and doesn’t say anything stupid that will wreck the share price.

3. Audiences – bigger and more specialist

There may be more information outlets out there but many traditional journalists and news organisations also have big social media followings, meaning that if they tweet quotes or clips of their interview with your spokesperson, there’s an increased chance of it being shared and seen more widely. This is very helpful, not least because many organisations don’t have big or active enough digital communities to multiply a message effectively through their own social media channels. We also shouldn’t forget that we’re in a transition phase – many people, particularly older consumers or elite audiences still get their news and information predominantly through more traditional or niche outlets.

RCJ - YouTube

4. Profile building

An interesting recent analysis by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism showed that the relationship between social and traditional media is complex and symbiotic. Stories frequently begin life on social media or sharing sites such as Reddit but it often takes the pick up and ‘coronation’ by traditional journalists for a story to really make it into the mainstream. Likewise, social media pundits with big digital followings get a huge visibility boost once they get noticed by what is often still perceived as the Premier League of traditional media. And of course, the great thing about the social media/media interplay is that it’s measurable in terms of click-throughs and numbers of impressions related to an article.

My guess is that traditional media relations (particularly radio and TV) will continue to play a substantial, if not quite as important role in most PR’s communications strategies for a while yet.

What’s your strategy as a PR? Is the traditional media still important for you or are you focusing more on digital?


Juncker disappoints: We want more from EU speakers

This article first appeared on Hearings.Digital-Diplomacy.EU

What is the purpose of a speech?

Judging from some of the conversations I’ve been having with people on Twitter, I have been unfair to the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, because I wanted him to deliver his State of the Union speech in an engaging and convincing manner.

When I make comments like this, people in Brussels often assume that this is somehow a dig at the speaker’s English (which is usually perfect) and that I should cut them some slack because they are often talking in their third or fourth language.

So before I start this blog in full I want to make a number of things clear.

I am in awe of people who work in several languages

As a Brit who works almost exclusively in her mother tongue and speaks passable (but not professional) French and Spanish, I know how hard it is to work at an effective and nuanced level in other languages.

Doing speeches in multi-lingual environments is tough

This is partly because of language but also genuine cultural differences which exist over what makes an authoritative public speaker. Personally I think speeches should be banned from EU policy environments because they don’t add anything and almost all policymakers do better when taking questions rather than delivering set piece speeches which they aren’t good at.

I don’t want everyone to sound like Tony Blair


Or Angelina Jolie.

Far from it. I want them to be the best possible version of themselves if they are going to convince an audience to listen to their message. This does not make me superficial and unduly fixated on metaphors.  Nor does it mean I overlook substance in favour of rhetorical flourish (whatever that is). Rather, it means I accept that all public speaking is an exercise in creating and sustaining a convincing connection with an audience over a set period of time.  The Greeks knew this thousands of years ago when they were using speechmaking to cement ‘democracy’ in Athens. And not being boring matters more than ever in the increasingly impressionistic digital age we now live in.

So, caveats aside, the speech was a game of two halves. It was beautifully crafted, with lovely soundbites, great numbers and sticky stories but delivered in such a flat and listless way that it made me want to put a biro through my eyeball.

Quite simply, you wouldn’t have known this was the make or break speech it had been trailed as.


Juncker’s well written State of the Union was undermined by his flat delivery

The Good

Beautifully written: lots of sizzling soundbites such as  ‘There is a lack of Europe in Europe and a lack of union in the European Union’ and ‘Europe cannot house all the world’s misery’. Chapeau to Juncker’s speechwriters, who have done a very good job in focusing the content on the audience.
Great numbers – such as 20mn Poles live outside Poland – helped create a strong narrative arc and context for discussing the refugee crisis.
Strong storytelling and examples to help make the speech visual and real. There was also very little jargon. Good, good, good.

The Bad

Just one major point: the delivery was flat with terrible energy  and no light or shade (in all three languages, not just English). This is not a language issue. It’s a performance issue. No speaker will be convincing if they do not seem interested in and engaged by their own subject. Most of us have to fake energy and enthusiasm when it comes to public speaking. It does not mean you have to be a fake to do it.
I am a broken record on the energetic delivery point. I cannot emphasize this enough. You can have the best or worst content in the world but if you have no ooomph as a speaker  then you will always fail to ignite or even connect with your audience.
A strong speech certainly helps. But performance, passion and conviction are everything


Brussels Speaking

The Brussels challenge: how to deliver better speeches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only in Brussels, the portions are big.


Doing public speaking well in multi-lingual environments is tough

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

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

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

The speaker must put themselves in the audience’s shoes

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

Play to your speaker’s strengths

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

Help them improve eye-contact

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

Highlight key phrases

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

Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse

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

Less is usually more

Brussels Speaking

Mid career many of us are expected to speak in public

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

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



Aggressive interviewing goes out of fashion

The macho interviewing style of Jeremy Paxman and John Humphrys was called into question last week by the softly-spoken BBC star journalist Evan Davis.  A bullying, hyper-aggressive approach, he said in an interview with the news site, had been fresh and useful once, but had become worn out.

Arms race

Evan Davis

Davis argues in that a macho approach to interviewing has had its day

“It’s just made an arms race where politicians become more defensive and instead of making gaffes they just sound obfuscatory and boring,” he said.

There’s no question that the Paxman style –  which you might caricature as “you’ve all got something to hide and I’m going to bully it out of you” – has made great entertainment over the years. Arrogant politicians, civil servants, businessmen and other public figures have been made to answer, on live television, for every detail of their actions and the consequences.  It has certainly concentrated the mind.

But public opinion has moved on and Davis’ remarks will have hit a chord.   As he pointed out to “it’s not really a public service to try and trip someone into a gaffe or get them to say something … in order to then blow it up into something which isn’t really what they meant.”

Less confrontational approach

A less confrontational approach – as practised by Davis himself – is far more effective at weedling out truly interesting material.  In any case, these days most senior public figures will have armed themselves against the heavy bombardment threat with preparation and practice, before agreeing to appear in front of the camera.


Fear of Paxman-style cuffing up is what turns many executives to media training

Fear of a Paxman-style duffing-up is what turns many executives to media trainers. We certainly train our clients to cope with the former Newsnight presenter’s interviewing style as one extreme of the techniques you are likely to face, and we include some aggressive questioning in our practice sessions.

And there is no doubt that being prepared and trained to fend off this kind of blustering assault is an essential part of preparation for a media interview.  But in reality the greater challenge to senior executives and politicians is elsewhere – how to be interesting.

Clear explanations, good examples

The vast majority of media interviewers are not interested in humiliating or embarrassing their targets, unless there is a real matter of substance involved; they need clear explanations, simple facts and good examples and an answer which says something their audience wants to hear.  They are happy to cooperate if you can deliver that.

For most interviewees, the challenge is working out how to make your message interesting, how to find stories to illustrate it, and how to ditch the jargon and waffle for good clear English.  That’s actually much tougher than simply keeping Jeremy Paxman at bay.