I love a profile interview and this week’s Lunch with the FT guest is one of the most impressive female figures on the world stage: Christine Lagarde, current head of the ECB.
Martin Arnold’s article is behind the FT paywall but if you do have time, opportunity and inclination, I would urge you to read it. Beautifully written and a fascinating insight into a world leader.
But for those who can’t read it all, let me pick out a few highlights and explain the media training learning point.
Lagarde knows how to show humility without looking weak.
…I (Arnold) bring up an early faux pas when she was asked at an ECB press conference for her reaction to rising alarm over COVID-19 deaths in northern Italy, which was pushing up the “spread” between Italian and German borrowing costs. Her ill-judged answer was: “We are not here to close spreads.”
The remark had an instant effect on Bond markets, which fell sharply as investors priced in the likelihood that Lagarde was moving away from the commitment, famously made by her predecessor, to defend the Euro ‘whatever it takes.’
Lagarde points out in the FT that her comment was technically accurate but she indicates she knows it was a mistake without actually saying so – which would have made a quote and possibly a headline. Instead, she shares an anecdote.
“I talked to colleagues and friends after that,” she says, listing Jay Powell, chair of the US Federal Reserve, Janet Yellen, his predecessor who is now Treasury Secretary, and Mark Carney, former governor of the Bank of England, among those she called, as well as (her predecessor) Draghi. “Most of them, not all of them, but most of them said: ‘Welcome to the club, we all did the same thing. We all screwed up’.”
I cannot but believe this was a rehearsed anecdote. Lagarde almost certainly guessed this question would be asked. The answer comes close to admitting a mistake while both excusing it and ensuring the reader understands she was in good company. If I was deeply cynical, I would say even using an expletive to ensure the context is quoted.
A good media performer uses real stories to illustrate key points. In this case the point was: ‘It may have been unwise, but this is the sort of thing that happens to all central bankers.’
Share something from your youth
In preparing clients for profile interviews, I am always urging them to share little nuggets from their personal lives; details that helped shape them as leaders. Sadly, most cannot remember anything interesting or are reluctant to share. Lagarde has her stories to hand and deploys several, all of which flatter her but in a way that is subtle.
One example is the role model her mother provided.
Her mother Nicole became “a huge inspiration”, she says, sounding a touch emotional. Nicole raised four children on her own after Lagarde’s father Robert died when she was only 16, while also “multitasking to the extreme” by working as a language professor, riding horses, racing rally cars, singing in a choir and sewing dresses. “She always wanted to be elegant,” Lagarde says.
This is a wholly positive story about the influence of a strong, hard-working and elegant woman. Plenty of reflected glory here.
Then there is there is some details about her teenage years.
“A member of France’s synchronised swimming team in her youth, the 67-year-old still uses the breathing techniques she learned to deal with stress. “When I hear some governors, I go,” she inhales deeply using her abdomen. “And then you smile.”
This is a story that shows Lagarde was always a disciplined high achiever, but it is still relatable. She demonstrates she is not unfeeling; she does get irritated and does need to exercise self-control.
There is plenty more in this vein, all written up by Arnold who weaves the report of the conversation around details of the restaurant, the menu choices, chat about Lagarde being ‘almost teetotal’, having a ‘sweet tooth’ and her gift of home-made marmalade.
When it comes to writing or storytelling these little details transport the reader or listener … I call it the ‘power of the specific’. I have written about this before in this blog. You could easily argue it does not matter that they chose from the set menu and had marinated salmon to start and risotto as the main. But the details make you feel you are sitting at the table with them.
All in all, a delightful, well-written profile of an extraordinary media-savvy woman.
Photo: Christine Lagarde by Adrian Petty/ECB (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/)
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