media training

Why critics of media training miss the point

Media training has long had its critics among journalists. As far back as 2001, Anne Robinson’s appearance on the TV show Room 101 became infamous for sparking hundreds of complaints when she nominated ‘the Welsh’ for fictional oblivion. What has largely been forgotten is that she also included media training on her list.

Media training often misunderstood

That acrimony has continued over the years with several of my former journalistic colleagues – on hearing I had ‘gone over to the dark side’ to become a media trainer – grumbling that ‘all it does is teach people how to avoid answering the questions’.

Alastair Stewart is just wrong

media training

Veteran newscaster Alastair Stewart says people should just answer questions. We disagree.

TV presenter Alastair Stewart illustrated this misconception again recently when offering advice on how to prepare, as a subject matter expert, for an interview. (The whole piece is at Jul28 on his Facebook page but as he is a prolific social media user it is hard to find! ) His top tip was “listen to the questions and answer them” rather than go in “with a predetermined set of must-make points”. And yet two of his other tips, “you know more than your audience” and “you won’t have long” run counter to his first point and highlight exactly why most people do need GOOD media training.

media training

Experts know too much

In nearly 30 years of journalism and media training I can’t remember coming across an interviewee who didn’t know their subject matter. In fact, the problem is usually quite the reverse; they know it so well that they can’t see the wood for the trees! During the initial interview in a media training session people often give rambling answers while they desperately try to make their point. Alternatively, some are virtually monosyllabic, assuming that lots of interesting information is ‘too obvious to mention’. Indeed many experts, particularly from the worlds of academia, science and technology, believe that ‘the facts speak for themselves’ and are surprised when, for most people, they actually don’t. Good media training is about helping people distil everything they know down into short, coherent points that they can deliver in a matter of seconds, in a way that a general audience can understand.

It’s also about sense-checking the way people talk and the language they use. I have lost count of the times when having asked what should be the simple question ‘What does your company do?’ I received an answer along the lines of:

‘We create compelling customer journeys by engaging with our clients and offering end-to-end solutions. We optimise operations and help our clients transform their value proposition.’

Virtually every sector and every business is full of jargon and acronyms that mean absolutely nothing to outsiders and what critics of media training fail to realise is that not everyone is a natural communicator who can switch easily from ‘the day job’ to being a media star.

Media interviews are often turned down

In fact, the world of the journalist is completely alien to most people and, as a result, many turn down an interview through fear. I often hear ‘What if I say the ‘wrong’ thing?’ and ‘What if they ask me something I don’t know? I don’t want to look stupid.’ Alastair Stewart’s view that interviewees should not have some predetermined talking points and, instead, simply answer the questions, ignores the reality of many expert’s experience – that their interviews were frustrating because they felt the journalist didn’t ask the right questions so the interview never really got going. Having some carefully thought out points that are well crafted, with proof points backed up by good examples, ensures an interview can be a win-win situation for both the journalist and the expert. For most interviewees this doesn’t happen magically on the spot, it is the product of good media training.

Here is a blog I wrote earlier on media on interview tips.

If you would like to book media training please call us on +44 (020) 7099 2012.


Alastair Stewart image from YouTube



2 replies
  1. David Nelson
    David Nelson says:

    As a former ITN colleague of Alastair’s (and we’ve known each other since student politics days in the mid 1970’s) his briefing for the City students sounds more designed as a lecture of anecdotes to keep the trainee hacks awake. One of Alastair’s great skills is as a storyteller. But, because he has been front of camera for so long, on programmes where most of the live interviews are with politicians, his view may be a little narrow. (Oh and by the way, classic example of interviewee who did NOT know the subject matter: Diane Abbott). But before most live interviews the producer or the researcher sits down with the talent (i.e. the presenter/s) and they discuss what questions they want answering – for all the interviews that the presenter is going to do that day. The producer/ researcher then goes off and finds a live, coherent, available, relevant individual prepared to give up their time, AND, answer the questions. This can take 20 or 30 phone calls and the relief when someone says yes, ticking all these boxes, is huge – especially in 24 hour news with its rolling deadlines. (Which is how Nigel Farage garnered so much airtime so easily). So Alastair is sort of ignoring his own reality: all interviews are planned to a degree because the news organisation has produced a set of questions they believe are the ones they should be asking. And you – as a presenter – know that the person in front of you is prepared to answer them: otherwise they wouldn’t be there. The only slightly underhand practice in all this, that your customers need to be aware of is this: when the researcher/producer is talking to the potential interviewee (or their press minder) a string of questions will be reeled off. With the best will in the world, only one or two will get asked, with supplementaries. Check what is really at the top of the agenda. Another underhand tactic is for the researcher to say just before ending the call: “Oh and we need to talk briefly about x…”. Do not let that one go – what they really mean is that’s what they really want to talk about.
    Finally, remember this: most news presenters have to do dozens of interviews every day. They also have a constant stream of instruction in their earpiece. It’s a whole lot easier for them to follow the plan discussed and noted from the production meeting than to branch out and adopt a different interview strategy.

    David Nelson is a retired TV production journalist who worked for Thames TV, ITN, Sky News, CNBC, Reuters in a number of roles over a 27 year career.

  2. Catherine Cross
    Catherine Cross says:

    Hi David, while everything you say may be true – in theory – for organisations like ITN and other national or international broadcasters, my experience is that it’s certainly not the case for many local radio, regional TV and 24-hour newsrooms with airtime to fill and overworked staff trying to do it. (Researchers?? When I worked in local radio we were lucky if we occasionally had the odd work experience person passing through for a couple of days to give us a hand!) Even 24 hour news outlets like 5Live were often short on staff and resources, (one breaking news programme broadcast in the early hours of the morning that I worked on had only two journalists trying to fill it with just a few hours of preparation), so unfortunately the idea that everything is so carefully discussed and prepared is just not the reality for many potential interviewees.

    Even if an interviewee is briefed on the questions, and the interviewer sticks to them, the reality is also that without practising content and delivery beforehand in a media training session, less experienced interviewees can dry up, become very defensive or just plain bland. (The plaintive cry of “They were OK on the phone when I called them” was a regular response to a programme editor angrily asking why an interviewee had been dull when actually on air.)

    I agree that political interviews are a different breed and I also get annoyed when I hear them blatantly making absolutely no attempt to answer the question they have been asked (Theresa May being a prime example) but for most subject experts – which was the audience that Alastair Stewart was addressing – I believe the point stands that good media training can help media novices deliver interesting and insightful content in a way that can be a win-win situation for both interviewer and interviewee.


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