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UK Prime Minister Media Style

UK Prime Minister Media Style

The UK Prime Minister Media Style was this week on display for the first time. Theresa May gave her first major interview since taking office to the BBC’s Andrew Marr. It runs more than 17 minutes and from it I can draw some clear conclusions about the media style of this Prime Minister.  But the question most people will have in their minds when watching this interview is: why don’t politicians answer a direct question with a direct answer.

My advice to the PM: more direct answers please.

May has clearly been well prepared for this interview. She has her messages in place and there was certainly no thinking on the hoof, all the questions had been anticipated and her answers were rehearsed. Thank goodness. For me this is more evidence of a ‘safe pair of hands’.

What’s more, while the hair and make-up were perfect, the outfit was not overly formal (are those bare ankles?) and the setting is the rather faded glory of, what I assume is, the Maidenhead Constituency office, complete with cracked fireplace and 1970’s carpet. I think this was a deliberate choice, indicating that this Prime Minister is not interested in the glory of the job or the opulence of the offices of state.

We also saw a warmer, more animated performer than in the past, with a marked reduction in her frosty impatience with the media process.

Her use of messages was, perhaps overly obvious, just a bit too much repetition and not enough new information for such a set piece interview.

On her vision for Britain the message was: “I want to see a country that works for everyone, a society that works for everyone, an economy that works for everyone…”

On schools: “Good quality education, giving opportunity…”

On Brexit: “We will make a success of it” and “We want to be an outward looking, independent Britain forging our way in the world.”

On the timetable for the exit negotiations  “We need to take time to prepare, we need a period of preparation” and “We will not trigger Article 50 before the end of the year”.

But the rhythm of the interview is annoying. For the first 15 minutes May makes a point of never answering a direct question with a direct answer. This I think is a mistake, probably the only substantial criticism I would make of her style. It was clearly a deliberate strategy, but a misguided one.

So, for example, when asked:

“Would you like to see at the end of the first Theresa May administration more grammar schools open than there are now?”

The answer was:

“What I would like to see Andrew is ensuring an education system, regardless of where people are, regardless of the school they are going to that is ensuring they are getting the quality of education that enables them to take on those opportunities…”

This sort of response drives listeners and viewers nuts. I just don’t understand why politicians won’t say ‘We are looking at that’ or ‘I am not giving you an answer to that today’ or ‘This is something we are still discussing’.

Making a direct response to the question before moving to a wider point makes the speaker sound much more honest and credible.

Here are just a couple of comments from below the interview on YouTube that show how people react to this communication style.

UK Prime Minister Media Style Twitter comments

UK Prime Minister Media Style Twitter comments

UK Prime Minister Media Style Twitter comments

 

UK Prime Minister Media Style Twitter comments

 

 

 

 

Theresa May did actually adopt the strategy I would have suggested, towards the end of the interview  – at 17:18 if you want to find it.

When asked a follow-up question on her stalling over the Hinkley Point decision she said:

“I think you are trying to get me to give an indication of what my decision is going to be Andrew, which I am not going to do.”

She did it with good grace and was not aggressive about it and it worked a treat.

Post Truth era: the problem of trust

Know your audience: why Trump may be losing ground

Know your audience is one of the basic tenets of communication. But Donald Trump’s fortunes may be on the turn – and history may conclude that his big miscalculation was misjudging his audience. His unconventional style won him the Republican nomination but is not playing so well with the wider electorate.   I really enjoyed this thoughtful piece from the BBC’s New York correspondent Nick Bryant.

As Bryant points out, campaigning for the presidency is not the same as campaigning for the presidential nomination.

Know your audience: why Trump may be losing ground

Know your audience: Trump is the hero of angry Americans

Many thousands of words have been written about how Trump’s free-wheeling, deliberately politically incorrect, communication style has made him a hero of angry Americans who feel disenfranchised by the Washington elite. The problem he faces is that having got those votes in the bag, to win, he now needs to appeal to Americans who are not quite so angry and who have a more nuanced approach to politics, and social and economic problems.

As we have talked about elsewhere, political speeches need to be an emotional journey that ends up with the audience feeling they have been understood and they can see a better future for them and their family. The problem in politics is that there is not one audience there are many. There is not one thing the electorate care about but many. That is why so many hours go into crafting messages and speeches. It is hugely complicated and a profession in itself.

Trump’s campaign has at least been entertaining because to a large extent he has ignored those conventions. Marie Claire is among many publications that has pulled together a list of the extreme, offensive and rather stupid things Trump has said. It is worth a read.

The whole political phenomenon of protest votes for very non-traditional politicians is fascinating. And something that we will return to again and again. But just last week the conservative journalist Janet Daley argued in the Telegraph that we are entering the ‘Age of Stupid’ because politicians on both sides of the Atlantic are saying stupid things and not just getting away with it but being applauded.

Know your audience: 5 common mistakes

But to return to the mundane: if in the end, Trump is misjudging the wider audience, he is making a mistake that many people make in presentations and in media interviews.

Professional communicators have always to ask: who is the audience, as well as what is the message.

In media training, we see five ways people misjudge their audience.

  1. The most obvious miscalculation is that people use jargon, treating the journalist and the audience as if they were professional colleagues and using technical or specific language or acronyms that simply don’t work in a more general group of people, This can be medics talking about ‘health outcomes’, bankers talking about ‘unauthorised borrowing’ or international aid people talking about ‘beneficiaries’ and ‘capacity building’.
  2. Another obvious miscalculation is that people forget they are speaking to an external audience and share information that is confidential. For example, they share business targets or margins, or they are much too honest about the underperformance of their own team or another part of their own business. It is really common for people to tell journalists all about some new initiative that has not yet been announced – giving the journalist a scoop and the poor PR person who has been working on the launch a real headache.
  3. Another mistake I often highlight is too much focus on making money. In the UK and Europe making money is not seen as virtuous (this is not true elsewhere in the world). It is typically not a good idea to talk externally about your money-making ambitions. Much better to talk about the improvement in the experience or lives of your customers. This is not true if you are talking to the investment media: investors want to understand the business model and where the profit is, but for a general audience it is better to speak about your business as if it were a well-run charity. If asked directly by a journalist about the commercial ambition, it is best to be coy. I suggest phrases such as ‘of course we are a commercial organisation but the important thing is… ‘ We then suggest shifting the focus to the public benefit.
  4. Often when talking to a general audience there is a need to state the obvious. As journalists, we are taught to always consider the ‘helicopter view’. Remind people of the big picture. If you have spent months designing a computer system you will be stuck in the weeds of functionality and bugs – but if you are speaking to an external audience, you will need to remember to articulate why it was needed in the first place.
  5. And finally it is not just the helicopter view: a general audience needs to be reminded of things a speaker can assume are obvious. I call this sign-posting. A really typical mistake is a scientist throwing up a complicated PowerPoint slide with several graphs and lots of data points and saying ‘so what is obvious here is…’. And of course it is not obvious at all. The professional communicator knows you need one chart, not four and you need to explain the basics: ‘this chart plots weight loss over a one-year period with time across the bottom and combined weight of the group on the Y axis’. With that sort of introduction to the slide, everyone has a chance to work out what is going on. But sign-posting can also be as simple as ‘last year’ and ‘this year’ or ‘why this matters is….’

So if you are planning a media interview take AIM: work out who your Audience is, what your Intention is and then work out your Message.

Our advice would also be to avoid outrageous sexist comments or any wildly racist generalisations.

 Photo used under Creative Comms Licence

Allsorts 23

In defence of clichés

Allsorts ImageClients often express horror and disgust at the idea of using a cliché in an interview. They feel, as serious professionals, that they should not be using what they see as trite, overused and near meaningless phrases to talk about their important issues.

Well, there are some clichés I hate and would never use but in general I find clichés very useful.

Divided team

This is a subject that divides Media Coach trainers. Some of these professional wordsmiths, whose writing skills were honed at Reuters and the BBC, are reluctant to write anything that might be seen as ‘lazy’. Others, like me, are delighted when technical people can tell their story in colloquial language.

Arrogance

A knee jerk dismissal of clichés is, for me, an arrogance of the chattering classes.  Cliché’s communicate meaning quickly and in a way that is familiar and inclined to provoke empathy. Clearly that is not true if it is your pet hate cliché (mine is ‘at the end of the day’ which I once counted 17 times in one interview on Radio 4.) But phrases such as,

‘It’s like buses, nothing for an hour then three come all at once’
or
‘Horses for courses’
or
‘There is no one size fits all’
or
‘There’s a time and place for such things’

All of these are instantly recognised in the UK and communicate meaning very quickly.

Owned by the people

Madeleine1

Trainer Madeleine Holt believes acceptable clichés have to be in common parlance

My colleague, Madeleine Holt, says clichés are bad news unless they ‘owned by the people and routed in our history and common parlance’. She cites ‘don’t rob Peter to pay Paul’ as being a good example. She avoids, in messaging, anything that echoes known ‘spun’ phrases. So ‘Education, Education, Education’ she sees as having strong echoes of the Blair era of spin and therefore to be avoided at all costs. Similarly, we would probably all agree that ‘green shoots of recovery’ should not be used because when Norman Lamont used it he was lying, or perhaps misguided. Either way the folk memory has negative connotations.

Laura Shields in Brussels wrote a whole blog on how ‘game-changer’ was a grossly overused and now a meaningless phrase. I happen to completely disagree with her!

Oliver Wates, once a senior editorial figure in Reuters and our go-to person on written style, is inclined to wield the red pen when it comes to clichés.

Judicious

Despite the prejudices of these very clever people I will continue to advocate the judicious use of clichés and why – because I am always seeing my carefully chosen phrases in the write up of my clients interviews. Journalists are actually very predictable and rarely turn down a good cliché.

BBC world Service credit

5 Golden Rules for doing a good local radio interview

BBC local radio radio norfolk2Local radio is a great British institution and widely listened to. My first job as a journalist was with BBC Radio Norfolk and I have many fond memories. This week I have been training an ‘expert’ to handle local radio interviews and it has prompted me to pull together these Golden Rules.

1. No business, technical or financial language

I know we go on about this all the time and think it is also important to speak to technical trade press in as simple a way as possible but it is very, very important on local radio. If you use professional lingo you will likely be cut short and not be invited back.

2. Give useful information

You will rarely, if ever, be invited on to local radio to advertise your product. But you will be invited to share useful information. Journalists accept that a bit of subtle branding is the price they often pay in return for an entertaining and informative speaker. So, if you want to sell your ISA (individual savings account) you may be able to negotiate a slot explaining what an ISA is, why it is relevant and why everyone thinks about ISA’s at the turn of the financial year. What do I mean by subtle branding? You could say ‘there are lots of good rates out there this year, for example ours is 3.2%’. But you should not say: ‘we have the best rate in the market, transfer your money to us’.

BBC world Service credit23. Make it local

Journalists working on local (and regional) radio need to make every story relevant to their audience. Look for ways to mention local towns, local high streets (e.g. we have a branch in St Peters Place in Norwich) or local personalities. If you are talking about research, ask your experts to pull out some regional trends or anomalies. This can be challenging if you do a radio day – lots of interviews back to back – but the trick is to have something locally relevant for each interview.

4. Be prepared to join the party

Some but not all local radio shows mix current affairs with a jovial party atmosphere. You can get asked about your holiday, your funny accent or your thoughts on a new runway at Heathrow. The best guests are able to answer such questions with a light touch but without getting into trouble and then wait for their own subject to be introduced properly.

5. Keep it short and sweet

Your local radio interview is likely to be three minutes or less. It may even be two minutes. As a rule of thumb your answers in a BBC local radio interview should be 40 seconds long, in a commercial radio interview more like 20 seconds. Of course you should not sit there with a stopwatch but just be aware that you will have to be able to get the story into a very short amount of time. The only way we know to do this well is to prepare what you want to say and rehearse it before an interview.

Local radio is fun and a great training ground if you want to go on to be a fully fledged media tart.

Photo Radio Studio Licence:creative comms from flickr