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not answering the question Theresa May

Not answering the question is not the way to do it

Not answering the question in a media interview is never a good idea and can always be spotted a mile off.

Delegates arriving through the doors of The Media Coach are sometimes under the impression that we are there to teach them how to avoid answering questions they find difficult or awkward to answer.

The truth is that our sessions help them understand how to address questions during media interviews in such a way that both interviewer and audience are satisfied that they have understood the question, and have dealt with it appropriately.

Done well, it’s highly effective; done badly, it stands out like a sore thumb.

Not answering the question: Theresa May

Cue this week’s research by the University of York, which indicates that Theresa May is the ‘most evasive’ of recent leaders of the Conservative Party.

not answering the question

The academics involved studied how she dealt with MPs’ questions and media interviews, comparing her responses to the past three Tory predecessors in Number 10 Downing Street – David Cameron, John Major and Margaret Thatcher.

They found that in two broadcast interviews after she became Prime Minister in 2016 and four during the 2017 general election campaign, Mrs May answered only 27% of the questions put to her. By contrast, David Cameron answered 34% of questions in the 2015 poll, while both John Major in 1992 and Margaret Thatcher in 1987 answered 39%.

not answering the question

Telegraph article by Christopher Hope

The researchers identified techniques which included ignoring awkward questions without acknowledging that a question has been asked, as well as responding to her own modified versions of questions, rather than the version that was actually posed. The research made the front page of the Telegraph Newspaper. 

As it happens my colleague Lindsay Williams made this observation when Theresa May first became Prime Minister. Lindsay wrote this blog in September 2016.

Little wonder the Prime Minister has been nicknamed “the Maybot” by many commentators during her failed general election campaign in 2017, even admitting, ‘People used the term “robotic” about me… I don’t think I’m in the least robotic’ (there’s also a lesson here about not repeating negative words or phrases in responses – but that’s for another blog).

Media interview techniques

To be clear – being trained in media interview technique is not about not answering the question. Instead, we teach an approach that allows interviewees to address questions in a way that convincingly persuades all of those listening that they are being dealt with in an open and honest manner.

It’s a learnt skill, often counter-intuitive in its method, and there are dozens of tricks and traps in the interviewer’s armoury which are craftily designed to prevent you from carrying it out effectively.

But then, that’s what our sessions are for.

We’ll give you the skills you need, lay bare the techniques media interviewers use and provide you with plenty of practice to deal with them.

Of course, the alternative is to take the politician’s approach – which is to openly not answer the question. The trouble is, that method gets spotted.

Not only by university researchers, not only by journalists but by members of the public too.

Images:

Theresa May from Wikimedia Commons
Telegraph article by Christopher Hope

The art of oratory

The Art of Oratory and the Attorney General

The art of oratory is an old-fashioned way of describing the skill of mastering an argument and delivering it to move an audience. And there was something old-fashioned and somewhat extraordinary about a Tory conference speech from someone I had previously never heard of.

Somehow I had missed the story about the richest MP trying to claim 49p for a pint of milk, which seems to be the only previous time Geoffrey Cox made news headlines.  After his speech, The Spectator dubbed him the most important politician you’ve never heard of, and the Mirror called him the ‘Tory Gandalf ‘.

Barnstorming Speech

The recently appointed Attorney General, Geoffrey Cox spoke for a little over 11 minutes, as the ‘warm-up’ act for the Prime Minister. He spoke without notes in a barnstorming performance that was entertaining and uplifting. It was a call to arms for an embattled Prime Minister.

As ever, I am not commenting on the politics of what Geoffrey Cox says, but feel compelled to call out the fact that he said it really well. Those of us who aspire to be really good communicators can learn a lot from watching someone who really can deliver a speech.

Here is the speech:

Speakers Notes

This is what I see in this speech.

  • Within seconds of arriving on stage, the speaker connects with his audience, with a self-effacing comment. You feel he is really talking to the people in the audience, not broadcasting.
  • Because he speaks without notes he is able to stand beside the podium not behind it. One of my colleagues, Eric Dixon, always advocates this as a way to give you a better connection with an audience.
  • He is incredibly relaxed on stage. He could be standing in his living room, not in a conference hall of hundreds with a TV audience of potentially millions.

A Big, Big Voice

  • He has an amazingly deep and loud voice. Our voices are produced by a muscle and the more you use it, the stronger it gets. Professional teachers nearly always have loud voices, I have a very loud voice, and my camera operators are always having to adjust for it. Geoffrey Cox has spent his life in courtrooms and has a big, big voice. He has also learnt (I assume learnt) to make it melodic.
  • He speaks without notes – immensely impressive.
  • He quickly gets into personal and story-telling mode.
  • He pauses as much as he speaks – he speaks slowly and gives himself lots of thinking time.
  • He articulates every word – even long difficult phrases.

A Wide Range of Tone

  • He uses light and shade. Sometimes he goes quiet, sometimes he booms, sometimes he relaxes and then he is declaiming. He uses a wide range of tones in a very short speech.
  • He is not afraid of overacting or overemphasising. There are many extremely dramatic gestures. For example, he uses his whole body, bending almost double, to emphasis his point that Britain could no longer put up with the EU because ‘the price is just too high’. It is worth noting that most of his body language is very open and even when he gets a bit ‘nasty’ for example when talking about the Labour party, he softens it with a twinkle in his eye.

I could go on. The speech was not about policy detail and it did what always works – he lifted the Brexit discussion to grand phrases ‘this great democratic mandate’, ‘we need not fear self-government’, we will ‘step out as a free independent and sovereign partner to the others’ and so on. He said a lot of sweeping things that it is difficult to disagree with but do not help with the detail of what to do about the NI border or the Galileo space project. But to be fair that was not his brief. He was asked to galvanise those at the conference to follow their leader for a noble cause. And he did.

Others have called him out as a future Tory leader but I doubt it. If he had wanted the job he would not have chosen to quote Milton. It is too old-fashioned and plays too heavily into the stereotype of a public-school-educated, born-with-a-silver-spoon, out-of-touch-with-ordinary-people Tory stereotype. It seemed to me like he was just having fun.

Rudeness in politics Boris Johnson

Rudeness and its Role in Politics

Rudeness in public life is not new and gives guaranteed headlines. Boris Johnson has won another huge raft of headlines and is being ‘investigated’ by the Conservative party on the grounds he may have breached the party’s code of conduct with remarks he made about women wearing the niqab.

Rude: Boris Grabs the Headlines (again)

Rudeness in public life Boris Johnson

Former Cabinet Minister Boris Johnson offended Muslims with his remarks about the niqab.

He was commenting on a new law in Denmark which bans the niqab (which leaves the eyes visible) and the burka (which covers the full face and body). Although Johnson argues against such a ban, he caused great offence with the following comments:

Rudeness in public life Boris Johnson

The whole article is here but behind a paywall.

The comments are certainly rude and disrespectful but many will identify with them.

And this is the dilemma as I see it.

If you are PC, some will assume you are not being straight

If you are always politically correct and polite in public life, and on the media, people think you are not being straight, you are not getting to grips with the issue, and you care more about style than substance.

Being polite and diplomatic about a controversial subject can also be interpreted as ‘weasel words’. Some will assume you don’t believe anything you are saying.

On the other hand, if you are undiplomatic or rude people think you are genuine, straight talking and you are ‘calling a spade a spade’, ‘telling it like it is’ and other positive sentiments.

Rudeness and Political Gain

Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, and many others including Disraeli I am told, all in their time have flown in the face of political correctness for political gain.

For a myriad of reasons, social media has magnified the benefit of being rude.

It is naive to see Boris Johnson’s recent comments as him ‘misspeaking’ or unable to control himself. This is a clever political operator playing political odds and building his political base outside the current government. All the hand-wringing in the Tory party and the official enquiry will not make a jot of difference to his future behaviour. It might, of course, serve to deter others with less courage, from using the same tactics.

Recently a website called The Conversation published a detailed piece asking if rudeness has a legitimate place in politics.  The author, Amy Irwin, a lecturer in psychology, writes about how rudeness affects not just aggressor and victim but bystanders as well and mentions the ‘incivility spiral’ – which is the rather obvious truism that rudeness begets rudeness.

The piece also argues that while rudeness has some benefits it puts normal people off politics. Sadly, I think the opposite is true. Rudeness makes politics more engaging and easier to understand. Of course, some will find it tedious or distasteful but many more will find themselves talking politics in the pub and around the water cooler as a result. And that is political engagement.

If all that makes you think I am in favour of rudeness, I am not. For the simple reason that, well, it’s rude. I do think however, many who are otherwise on-the-side-of-the-angels, lose out politically because they are too careful not to cause offence. As with most things, wisdom lies in the middle ground.

If you would like help with crafting careful effective messages, The Media Coach can facilitate a message building workshop for your organisation and you will end up with messages that have widespread buy-in at a fraction of what would be charged by a PR agency. Call us on 020 7099 2212 to book your session.

 

Boris Johnson image used under a Creative Commons licence.