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interview soundbites

Interview soundbites: prepare in advance or journalists will feed you theirs!

Interview soundbites are essential to journalists. They need those quotes and will often turn them into headlines. And that is why, at The Media Coach, we always spend time during a media training session helping clients prepare their own interview soundbites. This ensures they get their points across succinctly and coherently, in a media-friendly way, that makes an interview a win-win situation for the interviewee and the journalist.

Unfortunately for journalists, if an interviewee doesn’t do this vital preparation it can mean the process is more like a trip to the dentist to have a tooth pulled. There is an out and out battle to try and extract a few quotable words. Faced with dull and unquotable answers, journalists are highly likely to resort to trying to put words in an interviewee’s mouth to get something useable. [And that is why we think media training is so important as I wrote in a previous blog linked here].

Don’t let journalists write their own interview soundbites

A humorous take on this journalistic trick was highlighted in a montage on the US current affairs programme Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. Time and again you see presenters or anchors suggesting a quote and the interviewee repeating it.

 

So, as we see in the video, a journalist may try to get something quotable by asking a question phrased with emotive or subjective language. As a journalist myself, it was not an ‘interview trap’ I was specifically taught; rather I just learnt quickly that if I asked a bland question I tended to get a bland answer.

Nervous interviewees in particular, or those doing an interview in a language which isn’t their mother tongue, often unwittingly repeat language from the question – helpfully fed to them by the journalist – to give themselves thinking time at the start of their answer. While it can be benign with merely an attempt to make an interviewee more succinct and ‘sexy’, it can also lead to unfortunate headlines and leave interviewees thinking they have been misquoted.

That’s why we strongly encourage people to develop their own quotes rather than relying on the journalist’s version of the soundbite. We also warn people to be careful about agreeing to or simply saying “Yes” in response to a journalist’s paraphrasing of an answer. It’s much safer to develop your own effective soundbites before the interview.

Beware the headline-grabbing last question

Another example of the soundbite-seeking technique is to round off an interview with a headline-grabbing closing question. This can be particularly dangerous if the interviewee is aware that the interview is coming to an end, so relaxes and drops their guard.

How to avoid falling into this trap was demonstrated by Andrea Leadsom during a recent interview with Robert Peston (view the full 12-minute interview below but the last minute is the relevant part).

 

Seeking Ms Leadsom’s views on John Bercow’s role as Speaker of the House, Robert Peston uses phrases such as “impugned his impartiality” in his questions. When her answers are fairly careful chosen (and unquotable), he also tries the paraphrase technique by asking her if what she is really saying is Mr Bercow should “wind his neck in”. Spotting the trap, she skilfully (and with some humour) sidesteps it by evoking the famous quote from the BBC’s original version of House of Cards saying “You might say that I couldn’t possibly comment”.

How to stay safe and in control of the interview soundbites

For the less experienced at handling media interviews, the solution is threefold:

  1. Prepare thoroughly.
  2. Ensure your messages and soundbites are carefully crafted into a format the journalist can use.
  3. Remain vigilant throughout the interview to avoid repeating any headline-grabbing phrase fed to you by the journalist.

Here are some of the other blog posts I have written on this subject:

Media interviews: is fear of failure leading to missed opportunities?

Developing messages: Are you guilty of navel-gazing?

If that feels all rather difficult you may want to pick up the phone and talk to us about booking a short media training session. The Media Coach 020 7099 2212 or drop us a line at enquiries@themediacoach.co.uk.

 

tough and aggressive media interviews

Dealing with tough and aggressive media interviews

Tough and aggressive media interviews are in evidence most days in the British media. The Brexit frustration, chaos and confusion is making most of us exasperated and the journalists are reflecting that with challenging interviews.

As a student of managing media interviews, this throws up lots of examples of people handling difficult questions.

And this is front of mind for me personally as I had a client last week (no names, no pack drill, of course) who wanted to practise really aggressive interviews – interviews which in my view he is very unlikely ever to face outside a training room.

I always say the most difficult questions are those where you can’t tell the truth but you definitely can’t lie. Many people, when faced with aggression and persistence will give in and tell the truth even if they know they shouldn’t, which of course is why barristers and journalists have perfected the art of being aggressive and persistent.

[Just to be clear there are lots of occasions when it is ethically the correct thing to do – not to tell the whole truth. For example: when publicly asked about personnel matters such as salaries or sackings, ahead of mergers or take-overs when it is illegal to reveal to one set of shareholders something that is not revealed to all, ahead of legal proceedings and of course during negotiations.]

Most people who talk to the media will never face really aggressive questioning, but it is instructive to analyse how others do it. The most aggressive interviews that I am aware of these days are probably not on the BBC but are perhaps on LBC. Nick Ferrari and Eddie Mair are both capable of making anyone feel very uncomfortable.  Here is an example from a couple of weeks ago which not only shows Mair’s quietly aggressive style, but also that Jacob Rees-Mogg goes into the studio prepared to give as good as he gets. This ‘have a go back at the journalist’ technique is not one that we recommend but it does stop you as the interviewee being the victim. The question, of course, is does it damage or support the authority of the government’s message.

On Sunday we saw the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sajid Javid, interviewed on Andrew Marr. Javid appeared to blatantly make two mutually contradictory statements: One was that the government will abide by the law of the land and the second is that it will leave on October 31st even though a law was being passed to prevent leaving without a deal. What is interesting about the interview is the confidence and clarity with which Javid holds the line on this apparent impossibility, despite Marr’s best efforts.

The viewer’s reaction to this performance will depend on whether he or she supports or despises the current government. But again it shows politicians refusing to be bowed or manipulated by the interview process. I would conclude that the government spin doctors do not care what Andrew Marr and the Remainers think, they want the team out there talking directly to their own supporters. Javid is getting a message out to those that matter at this moment.

On the same programme, we heard Amber Rudd explain why she quit the government and the Conservative Party. It was absolutely obvious that this was a very well-prepared media event, well messaged and each line clearly articulated. For example, she had what sounded like evidence of not enough effort going into making a deal: ‘I asked and I was sent a one-page summary’. She also said ‘21 of my colleagues, who are good moderate conservatives’. Not a phrase she thought up during the interview. Personally, I think she came across extremely well in this interview and wonder if she is positioning herself as a possible next prime minister.

This is not a very aggressive interview but I have included it because asked by Marr if the issue that led to her resignation was a question of lack of trust, she said ‘I am not going to use those words…’

This is a very standard line that we often suggest in Media Training. People are usually surprised that we recommend they are so direct – but it is important to understand that every journalist is looking for a quote, a headline or a soundbite and they are often keen to write this themselves – and ask you to agree. Had Rudd said ‘yes’ to that particular question the headlines would have quoted her as saying she left the government because she couldn’t trust Boris. Stating bluntly that she will pick her own words allowed her to control both the interview in the moment and also the way it was reported during the day.

We have written about managing tough interviews many times before. Here are a selection of previous blogs.

10 Tips for surviving aggressive interviewers 

Media Interviews you just can’t win

Your TV interviewer may be annoying but storming out isn’t great either

If you think you need support preparing for a media event or a media interview give us a call to discuss how we can help tel:+44 0(20) 7099 2212.

our advice

Our Advice to the Tory Leadership Candidates

Our advice to the Tory leadership candidates does not differ from our advice to clients in the spotlight. It is only the substance and the level of scrutiny that is challenging.

Our advice

Our Advice: Get the Lines on Brexit Watertight

  • Have your stance on Brexit clearly thought through and articulated so that anyone voting for you knows (and can repeat in your words) what you stand for. It is not the ideas that count, that is just the starting point. It is the exact words you want to have crafted and rehearsed. And of course, prepare answers to the tough Brexit questions. This may seem like stating the obvious, but preparation includes arming yourself with answers to all possible challenging questions. It is surprising how many politicians can trot out their prepared pitch confidently and then become flustered and inarticulate when a journalist asks the obvious tough question.
  • Have one or two stand-out ideas that are not Brexit related, to indicate life after Brexit. Boris Johnson’s tax cut for those earning more than 50k is an example. Hunt is talking about abortion limits (deep sigh from me), while Gove wants to change the VAT system.

Our Advice: Don’t get Personal, Don’t get Nasty

  • Be tough but respectful. Leadership requires a sense of ‘grit’ – giving the impression you will not funk difficult decisions. At the same time mud-slinging, attacking or undermining opponents smacks of weakness, not strength. (This is why political leaders tend to get others to do their dirty work. I am old enough to remember the Brown-Blair feuds and the machinations of Charlie Whelan.)
  • Learn to answer a question before landing a message. After Theresa May, commentators will be super critical of a candidate who appears to ignore every question put. My colleague Eric Dixon blogged about this a few weeks ago.

Our Advice: Don’t Lie

  • Don’t lie. The private prosecution of Boris Johnson for lying over the £350m a week to Brussels claim in the Brexit referendum failed after a legal challenge. But the fact that it was brought at all shows there will be a section of the audience watching out for any outright lie. Given the uncertainty around Brexit and the need for leaders to ‘sell’ confidence if not certainty, this may be a hard one. The question ‘is there a chance there will be food shortages after a hard Brexit?’ is, for example, difficult for a politician to answer honestly without prompting some very unhelpful headlines.

our advice

Our Advice: It is all about Authenticity

  • Sound authentic. This is the big one. Authenticity is the name of the game. On this measure Boris is the one to beat – he doesn’t try to present a manicured front to the public. His hair is a mess, he has made a fool of himself many times. In a different age this would all have counted against him but in the era of Trump, Farage, Zelensky (the new President of Ukraine) etc. it is an asset. Corbyn used to have authenticity but he lost it along the way. (In this Irish Times piece Chris Johns looks at the role of authenticity but he thinks Boris is lacking in this department).   Rory Stewart who describes himself as a “Trumpian anti-Trump’ is working hard on authenticity as well as getting to grips with the modern use of social media, both of which are very interesting from an observer’s point of view. However, at the moment it doesn’t seem to be aimed at his fellow MPs, who as we know, have the votes that matter at this stage. Our advice on message building always includes targeting the relevant audience.

Our Advice: Avoid Greek Mythology and Latin Phrases

  • Finally, we would advise against using Latin or making references to Greek mythology. As regular readers know, we at The Media Coach love metaphors but they have to be carefully chosen. Boris Johnson told the Sunday Times last weekend “I truly believe only I can steer the country between the Scylla and Charybdis of Corbyn and Farage and on to calmer water.” Almost everyone would have had to look that one up!

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

media_interviews_you_just_cant_win

Media Interviews You Just Can’t Win

Media interviews you just can’t win present a particular challenge to non-commercial organisations. Generally, commercial organisations will simply not put anyone up for an interview if they feel their spokespeople may come off worse. But public bodies often feel they have to be available for interviews however difficult the subject matter.

In the last couple of weeks, I have worked with two completely unrelated clients who each have a particular issue with a group of almost professional objectors. Sadly, I can’t share the names or issues but for the sake of this blog I have come up with a parallel or metaphor. They both face the equivalent of arguing with a vegan!

A Strategic Approach to Interviews

Don’t try and sell a meat pie to a vegan!

I am personally very sympathetic to veganism and read and think about it a lot. However, I would not bother to argue with a vegan if I was selling a meat pie! My point is that nothing I said about the meat pie would in any way change the opinion of a vegan about the pie. Nor would it change the opinion of any other vegan who was watching or listening to the argument. However, vegans are in the minority, and while we may (or may not) respect their views, our target for selling the meat pie is everyone else.

Taking this back to my clients, in both cases they face a relatively small but noisy group of objectors who both brief journalists and turn up on panels, etc. And in my opinion, both organisations pay far too much attention to their detractors, planning point by point rebuttals for arguments they will never win.

Don’t Rebut Arguments Point by Point

In life in general, and certainly in a democracy, it is very important to have these discussions, to understand each other’s position, to tweak policy, etc. But there is a judgement to be made as to whether the ‘objectors’ are representing an argument you need to respond to.

media interviews you just can't win

In a radio interview, you are likely to have three minutes or less to make your argument.

If you have a three-minute radio interview it may not be worth challenging the oppositions’ arguments in detail. Better to spend the time, as much as possible, talking about your point of view (selling the pie).

What I have observed with clients is that the arguments of the professional opposition overly dominate the preparation for any public appearance. Just because a group of people are noisy and aggressive does not mean they have a strong case – and also does not mean any audience will assume they are right.

So, my advice if faced with this sort of opposition, is to keep your focus on your own argument.

My suggested strategy is slightly different in a print or web interview compared to a broadcast interview.

Make Sure the Audience Hears Your Argument

In a broadcast interview, you will have limited time to speak. So, plan a short statement, or several short lines, that explain your high-level response to the objector but be determined to get into the discussion the positive aspect of your argument. Do not concern yourself with intellectually rebutting every point the objector can raise – as I have said you are unlikely to convince anyone. What should matter is that your argument reaches the audience who are receptive to it.

Print Journalists are Looking for a Quote

In a print interview where the journalist has been briefed by the objectors, it is a different game. Firstly, understand the journalist is not necessarily on their side or yours. They are looking to test your arguments (or perhaps the other side’s arguments). But the nature of the game is that they can only write what you say. So, it is crucial not to allow yourself to be provoked into overly combative phrases or strongly worded rebuttals. One annoyed or irritated misspeak will make the headline. Remember an interview is not a debate. You are being asked to respond to a set of arguments ‘on the record’. Keep calm and keep rational. And don’t judge the subsequent piece on whether it agrees with you or not – instead judge it on whether your side of the argument is fairly represented.

Should you want more advice about handling tough interviews, I have previously written my top 10 tips for handling aggressive interviews in this blog post.

Of course, a good media trainer will rehearse you through the different types of interview you will face and ensure you can be confident about your argument and your response to the other side.

Photo credits:

  1. Flickr – By Alpha – originally posted to Flickr as Steak and Onion Pie.
  2. Flickr – US Department of State.
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

want to control a media interview image

Want to Control a Media Interview? 8 Naive Mistakes

Most organisations want to control the media or at least want to control what is written or broadcast about its business.  A surprising number of senior business people, in my experience, do not understand that as the ‘fourth estate’ journalists can write whatever they like – with very little constraint. There are laws of libel and slander and some very strict rules around court reporting. But beyond that in the UK, most of Europe, the US and Australia there are very few other restrictions. The freedom of journalists can be more restricted in other countries.

want to control a media interview image

It is not sensible to verbally attack or threaten a journalist. Most treat their independence as a matter of honour and they may be tempted to write a critical piece just to prove the point.

This press freedom is a source of great angst and concern to many senior people. Even those who have absolutely nothing to hide.

[By contrast, seasoned media performers realise that 100% control is impossible.  Whilst they prepare and are disciplined about what they say, they are likely to take a more ‘you win some, you lose some’ attitude to what a journalist writes.]

Given the high level of unease, there are often inappropriate attempts to control the interview and write up process. Here are my top eight.

1. Asking for a list of questions before the interview

At first sight, this seems completely reasonable but journalists hate it, mostly because it gives the impression that they are being overly controlled. Many will not provide a list, others will happily give a list of questions and then ignore it in the actual interview. The effect is counter-productive for the interviewee because preparing for one set of questions only to be asked completely different ones is annoying and stressful. Much better to ask a broader question such as ‘what are you interested in?’, ‘what’s the story?’ or ‘what’s your angle?’.

2. Telling the journalist you know the editor and have influence

I have only come across this rarely and find it very funny. All I can say is that editors are rarely open to any kind of external influence. Being independent is a matter of honour for most journalists. What’s more, claiming special influence is likely to annoy everyone in the editorial process and they might be tempted to ‘prove’ their independence’ by printing something you would rather not see in print.

3. Asking to check the copy before it is printed

This is not uncommon these days in the trade press but is not something that respectable national newspapers would allow.  There is a less intrusive version which is to ask to ‘check quotes’. It still smacks of naivety to my mind and can give the interviewee a false sense of security. Even if a journalist allows you to see the copy or quotes before publication, he or she is unlikely to allow you to make anything but the most technical of changes.

4. Telling the journalist what they can’t ask

Again, journalists do not obey rules. If you tell them they can’t ask something they are very likely to ask it. You are potentially alerting them to a sensitive area. What is more, making it look as if you or your spokesperson is unable to handle a question makes you or them look weak.

5. Allowing your PR person to intervene during the interview

PR people should only intervene if they absolutely have to. Again, it makes the interviewee look weak and the organisation look over-bearing. I blogged a few months ago about the interview where the off-camera PR person intervened because the former CEO of Persimmon did not want to answer a question about his bonus. As we know the CEO subsequently lost his job -after the intervention went viral on YouTube!

6. Attacking the journalist

This used to be more common than it is these days. Most people now understand that it is never going to look or sound good. Better to understand that journalists are allowed to ask anything and you as the interviewee can choose how to respond. Often journalists do not subscribe to the point of view they are putting in a question. They are just representing another side of a story. We are taught always to balance a story or an interview and asking a tough question is one way to do that. Accept they are just doing their job.

7. Questioning the source of the journalist’s information

This is a more subtle form of attacking the journalist. For my money it is fine to say ‘I am not sure those numbers are right’ or ‘I don’t recognise that’ before moving to your argument. But don’t get into a fight with the journalist by saying ‘where did you get that from’, ‘tell me where you got those numbers’ etc.

8. Giving information then saying: that is ‘off the record’

There are some occasions where ‘off the record’ has a legitimate place in PR but they are fairly rare. If you want any agreement to be respected it must be put in place in advance of an interview and absolutely not during the interview, after you have just said something you shouldn’t have said. In general ‘off the record’ is a tool that can be used by a professional PR but should be avoided by interviewees.

The way to control media interviews is to do your preparation and deliver high-quality information in colloquial language. You should, of course, also prepare for any particularly difficult questions. Finally, it is important to be disciplined and in control during the interview to ensure you don’t say things by accident that provide embarrassing headlines. In fact what you need is a little training, but then I would say that wouldn’t I?