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Do journalists matter

Media strategy: Do journalists matter?

Do journalists matter in this age of social media? President Trump seems to relish a public bust up and you could argue it is not doing his popularity ratings any harm.

Trump relishes a public bust-up

Indeed, amongst his supporters, it seems to actually enhance his popularity.  And there appears to be no end to his willingness to let his frustrations show as illustrated by his ongoing feuds with CNN, the New York Times, the BBC and the list goes on….

There is an argument that with the rise in influence of social media, mainstream journalists are now almost irrelevant to a successful media strategy? Some even argue mainstream media is dead.

Media strategy: Corbyn gave priority to social media

In the UK, the recent election also provides evidence that the mainstream media have lost their influence. Since he became leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn faced hostility, even derision, from much of the traditional media. Whether by choice or necessity he placed his faith in the power of social media.

And that faith paid off – with a much better result in the election than virtually anyone predicted. (Though still winning more than 50 seats fewer than the Conservative Party.) All a long way from The Sun newspaper’s gloating headline after the 1992 election: “It’s the Sun wot won it”.

Can you now drop traditional media from your PR strategy?

So does it matter if companies and organisations antagonise journalists they don’t like?

I would argue that that would be a risky strategy.

Firstly, a recent study by Reuters concluded that mainstream media stories are the lifeblood of topical social media conversations in the UK. Social media amplifies mainstream media even if it sometimes eclipses it.

Secondly, politics is a very different environment to the corporate/business world. Trump and Corbyn have built their personas on being outsiders – there to challenge the system.  There are very few companies or organisations who can pull this off successfully over years and years.

And that is the key difference between business and politics: the need to build – and maintain – a much longer-term reputation. Warren Buffet has frequently warned employees: “lose money for the firm and I will be understanding. Lose a shred of reputation for the firm and I will be ruthless.”

Do journalists matter

Warren Buffett has always stressed company reputation takes years to build and moments to destroy.

Here are two contrasting examples which show the positive advantage of “playing the game” with journalists and the perils of not doing so:

Richard Branson has for years had a good relationship with journalists and has made himself available for interviews, both on his businesses and as an industry expert. And his companies’ reputations have emerged relatively unscathed despite being caught up in crises such as the price-fixing scandal with BA and the West Coast Train crash in 2007.

In the world of sport, as a result of what Tiger Woods felt was an unfavourable interview early in his career, he virtually shunned all contact with journalists, apart from what he was contractually obligated to do at tournaments. And for much of his career he was untouchable, based on his performances on the course. However, when the scandals hit, journalists took great pleasure in settling scores and indulging in a large slice of schadenfreude.

Do journalists matter

Tiger Woods avoided talking to journalists wherever possible. Some say, when things went wrong, he paid a heavy price for denying them earlier access.

Building relationships with journalists takes time. It never guarantees you will be immune from criticism but it does mean you have ‘credit in the bank’ and will get a hearing when things go wrong.

Other people’s thoughts on this:

A TechCrunch blog from February this year

The Guardian’s take

The Guardian again after the Manchester terror attack

And for the long read here are two Reuters reports on disruption of mainstream media by social media. They seem to suggest more of a coming together with social media amplifying stories from the mainstream at least in the UK.

  1. Mainstream media and the distribution of news in the age of social discovery
  2. Mainstream media and the distribution of news in the age of social discovery
Election and other bits and bobs

Election and other bits and bobs

It’s election time –  unexpectedly – in the UK. This gives those of us that follow public communications lots to think about and discuss. Instead of our usual article I decided to just share a few things I have been thinking about:

Just to restate a basic – this blog is apolitical. I comment on communication style, skills and lessons. Not on who people should vote for.

Watching Corbyn’s election communication style

Having become something of a lame duck leader Jeremy Corbyn gave a rather good first speech of the campaign last week. You can both watch and read it here. He has since spoken in Scotland and been interviewed on Andrew Marr and he looked relaxed and reasonably happy. Somewhat more in control than he was at the start of his leadership. He could still learn a thing or to from us about controlling interviews. 

Election and other bits and bobs

Someone pointed out to me that Corbyn is looking as if he is going to follow Trump and the Brexit referendum Leave campaign and concentrate on big picture assertions and ignore the detail: Shout loudly about ‘enemies of the people’, threaten big business, Philip Green etc. and avoid the complexities of reality. It has worked for others.

Blair steps into the fray with a confused message

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair – in my view normally a brilliant communicator– stepped into the campaign with a very confused message in an interview on BBC Radio 4. What he was probably saying was vote liberal or vote tactically but it was not clear. I know he was trying to avoid the wrong headlines but he needs to rehire Alistair Campbell.

Theresa May loses key comms personnel

And a final observation about the UK election this week: we note the departure of two key people from Theresa May’s PR team as explained here in the FT. Katie Perrior Downing Street Director of Communications resigned immediately after the election was called, while Lizzie Loudon, the Prime Ministers personal press secretary announced her resignation last Friday. This is a significant change and it will be interesting to see if May’s buttoned-up ice-maiden style changes.

French elections fascinate

We are also watching with fascination the French Presidential election. Not much to say about this today yet but more (from Laura in Brussels) in the near future. But we did notice this article in the FT which suggests politics is all about style over substance.

Election and other bits and bobs

Airline apology: how it should be done

In other news, there was this snippet you may have missed about an unfortunate incident on an American Airlines flight. Clearly, there were echoes of the United Airlines story of earlier in the month but this time the apology was swift and apparently unmuddied by ambiguity.

Lucy Kellaway shares her embarrassing public speaking experience

I am a dyed in the wool Lucy Kellaway fan, she is always an entertaining read. Assuming you have a subscription to the FT, this column from her is about how she got over confident and did a bad speech. It is worth a couple of minutes if only to remind ourselves it can happen to any of us. I did something very similar many years ago. Pride comes before a fall!

And finally…we make the news (in Estonia)

And finally, Laura Shields the Brussels Director of Media Coach International Ltd made the media herself in Estonia. The Environment minister there blogged about his training with her – including posting pictures –  and it was picked up by a prominent online news site. If you can read Estonian you will find it here. We suspect google translate doesn’t do it justice.

Laura-Estonia-Environment-Minister

 

Photos used under creative commons licence, Wikimedia etc. 

The Power of the Personal Martin Schulz

Power of the Personal: How a Great Story can shape a Political Campaign

The power of the personal story can shape a campaign and a political career. Skim any article about Martin Schulz, the Socialist challenger giving Angela Merkel a run for her money ahead of Germany’s federal elections in September, and you will almost certainly learn four things about his life before he became a politician.

Power of the personal story

  • Schulz played football so well during his childhood in West Germany that he was tipped for a professional career.
  • A knee injury put an end to these ambitions.
  • As a result he fell into depression and alcoholism.
  • He overcame both, stayed sober and worked in the same bookshop until he became an MEP in 1994.
CC025-Martin_Schulz

Martin Schulz successfully uses his personal story in his political campaign

Sticky details form a political narrative

Taken in sequence these kinds of ‘sticky’ details form a political narrative that is used to imply character and grit, often in the face of adversity or under-privileged origins. Journalists frequently adopt it as a shorthand for explaining motivation but skilled campaigners are also masters of their own personal story.

As Gavin Esler notes in his book Lessons from the Top; the three universal stories that all successful leaders tell’, everyone who runs successfully for public or commercial office tells a version of a ‘Where I’m from’ story as a way of creating a quick connection and instilling trust among their target audience or voters.

This is the reason why most of us know that Angela Merkel and Theresa May are both vicars’ daughters or, that Sadiq Khan, London’s first Muslim Mayor is the son of a bus driver.  In Barack Obama’s case, we had two full autobiographies and a barnstorming speech to the 2004 Democratic Convention to ram home the point that the first term Senator from Illinois was simultaneously the embodiment of the American success story and the change the country needed.

Strong personal stories also hit audiences in the gut*, which is one of the reasons they often survive contact with facts that present the protagonist in a contradictory or unfavourable light. This partially explains why George W Bush, despite being a Yale graduate from a political dynasty, was able to use his folksy charm and cowboy hat to convince enough Americans that he was less blue-blooded and more down to earth than both Al Gore and John Kerry. 

[*If you have read Don’t be Such a Scientist you will be familiar with Randy Olson’s core theme that cerebral communication is less effective than communication that hits people in the heart or the gut. If you haven’t read this and you are in comms, please catch up.]

Outsider bonus

In the absence of an authentic personal story, a fabricated ‘outsider’ one can often do just as well. In the US and France, Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen’s supporters have been able to overlook their privileged backgrounds, often outlandish behaviour and criminal investigations (in the case of Le Pen) because they have consistently and successfully portrayed themselves as anti-establishment types willing to take on a political elite that is actively conspiring against them.

The Power of the Personal Marine_Le_Pen

Le Pen portrays herself as anti-establishment

And it’s interesting to note that Marine Le Pen’s main (for the moment), presidential competitor Emmanuel Macron, himself a former investment banker and Economy Minister, has also styled himself as an ‘outsider-change’ candidate in the mould of a young Tony Blair or Barack Obama, even though his CV would suggest he’s anything but.

Which brings us back to Schulz.  While no one doubts his authenticity or political credentials, his absence from the German political scene for the last 23 years means he is able to combine experience with a genuine outsider status into a convincing change story.

Judging from his reception at the polls, it’s working.

Trump banned unfriendly news organisations

Trump Banned Unfriendly News Organisations: Why You Should Not

Trump banned unfriendly news organisations from a White House press conference at the end of last week stepping up the ‘ante’ in the clash between the new President and the Fourth Estate. He has banned The Guardian, New York Times, Politico, CNN, BBC and Buzzfeed; all organisations apparently seen as hostile to the new order.

Trump banned unfriendly news organisations

President Donald Trump banned some news organisations from a White House briefing

Trump ban: no surprise

In some ways, it is no surprise. Trump comes from a business background and business is always much more selective about engagement with the media than politicians or administrations. How this will all play out in American politics is anybody’s guess. We are in unchartered territory.

But it does highlight the issue faced by many companies. Do they risk engaging with the media, knowing there is a possibility they will get unfriendly coverage? Or do they refuse to engage and hope little will be written or read about their company or any issues?

Business is too cautious

My own view is that business is much too cautious and much too controlling when it comes to the media. There are certainly times when it is better not to put your corporate head above the parapet but in general, the risks of media engagement are well understood and reasonably easily managed. There are of course a few exceptions.

But this is why I think business should engage more than they do.

Firstly, there is the obvious reason that editorial coverage is worth a great deal more than advertising. It tends to be read by the right people – your customers and other stakeholders will read stuff that is relevant to them. Despite the fact that fewer people pay for a newspaper these days, the efficiency of search engines and social media sharing means little is missed. Editorial coverage is also seen as more credible than advertising, and there is scope for much more sophisticated communication than in advertising.

Established relationships with journalists are useful

Secondly, it is hugely helpful to an organisation or business to have established relationships with journalists. It means that when they do want to get information ‘out there’ it can be done much more easily. It also gives the press office more options: to pick one journalist over another from a position of real knowledge, offer exclusives etc. Working relationships are essential and understood in other areas of business but undervalued in PR.

Thirdly, it is also hugely helpful to organisations to have trained and experienced spokespeople. This is particularly true if there is likely to be a crisis at some point in the future. You need a handful of people who know the game, have done a few radio and TV interviews and are not going to be phased by the process. As media trainers we are all too often asked to take people from first steps to ready for Radio 4’s Today programme in one four-hour session. Common sense will tell you that this is not ideal. 

The big win: shaping the conversation

mp banned George_Lakoff

George Lakoff has written about how the right-wing in the US has been shaping the public conversation

Finally, there is a more subtle benefit: engaging with the media provides the opportunity to, over time, shape the conversation. This requires a somewhat sophisticated longer-term media strategy but is something that can really work particularly for innovative industries – FinTech for example. There is a business benefit to softening up the public or creating expectations. This has been endlessly written about in politics. For example, the hugely readable ‘Don’t think of an elephant’ by George Lakoff. His revised and updated edition demonstrates how the right wing have played a very long game and a very successful one in shaping the debate in the US. While the democrats have mostly failed to do this. In the UK think about how Micheal O’Leary at Ryanair has shaped the debate over what we pay for when we buy an airline ticket.

Withdrawal of business from public debate has been damaging

On this last point, I would like to get on my socio-political soap box. The withdrawal of business from the public conversation over the last 30 years has been hugely damaging to British society. As a result of the apparent risks of media engagement going up in the mid-eighties and early nineties, more and more companies decided to control all conversations with journalists and in many cases turn down most interview opportunities. I know this happened because I saw it first hand as an output editor on BBC Financial World Tonight. During my time from about 1989 to 1994, it got steadily harder to find business people to talk.

[Although a few businesses did nail their colours to the mast over Scottish Independence and Brexit very few chose to be interviewed. It was deemed that the risks were too high. But my main concern is about more general everyday matters.]

Trump banned capitalism crisis

Many young people now believe business is bad for humanity

The result this withdrawal from the public conversations is that huge swathes of the under 25’s now think making money is wrong and that anyone making money is damaging the human race. Whilst the reality is, while some businesses can be exploitative – and I know a few – in general business is delivering an extraordinary level of comfort, service, interest and freedom of choice to the population.

So, why are businesses in general so reluctant to talk about their successes in the media? Well occasionally they do but when you think what a huge role business is playing in the life and development of the country, business is vastly under-represented.

If you would like to get more media coverage for your organisation we can of course help by training your spokespeople or helping develop your messages. So do pick up the phone (020 7099 2212) . Your country needs you!

Shaping the conversation: further reading

A good introduction to ‘shaping public conversations’ from a poverty action group in the US.

Twitter and PR

Twitter and PR: Crisis, Trump and Trolls

Twitter and PR are now, in my view, inseparable. Preparing material on Crisis Comms for a major international organisation in the last week, I was struck by how my thoughts turned immediately to social media, and in particular, Twitter.

If you are in the public eye and something goes wrong, or you are criticised by a person or organisation that matters, our advice at The Media Coach is that the first thing you should do is assign someone to monitor Twitter.

Twitter and PR

In a crisis it is now essential that someone monitors Twitter

Twitter and PR: In a crisis it must be monitored

Twitter has many faults but it is searchable and it will pretty instantly give you a range of views that tell you how the public is reacting, and also how other organisations and players are reacting. This picture will start to emerge in a couple of hours or in some cases minutes. 

Equally important, it will be the first port of call for the mainstream media; journalists follow Twitter the way they used to follow the news agency wires. I haven’t done an audit but Twitter seems to be mentioned in almost every news bulletin these days. For journalists there is no need to ring someone up to get a comment on an interesting development, just look on Twitter.

Of course, if you have a good Crisis Comms strategy, you will also be using Twitter and other social media to put your point of view across. But the idea that you would not consider checking Twitter before putting out your first statement is now frankly crazy.

Twitter and PR: Donald Trump continues to astound

And while on the subject, I cannot but mention President-elect Donald Trump. He did once say he would give up his Twitter account when he moved into the White House. We shall see. But meanwhile he continues to use it to rage at, provoke, criticise and some would say bully whoever he happens to be annoyed with today.

The Tweets pouring scorn on North Korea’s nuclear ability are such a departure from all diplomatic norms that they are astonishing, but I find Trump’s Twitter criticism of the US motor industry much more fascinating.

Twitter and PR Donald Trump tweet

According to two stories in Forbes and Fortune magazines (among others), Trump’s ‘industrial policy by Tweet’ has already saved jobs in the US from going over the border to Mexico.  The idea is that ‘naming and shaming’ CEOs in 140 characters or less persuades them to reverse decisions to invest in Mexico and instead keep US jobs that would otherwise be at risk. Well maybe. I am no fan of Trump but I do find this new use of Twitter absolutely fascinating, if a little scary.

Twitter is now part of the mainstream. It is how we tell the world anything we want to get out there, and how we understand what other people are thinking about … well, anything at all. But it is not all good news. Trolling is widespread and for some, highly damaging. Worse, extreme political groups propagating hatred do effective and uncensored advertising on Twitter.

Twitter and PR: It is not all good

There have been a couple of articles in the last week or so showing former aficionados falling out of love with Twitter.

Lindy West – an American feminist writer – wrote a piece for the Guardian entitled “I’ve left Twitter. It is unusable for anyone but trolls, robots and dictators.”  And a response in Politico from former Hillary Clinton Foreign Policy wonk Emily Parker explained why she thinks Twitter cannot be fixed because it is simply reflecting human nature with all its flaws.

Meanwhile, if you are interested in Crisis Communications training or bespoke Social Media training for your organisation, please do get in touch. You can call the office on 020 7099 2212 or you can Twitter direct message me @themediacoach.

Twitter and PR

Articles about Twitter and Crisis Comms:

One from MTI Network, a specialist agency; Twitters Growing Importance in Crisis Communications.

Here is an LSE blog with some useful tips for searching twitter: Twitter and crisis communication: an overview of tools for handling social media in real time.

A short introduction, rather simplistic, from the writer of Twitter Marketing for Dummies: How to Use Twitter to Communicate in a Crisis.

A very interesting article written two years ago but still relevant. Using Twitter in Times of Crisis.

Clinton Trump Debate: public speaking lessons

Clinton Trump Debate: public speaking lessons

The Clinton Trump Debate this week was a brilliant lesson for the rest of us on how to deal with unreasonable questioning or sledging whilst speaking in public.

I find Trump a frightening and seriously unpleasant option for president. If I was an American I would be a Democrat but many others are better qualified to write about the politics than I am.

But this is my attempt to drag the lessons from the debate for clients who do speak in public.

Clinton Trump Debate: Hillary’s problem

Clinton’s problem throughout was how to respond to Trump’s accusations and sledging but also finding the time to land her substantive points.

And she did a brilliant job. She gave enough of an answer to each of her ‘difficult’ areas. And she also explained that she was not going to get overly distracted by all the factual errors that were coming from Trump instead pointing out that all that information was available on a special fact checker page on her campaign website.

She kept calm. She took her opportunities when they came. She criticised Trump forcefully and directly without being overly aggressive to him, or labouring the point. My favourite was ‘he lives in an alternative universe’.  She did not respond when he said she should be in prison.

Clinton Trump Debate: Town hall style

This was a town hall style debate and while Clinton stepped back and sat down when she wasn’t speaking. Trump did not – he lurked behind Clinton trying to keep a poker-face and not succeeding. He was rarely out of the shot. Some people will think that looked ‘presidential’, others will be offended that he was trying to intimidate or distract from her. I think she did well to always step forward so that he was out of her eye-line, making it easier to ignore him.

Clinton Trump Debate: Trump lands punches

To the chattering classes, Trump is not credible. However, in this debate, he did land some damaging punches that will chime with people who are angry and looking for establishment figures to blame for injustices and unhappy lives. He repeatedly called Clinton a liar, he repeatedly reminded people that Bernie Sanders has said Clinton had ‘bad judgement’, he repeatedly said ‘it is all talk’, and he repeatedly said he was for cutting taxes and Clinton was for raising taxes.

However, to normal thinking people Clinton won this debate hands down.

Clinton Trump Debate: some other coverage

Huffington Post on Trumps ‘lurking’ during the debate

Forbes pulls out some of the key quotes

The Daily Mail thinks that Trump came off best

The Washington Post did its own ‘fact check’ on the second debate

Images from YouTube

 

Post Truth era: the problem of trust

Post Truth era: the problem of trust

The Post Truth era: we all recognise the symptoms around us. But the challenge facing professional communicators is how to build real trust in the Post Truth era?

Lindsay has already written about the EU Referendum and the apparent disregard for facts and expert opinion that was paraded around with something bordering on glee by the Vote Leave campaign. It’s an approach we are seeing replicated by Donald Trump in the US Presidential elections and also by populists both in Europe and further afield (the new President of the Philippines being an example of this).

Post Truth era: the problem of trust

Donald Trump has consistently ignored or distorted facts in his Presidential campaign bid

The premise, according to despairing commentators, is that we are at a point where the ‘public’ now trust those who speak in authentic plain language (usually this means hyperbolic soundbites), appeal to emotion and ‘feel’ rather than think their way to a decision.  Chuck in a bit of neuroscience, the self-reinforcing effect of social media on polarised communities and the result is that the inevitable losers are facts, experts and ‘truth’ (whatever that is).

While this is clearly a complex issue, as a media trainer, whose stock trade is soundbites, facts and stories, I think there is a false dichotomy between the facts-versus-emotion argument.  Emotion is nothing new when it comes to trust and decision making (whether it’s in politics or picking one shampoo brand over another).

Post Truth era

The Political Brain by Drew Westen

In his 2007 book, The Political Brain, the academic Drew Westen hammered this point almost to excess but it’s still a key point that people often make decisions based on their ‘gut’ and that you can’t fight gut with reason alone.

Post Truth era:  persuasive communicators use facts and emotion

To be a persuasive communicator you genuinely need to combine hard (rational, fact based) data and soft evidence (examples or stories) – into a schema or overarching story that makes sense and appeals to people at a concrete level.  The FT columnist and economist Tim Harford gave a wonderful illustration of this when he wrote about Florence Nightingale. It was the British nurse who first seemed to understand that ‘the dryer the better’ approach that was being applied to health statistics in the 19th Century wasn’t going to do the trick when it came to persuading hospital managers to change embedded habits and improve hygiene standards in hospitals. This led to Nightingale producing her famous Rose Diagram.

Post Truth era

Florence Nightingale’s Rose Diagram

As Harford writes:

‘What makes Nightingale’s story so striking is that she was able to see that statistics could be tools and weapons at the same time. She educated herself using the data, before giving it the makeover it required to convince others.’

So the overall story matters. And it is a convenient but simplistic fiction for those who lose campaigns or get their overall narrative wrong to argue that emotion and hyperbole have trumped reason.

Post Truth era: trust is not rational

Now of course, none of these ‘tools of persuasion’ will work if they fall on deaf or unwilling ears.  And this sums up the problem for me.  Trust is not something that is generated rationally or from a top down ‘trust me/trust the experts’ approach. In the digital age, those who feel that that they have been consistently overlooked or ignored will not be inclined to accept statistics from those who they feel are simply treating trust as a transactional tool to generate some kind of behaviour change (vote for me, buy my computer etc).

So what’s the answer? I don’t claim to have it. But I do think proper listening would be a good starting point. And that’s where I feel our soundbite, debating style, televised model of communication is in trouble.  Most of our traditional leaders are spectacularly bad at listening, partly because of reasons of time and partly because listening often means letting people vent at you, which doesn’t look great on YouTube.

How we reorganise public communication so that it is a proper exchange is something that will take time and work. But we are currently experiencing blowback from people who feel that they have been shut out or side-lined for too long.

And sadly, this has led to the axiom that ‘if I hate you, then your facts are wrong’.

 

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

Six things professional speech writers know

Six things professional speech writers know and the rest of us don’t

Six things professional speech writers know and the rest of us don’t – is a post prompted by the uproar surrounding passages of Melania Trump’s speech to the opening night of the Republican National Convention.

Many people it seems, thought chunks of the speech had been lifted almost word for word from one delivered by Michelle Obama in 2008.

Six things professional speech writers know

Donald and Melania Trump

The resulting coverage has thrown light on some on the rarely seen backstage manoeuvrings behind political jamborees.

It was also a surprise reminder that plagiarism in speech writing is frowned upon (but rarely illegal).

Six things professional speech writers know: plagiarism is easily done

A trawl of the cuttings around this particular incident highlighted the fact that two speechwriters, Matthew Scully and John McConnell, submitted an early draft of the speech to the campaign a month before the convention. This is evidence of impressive planning. The fact that they heard nothing back for a long time and that another writer, Meredith McIver, worked on the speech with the want-to-be first lady is evidence of the competitive jockeying for influence between the advisers of those who may be on their way to the top.

McIver says that she wanted to inspire Melania Trump, and this included reading her passages from Michelle Obama’s speech in 2008. McIver took responsibility for the mistake and offered to resign. An offer that was not accepted. It is doubtful whether she actually wrote the offending passages or did more than provide them as an example to the third Mrs. Trump.

We also learnt from the coverage of this story, that the chances of a 16-word match in a speech being just a coincidence are less than one in a trillion – this according to a website called Turniton.com. Turniton.com is a subscription service that helps students with revision and checks their work for (presumably accidental) plagiarism. Who knew? In the age of the internet, plagiarism is a big issue in academia and is regularly checked for. Professional speechwriters apparently use this or similar software to ensure they have not inadvertently repeated something they have heard before.

Here are six other things that professional speechwriters know that the rest of us are not aware of.

Six things professional speech writers know: it’s an emotional journey

Six things professional speech writers know: write as you speak

  • Write as you speak, not in written English. This is a classic mistake we see at The Media Coach all the time. Written English has a different style to spoken English, if you are writing a speech it must be written to speak aloud. So don’t write: ‘It is an exceptionally beautiful and joyous day’ but instead ‘It’s a really lovely, happy day’. ‘It is’ becomes ‘it’s’ and ‘beautiful and joyous’ becomes the simpler ‘lovely and happy’. Keep sentences short and write in pauses so the speaker gives the words of the script time to land. If you are not sure, try reading aloud what you have written, and see if it sounds natural.

Six things professional speech writers know: tricolons rock

  • Tricolons are one of the most effective and widely used rhetoric devices. The technical definition of a tricolon is: a rhetorical term for a series of three parallel words, phrases or clauses. For example “I came, I saw, I conquered”. “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I remember, involve me and I learn” Here is a piece about President Obama’s use of tricolons.

Six things professional speech writers know: repetition is good

  • Repetition in all its forms is very useful in speech writing. It will often give rhythm to a speech as well as drum home the most important points. The obvious example here is Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech. He uses the word ‘dream’ 11 times in nine paragraphs of the speech. Donald Trump has a particularly repetitive style of speech as noted in this blog.
Six things professional speech writers know

Martin Luther King used repetition successfully in his ‘I have a dream’ speech

Six things professional speech writers know: end with a bang

  • End with a bang. This may be a call to action for example, as overly optimistic Liberal leader David Steel did in 1981 when he said:  “Go back to your constituencies and prepare for government”. Or it may be a benediction “May the force be with you” or “God bless America”. It can be the title of your talk or it can be a grand theme that provokes a big idea as in Winston Churchill’s address to the nation in the face of the threat of invasion.“Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty and so bear ourselves that if the British Commonwealth and Empire lasts for thousands of years, men will say: ‘This was their finest hour.”

Six things professional speech writers know: narrow columns

  • And finally, print your speech in large type and with narrow columns. This is much easier to read aloud than trying to read across the width of a page. Television scripts are laid out on one side of the page only, originally for this reason. The example below uses block capitals but the normal use of upper- and lower case is easier to read.
  • Six things professional speech writers know

    Television scripts are laid out on one side of the page only to make them easier to read

    Photo Credits: All photos are used under Creative Comms licences.

speech delivery tips mike butcher feature

Good speech delivery: get the tone right

Good speech delivery is not so much about the content of what you say. How often have you watched a televised debate between two people – one offering solid facts and figures but no empathy, the other oozing bonhomie backed up by nothing more than some vague platitudes ­– and found yourself involuntarily favouring the latter? One of the key speech delivery tips has to be to practise getting the right tone.

good speech delivery

Tone can matter as much if not more than the facts, numbers and logic of the argument

Good speech delivery: logic and reason are not enough

Facts are the first building-block of a good Key Message. We train clients to choose them carefully, and edit them down to punchy, easily-understood figures which provide a logical, rational basis for the argument you wish to make.  Sadly, logic and reason are sometimes simply not enough.

As every advertiser will tell you, you have to strike the right note.

Good speech delivery: Donald Trump confounds critics, Boris Johnson charms

How else to explain the success of Donald Trump in the Republican primaries! His cavalier approach to the facts has by turns outraged and irritated the political class across the United States. But his tone has resonated with a sizeable chunk of the American public.

Or take London Mayor Boris Johnson, a far more grounded politician than Donald Trump, but one who uses his personality as much as any logical argument to make his case. In their different ways, Johnson and Trump are both using the image of rebel, rather than any reasoned argument, to win over a public fed up with the political “Establishment”.

In both these cases, the facts matter little. It is the impression the speakers create that makes them effective communicators.  They are in effect selling themselves, rather than a message.  It works because people like them, or at least like the idea that they represent.

Personal charm is not something that can be completely manufactured; some people possess it naturally, others do not. But there are some things you can do to make yourself more engaging on screen or loudspeaker; they will not turn a frog into a prince, but they will help you create a bond with your audience, make them feel that they can relate to you.

Good speech delivery: tips to turn on the charm

Whatever the subject, making yourself likeable is a key part of good interview technique. And that usually means accentuating your human side.

  • Sympathy
    Express condolences and/or sympathy, however little the matter has to do with you. This has the effect of “humanising” you and is usually best done at the beginning. For example: “Let me start by acknowledging how hard it must be for people caught up in this dreadful situation…”
  • The Half-Smile
    This usually works better than a frown or artificial expression of sadness, even with the most serious of topics. It is not about making light of the subject, especially where suffering or loss are concerned; it is about making yourself convincing and accessible. Don’t overdo it, especially if public anger is involved.
  • Agree
    This is a bit of a trick: find common ground.  “Ms Smith is absolutely right to say that this situation cannot go on and I agree that the government needs to move quickly. But…” and then disagree as much as you like. It has the effect of making you sound reasonable and almost coopts the other speaker onto your side.
  • Polite
    If you are being interviewed don’t argue with the journalist. Remember, he or she is not the audience, but a means to reach the general public. However rude or annoying the interviewers may be, however much they interrupt or distort, stay calm and excruciatingly polite.  Losing your temper makes you sound weak and petulant and damages your credibility.
  • Thanks
    Always finish a speech with a smile and a “Thank You”. The last impression the viewer or listener will take away is of someone who is happy with the way it went and succeeded in making his or her case.
  • Story
    The human example, the anecdote, can be the most effective part of your argument; the facts and soundbites will be forgotten, but the story you told about John and Mary will be remembered. It makes you sound understanding and caring, relating to real people, not just balance-sheets and policies. We always stress the importance of this in our training and it does a lot to “humanise” you.
  • Voice
    Some of us are blessed with naturally appealing and friendly voices; others sound like an automated message at a call-centre. With a bit of effort you can “warm” up your voice, perhaps by making it a bit deeper, or more resonant, soften the tone. Margaret Thatcher is a famous case of a successful politician who did this.
  • Pause
    All great speech makers learn to pause for dramatic effect. We have a whole article on this coming next week but it is an important element in winning with your audience as the example videos below will demonstrate.

Don’t abandon facts, they are vital part of your armoury as there will be plenty of your audience who need them to be convinced. But always remember that in public speaking of any sort you are selling yourself and the audience has to be made to feel, consciously or sub-consciously that this is a person they want to listen to.

Good speech delivery: three videos worth studying

An example of Donald Trump’s speaking style

Here is a interesting dissection of one of Obama’s most famous speeches.

A man who coaches politicians

Picture credit: CC by Heisenbergmedia