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Zaha Hadid picture

The P Word

Dame Zaha Hadid is a giant in the world of architecture; the most famous woman in a male-dominated profession, she is one of its three-four best-known names.  Her ambitious, tradition-shattering designs are famous – or infamous, depending on taste – around the world.  She has won every top accolade in the profession, capped now with the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Gold Medal.

Zaha Hadid Image

Zaha Hadid

As a result, last week, she was invited onto BBC’s “Today” ( to listen click to 2hrs 35 minutes into the show, but it’s only available until 23rd October). The programme is a major agenda-setter for news junkies, and the interview was in honour of her Gold Medal. For someone so feted, and experienced, you would think she would be prepared for the occasion. Apparently not.

The interview was something of a car crash, ending with the celebrated architect declaring “Let’s stop this conversation right now, I don’t want to carry on” and terminating the conversation.

Dame Zaha had failed to prepare. Here are some of the preparations she failed to make.

Key Message

This interview is a stunning opportunity to address a highly influential audience. Dame Zaha is a fascinating person and may have had a really interesting idea or campaign to share. We will never know because she was entirely reactive. The first question, on discrimination against women in architecture, should have been easy to exploit. But she had no strong message, wavering between saying that things had got much better and that prejudice was still a problem. On this latter angle, she declared: “I don’t have any examples”, squashing the subject flat on the spot.

Hard Questions

British journalists are renowned for giving tough interviews – it’s part of the “macho” culture of the media here. Dame Zaha has had plenty of brushes with controversy in her distinguished career so even here, on an occasion for celebration and congratulation, she might have expected a hostile question or two.  When it duly came – deaths of workers in Qatar – she was clearly unprepared.

Dealing with Death

Dame Zaha has a strong argument – the deaths occurred before the start of construction of the stadium designed by her practice. But instead of stating this clearly and calmly, she angrily denied any connection between her project and the deaths, pointing out that allegations on these lines had been withdrawn after she threatened to sue.  While expressions of sympathy would have been ideal the lawyers are always advising against such things, but Dame Zaha could at least have prepared some phrases about how seriously her company took the welfare of workers in Qatar.

Zaha tweets

Twitter reaction to the interview was mixed

Media-friendly Style

“Today” has a relatively leisurely pace by the standards of current affairs programmes, but it still operates at a level of intensity far above normal conversation. Interviewees have to say what they want to say in two-three sentences, even when the matter is complex. Dame Zaha was asked about the failure of her bid for an Olympic stadium in Tokyo and was still listing the members of the jury after 30 seconds. Inevitably she was cut off.  She had not prepared a short and media-friendly version of events.

Keeping Cool

Finally she lost her temper. She argued with the interviewer, complained about being cut short, and in the end declared the interview over. To do Dame Zaha justice, the interviewer did not seem in total command of the facts and the emphasis on controversies of the past may have seemed to some excessive. In fact the BBC has since apologised for factual errors in their questions.

The resulting headlines were all about Dame Zaha Hadid “storming out” of a BBC interview and not about celebrating one of the great creative figures of our time, or about any other theme – discrimination in architecture, planning restrictions, the direction of modern architecture, etc ­ – she could have chosen to highlight.

This commentary is not to criticise Dame Zaha Hadid, the architect. She is a genuine star and behaved in a natural way that everyone can sympathise with.

But her failure to prepare properly for this interview turned it into a disaster.  Any competent media trainer would have had her delivering strong Key Messages in a concise and media-friendly format, calm and measured responses to hostile questions, and the patience to deal with badly-briefed interviewers.

Leading figures in public life, not just business and politics, need to take note.

Evan-Davies

Aggressive interviewing goes out of fashion

The macho interviewing style of Jeremy Paxman and John Humphrys was called into question last week by the softly-spoken BBC star journalist Evan Davis.  A bullying, hyper-aggressive approach, he said in an interview with the news site Byline.com, had been fresh and useful once, but had become worn out.

Arms race

Evan Davis

Davis argues in Byline.com that a macho approach to interviewing has had its day

“It’s just made an arms race where politicians become more defensive and instead of making gaffes they just sound obfuscatory and boring,” he said.

There’s no question that the Paxman style –  which you might caricature as “you’ve all got something to hide and I’m going to bully it out of you” – has made great entertainment over the years. Arrogant politicians, civil servants, businessmen and other public figures have been made to answer, on live television, for every detail of their actions and the consequences.  It has certainly concentrated the mind.

But public opinion has moved on and Davis’ remarks will have hit a chord.   As he pointed out to Byline.com: “it’s not really a public service to try and trip someone into a gaffe or get them to say something … in order to then blow it up into something which isn’t really what they meant.”

Less confrontational approach

A less confrontational approach – as practised by Davis himself – is far more effective at weedling out truly interesting material.  In any case, these days most senior public figures will have armed themselves against the heavy bombardment threat with preparation and practice, before agreeing to appear in front of the camera.

Paxman

Fear of Paxman-style cuffing up is what turns many executives to media training

Fear of a Paxman-style duffing-up is what turns many executives to media trainers. We certainly train our clients to cope with the former Newsnight presenter’s interviewing style as one extreme of the techniques you are likely to face, and we include some aggressive questioning in our practice sessions.

And there is no doubt that being prepared and trained to fend off this kind of blustering assault is an essential part of preparation for a media interview.  But in reality the greater challenge to senior executives and politicians is elsewhere – how to be interesting.

Clear explanations, good examples

The vast majority of media interviewers are not interested in humiliating or embarrassing their targets, unless there is a real matter of substance involved; they need clear explanations, simple facts and good examples and an answer which says something their audience wants to hear.  They are happy to cooperate if you can deliver that.

For most interviewees, the challenge is working out how to make your message interesting, how to find stories to illustrate it, and how to ditch the jargon and waffle for good clear English.  That’s actually much tougher than simply keeping Jeremy Paxman at bay.