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feature communicating strategically

What I wish I had known 30 years ago …

I have been asked to share with a group of young people, future leaders, a few tricks and tips for what I think of as ‘effective professional communication’.

communicating strategically

Nine Top Tips for Communicating Strategically

I think the following rules cover anything from job interviews to fundraising pitches, conversations with teachers or negotiations for an internship. Pulling it all together has made me think – I wish someone had told me this stuff 30 years ago!

Let me know if you think I have missed anything.

Before you Start

  1. There are no rules and there is no perfect. It’s about being the best version of you; or as the Berocca copywriters put it, ‘you, but on a really good day’. (I have to thank my fellow trainer Eric Dixon for this little nugget.)
  2. Have a plan. Know what you want to achieve. 5 minutes thinking about what would be a great outcome from any conversation, what would be a good outcome and what would be a bad outcome, will help you focus. Trust yourself on this. Anything you think is fine.
  3. Also, ask yourself what you know about the other person or the audience. What matters to them? What are their priorities? Do they have problems you can solve or priorities you share? A back of envelope audit about your target can shape your messaging. It can also help with rapport (see point 9)
  4. Having worked out your goal, think about how you want the other side – be it one person or many – to feel, to think and what you want them to do, as a result of the conversation or presentation. Again clarity of thought here will serve you well.

    Plan the words – or some of them

  5. Having worked through points one to four above, you can work out what you want to say and how best to say it. There are no rules, but clearly articulated ideas will help everyone. For example, if fundraising: ‘we know how to help, we just need the funds’ or if in a job interview: ‘if you gave me this job, I could transform your social media’.
  6. Having identified a few key assertions or toplines – find ways to ‘prove it’. In the example above you are looking for either facts, numbers or anecdotes that will ‘prove’ you can transform your potential employers social media. A fact might be: correct use of tags on Twitter typically increases ‘shares’ by 30%. An anecdote might be ‘I helped a shoe shop in my high street double the number of customers simply by using social media to talk about footwear trends in Gosport.’
  7. And that brings us to stories. Tell more stories. Learn to tell stories. Try them out on friends and family. Stories, anecdotes and examples will influence people much more than real hard evidence. They will also make you a better leader, help you sound more authentic and above all make you more memorable.

    And then …

  8. Once you have considered the substance of any message, rehearse it aloud. This may make you feel silly, but it will really help.
  9. Finally; study rapport*. Learn ways to make a connection with people you don’t already know. Rapport is key to so many conversations and while it is no silver bullet, building rapport will never be a bad thing.

The Media Coach provides bespoke training in Effective Communication in many different ways. Media Training, Presentation Training, Personal Effectiveness Training and Video Skills for Business. Please email enquiries@themediacoach.co.uk or call us  +44 (0)20 7099 2212 if you want to discuss your needs.

*As I have said before, if you don’t know what is meant by rapport (and can cope with more than an hour of full-on Tony Robbins) this OTT video will give you more than you ever need to know.


Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Two_young_people_demonstrating_a_lively_conversation.jpg

The two faces of negotiation

The Two Faces of a Negotiation

Brexit talks remind us that there are always two faces to negotiation. What you say in public and what you say in private.

In western democracies, there is an assumed right to know what is going on in negotiations involving governments, unless there are very good reasons why not. Journalists shout questions, ask repeatedly and people scream on Twitter about conspiracies and hidden agendas.

The two faces of negotiation

You Cannot Negotiate in Public

Any intelligent person knows that you cannot negotiate in public. Negotiation requires compromise and today’s expected outcome will be tomorrow’s cat litter. Commercial organisations almost always reserve the right not to discuss deals until they are signed. Stock market rules support them: if a deal will affect the share price it is essential that all investors and possible investors know at the same time, to prevent unfair or insider trading.

But politicians have an impossible situation to manage. They must negotiate in private but update, at every stage, in public. Very few negotiations have had as much public scrutiny as the Brexit deal.

There is an added wrinkle to this negotiation in particular – public opinion almost certainly influences the negotiation. That means it is in the interests of both sides to influence public opinion: and opinion is, of course, being deliberately influenced by the, now daily, updates on the negotiations.

There is a procession of headline-grabbing quotable phrases from both sides. This clip includes several carefully crafted phrases from Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

 


To pull out just one: ‘After 45 years of membership (the EU) are not willing…to offer this country the same terms as Canada.’

Some more of the phrases used by the UK government spokespeople in the last few days include:

‘Time is running out’. Boris Johnson specifically to business leaders urging them to prepare for Brexit.

The EU has not shown ‘the respect and flexibility’ expected in international negotiations. Housing Secretary, Robert Jenrick.

‘Door is still ajar’. Michael Gove and Robert Jenrick.

From the EU:

The British ‘are much more depending on us than we are on them’. President Emmanuel Macron.

‘We want a deal, but not at any price.’ ‘It must be fair’. This was said by a number of European leaders after talks last week. The BBC did a brilliant edit to illustrate consistent messaging from the EU side. Sorry, we can’t insert it but it was posted at 20:47 pm 15th Oct (click the link and scroll down until you find the video entitled A few words on Brexit). It is worth a watch.

And we also have off-the-record briefings. Also designed to influence public and political opinions. Unofficial comments that I have seen include:

  • The FT quoting a senior UK official with knowledge of the talks saying the mood on the British side was ‘very gloomy’.
  • The Express claimed that chief negotiator Michel Barnier and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were ‘fed-up’ with France’s Emmanual Macron for digging his heels in on fishing rights.
  • And Politico reported a senior German official who knows Merkel well, summed up thinking on Brexit as ‘Better if in, but if not then close’.

Is it All for Show?

I am sure there are plenty more on and off the record quotes. All part of the theatre of international trade negotiation.

But here are some quotes about the negotiation process that I personally give weight to.

“There is now too little separating the two sides for either to afford a no-deal outcome. Of course, Downing Street will inflate their language to put pressure on the EU. But my judgment is that Johnson is too weak politically to have the commotion of no-deal coming on top of the Covid mayhem.” Peter Mandelson, former EU Trade Commissioner. Quoted in the FT behind a paywall.

And here is a snippet from Politico’s Sunday Crunch:

Perhaps worth remembering … former Brexit Secretary David Davis’ words at the end of 2018, when we were nearing the deadline for a draft Brexit divorce deal: “We’re going to have a very scary few months — from now until about November it’s going to be really scary,” he said. “Everybody’s going to be calling each other’s bluff, there’s all sorts of brinkmanship going to go on — that’s normal, that’s the European Union’s daily bread and that’s what we’ve got to be ready for.”

If you or your team would like help with media training please do give us a call on: +44 (0)20 7099 2212

Images: YouTube

 

Presenting online feature

Presenting online: lipstick and heels

‘I’ve got 5 minutes to air and I’ve still got two calls to make when the usual morning refrain rings out around the office. ‘Barclay, get your lipstick on’. If I’ve told her once I’ve told her a thousand times – this is radio, no one sees me, I never wear makeup and I DON’T HAVE ANY LIPSTICK.’ The words of my colleague Liz Barclay remembering our days working together at the BBC.

Presenting online

Just reading that story makes me nostalgic! It was me that used to say ‘Barclay put your lipstick on’. At that stage, Liz was a presenter and I was her producer on Radio 5 Live. It was always very busy and there really could have been two quick calls to make before we went into the studio. I wanted her to clear her head and get into performance mode … I knew she would never in a million years put any lipstick on – but it was our ritual. [Liz Barclay, of course, is now a very popular media and presentation trainer via The Media Coach. You can read her profile here.]

I was reminded of our lipstick ritual last week when I had to ‘pitch’ for work, but do the pitch via Skype. I decided not to just do the obvious ‘business wear’ for the top half, but to put my heels on as well. As I did the meeting sitting down you could be forgiven for thinking ‘why heels?’ well, it was all about getting into performance mode. Walking around for ten minutes beforehand, I could feel my head clear and my persona switch from dog walker to consultant.

We all know – if you look good, you feel good – and if you feel good, you perform better. And in these times of lockdown, switching from home-mode to work-mode is harder without all the contextual cues. But you can help yourself, hack your brain if you like, with lipstick or heels. For men it may be a shave or a shirt and tie.

I discussed all this, via Zoom, with former colleague Laura Shields: she now runs the Red Thread Consultancy in Brussels. Red Thread, like The Media Coach, is now doing a lot more training online.  But Laura is ahead of me in this world of online presenting:  she not only works as a consultant; she was also a spokesperson for the campaign group ‘British in Europe’. She has done several TV interviews via Skype and Zoom. Laura (with help from her husband) set up a camera separately from her screen, to give more professionalism.  She has some proper lighting and has trained herself to look properly at the camera in true television style. Here is the relevant part of our chat.

For Laura, the next step is to find a way to move a plug-in camera so she can present online – standing-up. Meanwhile, even Laura’s 7-year-old son is embracing the technology. Here he is talking to classmates during a virtual birthday party.

Presenting on-line

We are all being forced to learn a new way to work. If we can help you prepare an online presentation or put together a video just give us a call +44 (0)20 7099 2212.

Meanwhile, here is an article from Corporate Comms Magazine, about how to do a good skype interview for professional broadcast.

 

Emily Maitlis feature

Emily Maitlis – Airhead: Why all PRs should read it

Emily Maitlis has written a great light-hearted romp of a read about the chaos behind the scenes of television news. I used to work with Emily (and have a lovage pesto recipe from her mum … just saying). I have watched her stellar career with admiration but absolutely no envy. I simply would not want the stress!

However, reading about it all is great fun.

Emily Maitlis

A Very Personal Account

Maitlis whizzes through encounters with Donald Trump, Simon Cowell, the Dalai Lama and of course that Prince Andrew interview in short chapters that can each be read in less than the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee. She writes from a very personal perspective: What she saw, what she thought and above all what she felt. She details the gut-wrenching nerves ahead of the big set-piece interviews, the stress of broadcasting live from the front of the Whitehouse and that horrible creeping feeling that you are being played by Tony Blair, but you can’t work out how or why.

 What PRs Might Learn

The takeaways for PR people are many and varied but here are a few.

  • Newsnight is one of very few remaining broadcast news outlets that do any real research and then only sometimes. While Maitlis does detail some heavy-duty team meetings to discuss various angles for a big interview, she also explains that this happens relatively rarely.
  • While the PR machine may well be working overtime on your side of the equation, what happens in the interview is crazily random, depending on the interpretation and concentration of the interviewer. Even after the long discussions, it is down to Maitlis as the interviewer, in the moment, to ask an inspired, a random or a distracted question.

 The ‘While I’ve got you …’ Question

  • The chapter that deals with a Sheryl Sandberg interview, shortly after her husband died (very unexpectedly) is particularly instructive. The agreed interview was about dealing with grief, something Sandberg wanted to talk about. However, she was and is still the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook. Maitlis felt she could not have access to Sandberg and ignore all the controversial aspects of Facebook. This despite the fact that the agreed topic was Sandberg’s very raw and personal grief. Maitlis spends considerable time agonising about how to frame this ‘while I’ve got you…’ question. When the moment comes, Sandberg switches seamlessly from grief-stricken widow to the pure professional and answers – well professionally. But afterwards, Sandberg is furious that Maitlis did not stick to asking her about grief. Maitlis explains her professional duty but also points out that; talking about grief, Sandberg was very interesting. But when talking about the morality of Facebook, she was very dull …. ensuring the bit, Sandberg wanted to air would get by far the most airtime. We try to teach people this, but it is good to read a top-notch BBC journalist spelling it out to one of the most famous COOs on the planet.
  • The frustration of interviewing the Dalai Lama, who refuses to say anything interesting, should be compulsory reading for all overly controlling PRs. There really is no point (and it is damaging to your reputation) to do an interview if you have nothing to say. (My colleague Catherine Cross addresses this in this blog linked here, amongst others.) 
  • The constant tension between being a decent person and being a good and honest journalist comes up again and again. Alongside the romp, you get to experience the non-stop agonising about how to be both decent and professional. It is instructive because, despite the agonising, Maitlis chooses, again and again, to prove her professionalism rather than prove her humanity. The job comes first.

Emily Maitlis

My Personal Observations

With genuine thanks to the two people who bought me this book for Christmas …. I can thoroughly recommend it.

tough media interviews

Tough Media Interviews – How To Prepare

Tough media interviews require proper preparation. There are so many car crash interviews that you wonder why anyone ever goes on TV.

From a media training point of view a different question springs to mind. Why do very intelligent successful people make the mistake of not doing their homework, and allow themselves to ‘lose it’ on air? At the end of this blog post, I share my tips for exactly how to do that homework.

Keep Emotions Under Control

But first, let’s look at how not to do it. In the US this week there was a classic overreaction from a soccer coach who was asked a pretty ordinary question that, I read, was predictable and had been asked before. It would have been better to give a prepared diplomatic answer rather than storming off.

Tough Media Questions – Have a Prepared Answer

The Coach, Bob Bradley probably didn’t do himself much harm with his public display of petulance. But the former Persimmon CEO who was caught out in October last year, almost certainly lost his job, in part because of his refusal to answer a gently put question about his £75 m bonus. It was a subject that had been all over the media just a few months before and surely it would have been possible to have a neat answer such as ‘my salary is set by the remuneration committee, not by me’.

Tough Media Interviews – Do Your Homework

And here is a really old one that I had not seen until last week. It’s funny because this very senior chap thinks he can stop BBC Watchdog using the pre-recorded interview by waving his hands around. This may have been an issue of poor risk assessment. It was a pre-recorded interview and the Dental Association rarely attracts controversy. Plus the issue of mercury in fillings is an old chestnut. But this was Watchdog, a show whose reputation is all about tough interviews.

Refusing to answer a question, walking away, storming out, getting cross and ‘losing it’ once the camera is rolling is a seriously bad idea and is bound to make a bad interview more damaging than any uncomfortable struggling through.

The one everyone of a certain generation remembers is 1982 when then Defence Secretary John Nott stormed out of an interview. This is mentioned in a useful New Statesmen compilation of the worst political interviews ever.

It is much harder for politicians to anticipate all the tough questions and have all the numbers front of mind. I have quite a lot of sympathy for Dianne Abbot who spectacularly failed to do her sums when interviewed by Nick Ferrari on LBC two years ago. For business people, it tends to be a much more limited universe of possible nasties.

How to Prepare for Tough Questions – My Top Tips

  • With more than 2 people in the room brainstorm what the tough questions might be for any particular interview. It’s important to include generalists who have not been close to the issue.
  • Before the brainstorm, someone needs to look at the stuff the journalist has written about before. Check the cuttings.
  • Also, do not limit the discussion to directly relevant questions. What is ‘out there’ on the wider news agenda? Look at politics, regulators, scandals or trending stories such as the gender pay gap or mental health at work.
  • Once you have a list of tough or difficult questions, work out short but credible answers. These may be factual and dull or they may be ‘close down’ answers such as ‘that is simply not a question for me’. Either way, these lines can be prepared. These reactive lines need to be written down and stored somewhere secure. Do not take them into the interview with you unless they are locked in a briefcase or password protected.
  • Finally, rehearse the reactive lines aloud. Reading them in the taxi on the way to the studio is simply not real preparation.
  • Practise delivering the lines not just correctly but with the appropriate level of humility, warmth, authority, etc. Get the tone right. (I blogged about getting the tone right here.)

Of course, the sure-fire way to prepare for a tough interview is to hire Media Trainers with real front line journalism experience, who can, not just role-play the interviews with you (or your spokesperson), but help craft the lines and coach on getting the tone right. When you have been helping people get it right for more than a decade it becomes pretty obvious what works and what doesn’t.

trade press interviews

10 Top Tips for Trade Press Interviews

Trade press interviews are important for many businesses, they are a surefire way to reach a targeted market. While many publications have moved online, each has its own clearly defined audience and particular characteristics. Some of the journalists are seasoned experts in their sectors but many are less than a few months out of university with eyes on a more prestigious job. Either way, the pressure is on those journalists to capture and entertain their audience. They can be mischievous and gossipy just like colleagues in more mainstream jobs.

trade press interviews

My Top Tips for Trade Press Interviews

1. Before you start, be clear who you are talking to and who the audience is. Your trade press interview may be for a publication targeting your own industry or perhaps for your customers’ trade press. As a media trainer there is little benefit for me appearing in a media training magazine, were one to exist, but every benefit to appearing in a publication aimed, for example, at the pharmaceutical industry who are big spenders on media training. Either is fine but it is important to know before you start.

2. Be clear what the ‘peg’ for the interview is. It may be a press release or something that has happened in the industry, or perhaps a new product or a reaction to something someone else has said. Once you know who the end readers are and the starting point for the interview, you can plan what you want to say.

Trade Press Interviews: Don’t Speak in Jargon

3. Don’t speak in jargon. You may think your trade press journalists are experts but they are unlikely to be as expert as you and their readers may be even less so. Speak in layman’s language.

4. Be quotable. Plan a couple of metaphoric or graphic phrases that will give the journalist an easy quote. Quotes will often make the headline but even if they don’t if you are quotable in an interview you will get more than one name-check.

Trade Press Interviews: Plan Proof Points

5. Plan proof points. Good interviewees always have facts and numbers to provide evidence for any argument. They do not have to be confidential or propriety numbers – they can be numbers already in the public domain, for example, the sectors gender pay gap numbers or the latest Gartner research on technology trends. Of course, if you do have original research or client insight that you can use, you should make the most of it. Journalists will be particularly interested if the data has never been published elsewhere. It may be appropriate to provide a journalist with a fact sheet or list of key numbers. If you have a snazzy graphic so much the better.

6. Use examples and stories or anecdotes. I have written extensively about this before and will again, but good stories will not only win you coverage but be remembered by your audience. However, they need to be planned to ensure they are clear, not too long and don’t breach any confidentiality.

7. Consider whether you have any high-resolution pictures or video to offer the journalist but be mindful of copyright issues.

8. Make it your intention to deliver value to the journalist. You are not there to say how brilliant everyone or everything is (that is advertising). But if you give journalists what they need they will come back another time, winning you more publicity.

trade press interviews

Trade Press Interviews: Stick to Your Brief

9. Don’t comment on things you are not an expert in – politely suggest that there are more qualified people to answer the question. And also don’t get persuaded into gossiping about budgets, personnel changes or lost contracts. It is safest to assume everything is on the record and can be used. It is easy to say ‘you wouldn’t expect me to comment on that’. Always beware the ‘while I have got you can I just ask …’ type question at the end of the interview.

10. Whilst in the mainstream media it is often inappropriate to ask to see the copy before it is published, in the trade press, this happens often. Each publication or website will have its own rules but there is no harm in offering to read copy to check the details are correct. Be clear that you won’t have full editorial control but in practice, you can often get anything seriously concerning at least modified if not dropped.

Many companies have a policy of media training anyone allowed to talk to the trade press. One four hour session is usually enough to innoculate against naivete or bravado causing embarrassing headlines.

Photos: used under Creative Commons licence. Journalist caricature from Pixaby.

Top Tips for Surviving Aggressive Interviews

10 Tips for Handling Aggressive Interviews

Aggressive interviews are relatively rare and mostly reserved for politicians. But because we all witness them on television from time to time, spokespeople are always aware that there is a chance things can turn nasty.

In practice, the tricks journalists use in aggressive interviews are small in number and well known.  And the most aggressive interviewers all have their own, well documented style.  Here is my list of this country’s most aggressive interviewers. I would be delighted to hear if you have others you’d like to add.

Top Tips for Surviving Aggressive Interviews

If you think you or your spokesperson could be facing aggressive interviews, here is a checklist of things to do or think about.

1. Rehearse your messages
As with all interviews, there is a need for rehearsed, thought through messages. Always ensure there is something credible to say.

2. Tough questions
Once you have your messages, work out what the tough questions are likely to be. Politicians and CEOs are in a much more difficult position than most because they can often be legitimately asked about a very wide range of subjects. For most others, the scope is more limited and anything outside the scope can be ‘closed down’ by simply explaining you are not the right person to answer the question.

3. Work out the answers!
Now you have worked out the tough questions, work out the answers but keep them as short as possible. These are called ‘reactive lines’ and are different to your messages. You don’t offer a reactive line unless asked the question.

4. Don’t lie
The hardest ‘reactive lines’ to sort out are the ones where you can’t tell the truth and you can’t lie. In my experience, there is always a way but it can take a few minutes to work it out, which is why you don’t want to be doing it in the interview.  However tempting it is, never ever lie.

5. Beware the ‘rabbit-punch’
Beware the ‘rabbit punch’ question: a tough destabilising first question, often unexpectedly personal. It’s a technique that was often used by the now retired UK journalist, Jeremy Paxman. A couple of his classics: to politician and former cabinet minister Ann Widdecombe ‘Were you a little in love with Michael Howard?’ To the Iranian ambassador ‘Sir, your country is lying to us isn’t it’. To deal with this you need to respond briefly and, if appropriate, with wit and then move on to saying something credible and relevant.

Top Tips for Surviving Aggressive Interviews

Now retired, Jeremy Paxman perfected the ‘rabbit-punch’ question

6. Slow down
If the questions get tough, slow down your answers, it will give you more thinking time.

7. Avoid jargon
Do not start using jargon and technical language; you will immediately lose the sympathy of the audience.

8. Be reasonable
Stay reasonable, even if the journalist isn’t, and be humble.

9. Say sorry
If you have made a mistake admit it and say sorry.

10. Don’t say ‘you’re wrong’
Don’t fight with the journalist. It’s better not to say ‘you’ at all i.e. don’t say, ‘you are wrong’, ‘I don’t know where you got that number from’, ‘you guys are all the same’, etc. If you make it personal, the journalist is likely to increase their aggression. Your job is to stay reasonable and professional. In this Sky News interview from June 2015, Kay Burley is very aggressive and also resorts to that classic question, ‘if nothing was wrong before, why are you fixing it’. Note that Nick Varney, the CEO of Merlin Entertainment, the owners of Alton Towers, never loses his cool despite a lot of provocation.

[This Alton Towers interview definitely falls into the category of a ‘crisis interview’ and my colleague Catherine Cross has written more about handling these in a previous blog.]

A final thought … nowadays it is not just the journalists who get to be aggressive. If you haven’t seen President Trump’s handling of questions from CNN’s Jim Acosta last week you really should!

A version of this post was published in July 2015

Arron Banks

Arron Banks, Bluster and Punch – A La Trump

Arron Banks had the opportunity, on mainstream television last week, to explain why supporting the unofficial Brexit leave campaign Leave.EU with £8 million of his own money was legitimate and the right thing to do. He appeared on the  Andrew Marr show on Sunday. The show attracts an audience of 1.5 – 1.7 million which is pretty good for a politics show and well ahead of Peston on Sunday and Sophy Ridge on Sunday. Details of these Sunday political shows and relative audiences are in this article.

Given that this was to be such a crucial interview for Banks, I assumed he would have done extensive preparation: taken a lot of advice to ensure a convincing argument which would move the story on.

Bluster and Punch

Having watched the interview, I am pretty sure he did not take much advice. Instead, he went for a modern style of interview which has been honed by the US President but copied by others, which I am naming ‘bluster and punch’. This is the Trump school of arguing: don’t bother trying to convince those that do not agree with you, simply instead arouse those that do agree with you to a heightened sense of injustice and betrayal. Click here for the BBC’s write up of the event.

To me, it looked like a shameless attempt to obfuscate and defend by attacking others. However, I have to say that although I disapprove of the style, it has proved to be effective, at least at winning public votes. I am not so sure it worked for Banks.

Andrew Marr, not the most aggressive of interviewers was clearly flustered by the lack of rationality in the performance. In fact, he seemed somewhat flustered before the interview started.

I have no knowledge of where the 8 million donated to Leave.EU came from, not much in the way of suspicion and am not clear on electoral law.

But I can tell you that the Aaron Banks’ argument was not prepared for the interview by a professional spin doctor or PR advisor.

While Banks started off well by saying the `Money came from Rock Services’ and that categorically there was ‘no Russian money’ it all went downhill from there.

If you want to make a clear argument for the media (or the public) you need to build it step by step with proof points for each step.

Arron Banks

Confusing and Distracting Use of Numbers

Banks chose not to share such evidence. He didn’t say what sort of insurance customers he served – business or individuals or both. He said it was half a million, the size of Manchester. This was a confusing comparison as only central Manchester has a population of half a million, what most of us think of as Manchester is almost 3 million.

Worse the numbers led to more questions. I spent a lot of the interview thinking if you have half a million customers and you gave away 8 million pounds then those customers on average donated £16 to Leave.EU. Which does beg the question how much profit is he making per customer in the highly competitive, usually low margin insurance sector?  I am sure I wasn’t the only person thinking like this, which means the planned evidence provided here was hugely distracting.

If you are building an argument for a media interview the numbers want to be clear and easily understood, not raise more questions.

Make the Argument Clear

Similarly, in explaining the structure of his companies, Banks did not choose to make it clear. The implication is that Rock Services is a parent company or as Andrew Marr kept calling it a ‘shell company’ and that there are a number of brands that feed profits into that shell company but he seemed unprepared to share details, leaving the clear impressions that he was choosing to hide that information.

If he had said:

Rock Services is the parent company to a number of brands, including A, B and C.”

 …we would have all instantly stopped thinking it sounded dodgy.

As an advisor, I would also have suggested it was a good idea to explain why the donation was made. Surely, it would have been helpful to have a sentence that said ‘I donated this considerable sum from my own wholly owned business interests’ because I sincerely believe it would be better for the UK if we left the stifling, rules-bound, undemocratic, single market’. Without this helicopter view, the whole interview sounded defensive.

As the interview went on Banks’ argument seemed to me to get less and less credible. But he seemed more and more bullish.

Lambasting Others Undermines Credibility

Criticising others, blaming corruption, malice, bias and the BBC can all be done in moderation but to simply state everyone who disagrees with you is without credibility, is to undermine your own credibility. It is like the old soldier on parade who said ‘they are all out of step except me!’.

Given the controversial run-up to this interview, Banks and his advisors (if he had any) could be sure that Marr’s researchers would gather and read everything that was ‘out there’ in the public domain and relentlessly go through the cuttings to hone the tough questions. Apparently, they even sent someone to Companies House.

Planning for Hostile Interview

From a PRs perspective, the more confrontational the interview is likely to be, the more predictable the questions. And that makes the planning much easier.

As a preparation exercise you identify all the likely questions, then you need to craft succinct, credible answers. There may be some questions for which your spokesperson chooses to say ‘I am not making that public because it is commercially confidential’ or ‘I am not going to comment on that’. Clearly, you cannot do that for every question. I referred to this Close Down technique in my blog last week. 

Generally, only if you land a credible answer can you then take the opportunity to broaden the conversation to make a wider point such as accusations of bias, corruption etc.

I suspect Banks thinks the interview went well because he is clearly thick-skinned and he believes he is right and everyone else is misguided. If his intention was to deliberately muddy the waters – but take the opportunity to reiterate allegations that there is an insidious but widespread Remain Campaign still on the march, he probably fulfilled his brief.

However, if his intention was to sway an undecided public that his campaign contribution was above board and put to rest any fears that he might have done something wrong, he failed.

Live Broadcast Interviews

Live broadcast interviews: Keep calm and stay sharp

Live broadcast interviews can be nerve-wracking at the best of times and can also be a minefield if not taken seriously.

At the other end of the scale, there are the hidden traps that regular media commentators can fall in to – mainly, familiarity breeding contempt. As Sainsbury’s CEO, Mike Coupe, illustrated recently, if you have several interviews lined up one after the other, the problem can be not so much nerves as tedium:

>

But he’s not alone in falling into the trap of thinking you can let your guard down near a camera or microphone, even if you think the interview hasn’t started yet or has finished. From John Major’s infamous “bastards” comment 25 years ago, to former England Rugby Captain, Will Carling, colourfully describing the game’s ruling body “57 old farts” – and being sacked shortly afterwards – the lesson to remember is that the camera is always on, the microphone is always ‘hot’.

Live broadcast interviews – beware the sound check

Even the obligatory sound check can also be a potential disaster if you don’t act professionally, as Ronald Reagan discovered when he decided to joke that “We begin bombing Russia in five minutes” and it was later leaked to the media. (Bonus tip – humour and sarcasm hardly ever work in interviews so play it straight at all times. It is so easy to misspeak, particularly in live broadcast interviews, as we have written about before.)

So here are three other tips for live interviews:

1. Preparation, preparation, preparation

At The Media Coach, our training sessions hammer home the importance of preparing thoroughly with three carefully crafted messages and ‘sizzle’ (media-friendly soundbites, metaphors or alliteration to make them stand out). And for a live interview, preparation AND rehearsal are absolutely vital when you may have at most a couple of minutes to make your points. A live interview is no time for original thought! Nor do you want to waste those valuable seconds waffling while you get to the point.

2. Interviews need substance AND style

While a broadcasting studio can feel quite intimate don’t forget you need to deliver your messages with a bit of ‘oomph’: passion, energy and animation. But try not to nod during a question – it’s a natural body language which signals understanding and a willingness to engage. However, unfortunately, if the question is hostile or negative, it can look to the audience like you agree with it, even if you then go on to disagree. On TV, don’t forget you may still be visible to the audience when the presenter is speaking so don’t react physically during a question, for example grimacing, shifting in your chair or rolling your eyes. And remember, you may still be in shot after your last answer so don’t rip off the microphone, leap out of your chair, turn and walk off or joke about how awful that was until you are sure you are off air or are directed to do so.

3. Keep calm and carry on

While this may not want to hear this, you need to bear in mind that live broadcasting is often controlled chaos – and sometimes not even that controlled! Things can and do go wrong so keep your wits about you. And this goes for TV professionals too as BBC Sports presenter Mike Bushell demonstrated when he took an unexpected swim during a recent live interview:

So, if you have done your preparation, act professionally at all times and expect the unexpected, live broadcast interviews should hold no fears!

elevator pitch

Why we all need an elevator pitch

I have come to the conclusion that each of us who represent our business to the outside world, however that is defined, needs to have a honed and perfected elevator pitch.

elevator pitch

Can you describe your company in the time it takes to move between floors in an elevator?

What is an elevator pitch?

It is a succinct, thought-through and rehearsed explanation of what the business does.

Why do we need one?

Because the world is complicated and we all assume too often that others completely understand where we are coming from and what we do. Most people interviewed at the start of media training make assumptions about the knowledge of the trainer-journalist. Once this is pointed out, it is obvious.  But it is not just relevant for journalists.   I am always using my elevator pitch when introduced to new people. I lengthen or shorten it depending on the circumstances.

What are the elements?

I think the elements are first an overview or helicopter view. ‘We sell software that helps people cut their use of paper and save money’ or ‘we provide a wide range of personal and business insurance for the UK market’ etc. Second a bit of detail e.g. size of the business, number of employees, range of contracts, key clients etc. and finally an example of a good piece of work you have done.

Do I need to include the history of the business?

I believe the history of the organisation is only relevant if it is memorable and interesting. If it was started in a cow shed in 1901 or was the brainchild of an astronaut, use it, otherwise, don’t bother.

Why is the overview so important?

Because detail makes no sense to people if you don’t provide a frame for it. Once you have the frame you can hang different things on it, but you need the frame.

Why so much emphasis on numbers?

Numbers allow people to understand scale, whether that’s scale of an operation, scale of the growth, scale of the potential market. Without scale, people are left wondering or guessing.

Do you really need examples?

Never miss the examples, they are always the things people will remember after they forget the overview and the numbers.

Warning! Do not try to be all things to all people!

Sounds daft but this is such a common mistake. A story I often tell from the early 2000’s when I was media training a start-up in the dot-com boom.

Me: ‘What is your website for?’
CEO: (aged 22): ‘It’s for all sorts of things, all sorts.’
Me: ‘Okay, what sort of people do you envisage visiting your website?’
CEO: ‘All sorts of people’
Me: ‘So, what might prompt them to visit the site?’
CEO: ‘Oh, all sorts of things!’

I left after three hours none the wiser what this company planned to do (of course, it is possible they didn’t know either which is a different problem.) Much better to give an idea and then layer in further information later if you get the chance.

Warning! Avoid positive bland!

This is another major problem. People think it is impressive to say ‘we provide a great service for our customers’, ‘we help clients become more efficient’, ‘we help make staff more productive’. No detail and only positives mean it is unconvincing propaganda. You might as well not bother.

Warning! Do not use the org chart

People are tempted to explain how many division and subdivisions there are in the company. This really will bore the pants off anybody. (For CNBC’s advice on putting together an elevator pitch click here).

We ran a competition at a conference (ECS 2015) asking people to do their elevator pitch to camera. We called it Message in a Minute challenge. Even PR professionals found it remarkably difficult to do it well.

Do you need an elevator and a message house?

In my view, typically an elevator pitch stands outside a set of messages or a message house that has been prepared for a product launch, a particular issue or set of results. Sometimes organisations ask us to help with an ‘organisational’ message house. This is most likely to be a new company or a hitherto unknown company reaching into a new market. In this case, the elevator is a shortened version of the longer and more detailed organisational messages or ‘house’. In the end, it doesn’t matter what form you use to communicate your message. What does matter is that the message is thought through, crystal clear and rehearsed.

A version of this blog first ran in March 2016