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Informality - Johnson

The rise and rise of informality

Informality is taking over the world or at least that is my perception. If I Google this I find very few articles which makes me a little nervous about my own judgement but I have been mulling this for several months. Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and other successful political figures (love them or hate them), connect with their audience in part because they are seen as ‘one of us’.

Speakers connect to audiences by appearing to be ‘one of us’

All speakers want to connect with their audience and there are many ways to do this. But increasingly younger generations – and voters – are disrespectful of anyone who seems to set themselves apart. And they connect with people who are informal.

What do I mean by informal? Well here is a very short clip from Boris Johnson this week (3rd September). He is standing on the steps of Number 10 and looking fairly prime ministerial. But in this 40 seconds we get the phrases – ‘pointless delay’, ‘no if’s, no but’s and ‘we will not accept any attempt to…scrub that referendum’. Shortly before this clip starts he also said ‘I promised we would not hang about’.

In this case, it is the words that are informal but in other cases, it is the style of delivery.

It’s not just the words that can be informal

In this recent clip, we have a ‘fireside chat’ with our PM in the middle of a party!


Despite the fact that Boris occasionally includes obtuse references to the Classics (as mentioned in this blog) – he doesn’t behave as Theresa May, Gordon Brown, David Cameron or other Prime Ministers have done. And I think there are lessons to be learnt from this.

What is the place for informality business leadership?

In both presentation and media training, I am often urging people to be less formal. Some are formal in their choice of language – many of you will have heard me urge people to ‘come down the language ladder’. By this I mean use everyday language, not business language. But there is good reason to do more than strip out the jargon.

Part of the current distrust and disrespect of power translates into distrust of people who sound like they have power. So my advice to clients is to err on the side of informality. Generally to be a little more informal than they think they should be. That’s if you want to connect to your audience, and if you want to lead your audience. The younger the audience the more informal the approach we recommend.

But a quick warning: this is not the same thing as trying to be hip! Authenticity is important and suddenly quoting a rapper (unless you are a genuine fan) or sporting a T-shirt with an anarchic saying, is not likely to win many plaudits.

If you would like help planning for a media interview or a presentation call us to discuss what we can offer, tel: +44 (0)20 7099 2212.

media interview traps

Media interview traps – how to avoid two of them

Media interview traps are relatively easy for journalists to set and for interviewees to fall headlong in to. At The Media Coach, we try to keep you safe by identifying the most common ones and giving you tips and techniques to avoid them. So it’s useful to look at two examples of interview traps which happened in recent days: being indiscreet near a microphone – even when you think you are not being recorded – and the journalist trying to get you to go ‘off message’ to create juicy headlines. The first trap resulted in days of embarrassing, negative publicity while the second was neatly avoided.

media interview traps

There are some well known media traps but people, even professionals, regularly get caught by them.

Media interview trap 1: Cameras are always on and microphones are always ‘hot’

During every media training session we drill into people the need to be very careful around microphones and cameras before and after an interview; in fact, whenever you are in a TV or radio studio. But familiarity can breed contempt and this week we saw even one of the UK’s most experienced journalists, BBC presenter John Humphrys, get caught out when he made controversial comments in a studio without realising he was being recorded.

He wasn’t on air at the time and was just chatting with a colleague before recording an interview when he made what he has since insisted were “jokey” comments about one of the biggest media stories in the previous week; Carrie Gracie’s resignation from the post of the BBC’s China editor because men in other editor posts were paid considerably more than she was.

The story about the lack of equal pay at the BBC had been running for several days and probably would have been winding down, but with the leaking of the recording, it is now right back up the news agenda.

One of John Humphry’s BBC colleagues, Jane Garvey, summed up the incident nicely when she tweeted:

media interview traps

Media interview trap 2: going off message/just reacting to the journalist’s questions

Also in recent days, experienced media performer, Stanley Johnson, (father of Foreign Secretary, Boris) deftly demonstrated how to avoid another common media interview trap, which I call the “while I’ve got you here, can I just ask you about…” question.

Mr Johnson was appearing on a phone in on Radio 5live’s Emma Barnett show after the UK Government announced proposals to curb plastic waste in the environment. After giving his view on the proposals, and mentioning Boris, Emma Barnett, seized the opportunity to go slightly off-topic with Stanley Johnson in search of a potentially juicy headline by revisiting the very public falling out between his son and the now Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, during the last Conservative leadership contest. ( You can click here for the full interview which starts at 1 hour 24 minutes and 55 seconds and will be available for the next three weeks.)

media interview traps

Stanley Johnson refused to be drawn when asked about the relationship between Michael Gove and his son Boris Johnson.

When asked to respond to the comments from his daughter Rachel that Mr Gove had stabbed her brother Boris “in the front and the back”, Stanley Johnson neatly spotted the potential for negative headlines which could overshadow his environmental agenda. He simply took the sting out of the topic by refusing to get drawn in and saying “I don’t think it’s a good idea to distract from talking about the environment” before going back to his key messages on his intended topic.

This is an effective example of the bridging technique which we teach during Media Coach training sessions to ensure interviewees can avoid being drawn off-topic and ending up with headlines they never intended.

Finally, to avoid both traps, the two cases illustrate the need to take media encounters seriously, focus and remain disciplined at all times.

Photo 1: Pixabay
Photo 2: Creative Commons