It’s summer, so I am taking a break from blogging. But if you haven’t seen this Minute with The Media Coach, where fellow trainer Eric Dixon and I discuss how to get the tone right – in either a media interview or a presentation – here it is.
It’s summer, so I am taking a break from blogging. But if you haven’t seen this Minute with The Media Coach, where fellow trainer Eric Dixon and I discuss how to get the tone right – in either a media interview or a presentation – here it is.
Media training basics include how to behave on-air so that your audience trusts you.
Whether you are a candidate to lead a party, a new prime minister or a business leader launching a product or vision, we think this requires three key things:
Animation is perhaps the easiest attribute to acquire. The people who are naturally good on television are those that are larger than life and often rather hard work at dinner. This is not always true but people who seem quite normal on TV are often really big characters. An occasional interviewee doesn’t need to cultivate a whole new persona but just use a little more energy when speaking. Hand movement and head movement can be good so long as they not so noticeable that they are distracting.
Authority is more intangible. We know it when we see it but trying to cultivate it can be challenging. There are, though, some basics.
Warmth is perhaps the most elusive. Some people have it by the bucket-load even if they are not the most polished interviewee. It is worth a lot. If you don’t have it naturally on-air you can try the following things.
Getting the tone right is half the battle and will compensate for other missteps in an interview. In the end ‘people buy people’ as the saying goes: so developing a good on-air presence is something worth working on.
Media interviews you just can’t win present a particular challenge to non-commercial organisations. Generally, commercial organisations will simply not put anyone up for an interview if they feel their spokespeople may come off worse. But public bodies often feel they have to be available for interviews however difficult the subject matter.
In the last couple of weeks, I have worked with two completely unrelated clients who each have a particular issue with a group of almost professional objectors. Sadly, I can’t share the names or issues but for the sake of this blog I have come up with a parallel or metaphor. They both face the equivalent of arguing with a vegan!
I am personally very sympathetic to veganism and read and think about it a lot. However, I would not bother to argue with a vegan if I was selling a meat pie! My point is that nothing I said about the meat pie would in any way change the opinion of a vegan about the pie. Nor would it change the opinion of any other vegan who was watching or listening to the argument. However, vegans are in the minority, and while we may (or may not) respect their views, our target for selling the meat pie is everyone else.
Taking this back to my clients, in both cases they face a relatively small but noisy group of objectors who both brief journalists and turn up on panels, etc. And in my opinion, both organisations pay far too much attention to their detractors, planning point by point rebuttals for arguments they will never win.
In life in general, and certainly in a democracy, it is very important to have these discussions, to understand each other’s position, to tweak policy, etc. But there is a judgement to be made as to whether the ‘objectors’ are representing an argument you need to respond to.
If you have a three-minute radio interview it may not be worth challenging the oppositions’ arguments in detail. Better to spend the time, as much as possible, talking about your point of view (selling the pie).
What I have observed with clients is that the arguments of the professional opposition overly dominate the preparation for any public appearance. Just because a group of people are noisy and aggressive does not mean they have a strong case – and also does not mean any audience will assume they are right.
So, my advice if faced with this sort of opposition, is to keep your focus on your own argument.
My suggested strategy is slightly different in a print or web interview compared to a broadcast interview.
In a broadcast interview, you will have limited time to speak. So, plan a short statement, or several short lines, that explain your high-level response to the objector but be determined to get into the discussion the positive aspect of your argument. Do not concern yourself with intellectually rebutting every point the objector can raise – as I have said you are unlikely to convince anyone. What should matter is that your argument reaches the audience who are receptive to it.
In a print interview where the journalist has been briefed by the objectors, it is a different game. Firstly, understand the journalist is not necessarily on their side or yours. They are looking to test your arguments (or perhaps the other side’s arguments). But the nature of the game is that they can only write what you say. So, it is crucial not to allow yourself to be provoked into overly combative phrases or strongly worded rebuttals. One annoyed or irritated misspeak will make the headline. Remember an interview is not a debate. You are being asked to respond to a set of arguments ‘on the record’. Keep calm and keep rational. And don’t judge the subsequent piece on whether it agrees with you or not – instead judge it on whether your side of the argument is fairly represented.
Of course, a good media trainer will rehearse you through the different types of interview you will face and ensure you can be confident about your argument and your response to the other side.
Managing emotion in a media interview can be a huge challenge.
Emotion on radio or television is considered good entertainment. Brutal but true. However, if you are a professional person, or you have an important point to make, your priority becomes not breaking down in public.
Andy Murray gave a press conference just before the Australian Open last week, in which it was absolutely clear that he was struggling emotionally with both his continuing pain from injury and his decision to give up professional tennis. (The bit that makes even me cry in sympathy is at time code 4:45 minutes for about a minute.)
Having lived so long in the public spotlight Andy Murray is, perhaps, not uncomfortable sharing his pain, but most people would be.
So how do you cope?
I have just a few tips:
Firstly, work with an adviser to work out what your trigger words or phrases or images are. I have worked with people who have lost children or husbands etc. who want to talk to the media (always about lessons to be learned) but don’t want to breakdown in public. It is usually certain phrases that trigger overwhelming emotion.
Once these trigger phrases are identified you can build a narrative or messages that avoid them. Knowing the trigger phrases is crucial to managing emotion in a media interview.
Secondly, rehearsal really helps. We always advocate rehearsing aloud for even a simple media interview. But for something of high emotion, it is critical. If you can tell the story several times the emotion triggered by that particular narrative decreases. It is something we all know from our life experience. It is a mild version of aversion therapy. Repeated exposure lessons the reaction, at least in most cases.
Thirdly, if it is a radio or television interview tell the journalist what you don’t want to talk about, or tell someone else to do so in the briefing. Even the most aggressive journalist will play ball if you say: ‘I am alright so long as I don’t have to talk about the moment I identified the body’. In this sort of interview journalists and broadcasters will absolutely respect your wishes.
If you need help preparing for difficult interviews of any sort give us a call on +44 (0)20 7099 2212.
Preparing for a media interview is common sense but knowing exactly what and how to prepare is less clear to most people. Almost all of us are time poor; knowing exactly what to do in the one or two-hour window allocated for interview preparation is not so obvious.
So here is our five-step pre-flight checklist. If you are lucky enough to have good comms professionals around you, this will be a joint venture – but it is not something that can be delegated.
The first step is to be clear about your own or the business objectives of any media engagement. Why are you doing interviews? It may be something as general as ‘profile raising’ or something much more specific such as driving sales of a new product or trying to get a change in some regulation. Whatever it is, you should know before you start.
Next, you need to know who you will be talking to. Who is the journalist, who is their audience and therefore what story will they be interested in? The journalist is never there to do your advertising for you. They will have a different perspective on the subject and you as the interviewee need to know what that is. If you are dealing with a number of different journalists, for example at a media event or for a big launch, you must be aware of the different agendas of the different journalists: the Pensions Weekly freelancer will likely have a different angle than The Guardian columnist.
Once you have completed step one and two you are in a position to pull together your messages. This is an essential step when preparing for a media interview. We write a lot about ‘messaging’ as we call it, so no need to go into it here. However, it helps to understand that you want a smorgasbord of an argument or a Chinese buffet. Each little bit of the argument is carefully prepared and ready for serving, but what exactly gets served in what order will depend on how the interview goes. Despite that, it is crucial that your prepared argument is crystal clear.
If you want to make any bold statements, look for ‘proof points’; include anecdotes and examples and above all keep the language simple. Remember, the journalists’ two favourite questions, often not articulated quite as bluntly but there none-the-less, are: ‘so what?’ and ‘can you prove it?’
Once you know what you want to say, you need to then think about the difficult questions and plan the responses. There may be challenging questions related to your messages but there may also be uncomfortable questions about wider issues – journalists can ask anything and are always looking for a headline or a good quote. Anticipating these is all part of preparing for a media interview. Generally, on these anticipated negative questions, you want to make a convincing but dull response in as short a time as possible. Remember, you don’t want the journalist to focus on the negatives. Depending on the circumstances, another option may be to simply tell a journalist that it is not appropriate for you to answer such questions, perhaps the issue is confidential or simply outside the scope of your role. If so, say so.
Finally, we think a few minutes rehearsing aloud is worth several hours talking about your interview with advisors. Role-play is uncomfortable but effective. Don’t be afraid to change your messages if they don’t work. Anyone can ask the questions, it is the act of getting your tongue around the messages and articulating the reactive lines that is valuable. So, give the list of tough questions to your teenage son, if you have one, and ask him to role-play being a journalist. I think of it as creating the neural pathways in advance so that you don’t have to do all that thinking in the interview.
My last thoughts refer to after the interview rather than before. If you are senior in a big business many things in your world are tightly controlled and outcomes are predictable. If you tell someone to do something, they do it. Media engagement is not one of those things. The outcomes are not entirely predictable.
We often come across execs who have been upset or infuriated by journalists in the past. We also come across plenty who, while not being devastated were mildly annoyed or disappointed by some write up or broadcast. Preparation will limit the risks and potential for disappointment – but in the end, you are not buying advertising and you cannot tell the journalist what to write. If it goes wrong put it down to experience.
Above all do not blame the press officer! They have no more control than you do, but just like a professional investor, they do understand the risks and rewards better. They are advisors, not magicians and only a fool alienates their expert advisors.
Every day The Media Coach team help people preparing for a media interview. We also help organisations embed a media-aware culture, so media engagement becomes part of business as usual rather than something squeezed in after the day job. If you think we can help your organisation please give us a call on +44 (0)20 7099 2212.
Photos used under creative coms licence
Pre-flight Checklist – Credit US Airforce
Thumbs up – Credit Centre for Aviation Photography
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’.
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.)
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!
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.
It is a succinct, thought-through and rehearsed explanation of what the business does.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Never miss the examples, they are always the things people will remember after they forget the overview and the numbers.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Journalists are not clients or customers and this seems to confuse those planning to speak with them for the first time.
One of the great advantages of being a consultant of any sort but a media trainer, in particular, is you get a huge variety of experience. We get to see and experience the cultures that have grown up inside the dozens if not hundreds of businesses and organisations we work with.
And from this privileged position I can see, with great clarity, how different people have very different programmes – let’s call it emotional programmes – running when they’re faced with a journalist (or trainer) for the first time.
These range from being much too risk-averse, convinced every and any syllable might be twisted and used against the interviewee or the company – all the way across the spectrum to people who are simply too keen to please. Where a person is on this spectrum seems to bear little relation to how senior they are, or indeed how real the media risks are.
Anyone trained by The Media Coach team will know we think you should approach journalists in a disciplined way, it is never just a chat.
However, those too aware of the risks, and without the information on how to handle the risks, will give a very defensive interview: short answers, usually unhelpful and very determined to be dull at all costs. There are lots of problems with this approach.
There is nothing wrong with being professionally friendly, in fact, we would advocate this as the right approach.
At the other end of the spectrum, the people-pleasers run the risk of being exploited by journalists.
These people, in an interview, will focus only on answering questions in an expansive and helpful way. The problem with this is that journalists rarely know the right questions to ask – to some extent all interviews are a fishing expedition. In a worse case scenario, our helpful interviewee can be bounced around, asked and answering all sorts of questions on subjects that are not core to the organisations interests.
So we suggest you are professionally friendly, expansive (up to a point) and use prepared messages whilst closing down or moving away from questions that are not in your interest to answer. Easy really.
If you would like help or training in how to handle a media interview positively and safely, we would be delighted to work with you.
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.
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:
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.)
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
Senior leaders are often booked into media training by PR professionals who are tearing their hair out. So often, successful, super-professional ‘talent’ has somehow missed out on a few of the basics of good external communication and are suddenly required to front a product launch or a PR campaign.
It is so common, so stressful for all concerned and so preventable, I think it is worth a blog post.
Take the case of Theresa May – for many years an ambitious career politician now struggling with a hugely difficult job. Most of us in the PR business believe a few basic lessons in presentation, delivery and handling media interviews might have totally changed her fortunes. The problem, as I see it, is that she didn’t get the training on the way up and now, with the top job and a different crisis every day, there is no time to do it.
And we see exactly this in the corporate world. Senior leaders are incredibly busy. Diary management is a headache and a full-time job – outsourced to PAs, and EAs for many of those we train. Trying to persuade these hard-pressed staff that a media trainer needs four hours in someone’s diary is likely to get the response – ‘sorry but can you do it in 45 minutes and by the way, he (or she) will probably be running late.’
But actually, four or even eight hours training over the career of a senior leader is a very small commitment. It is difficult to predict how many media interviews someone is likely to do in the future but we know for sure they will be doing countless presentations. And while some presentation training is provided, a lot of people slip through the net and still do it very badly.
My belief is that communications training – covering external versus internal comms, understanding the media, social media, messaging and interview control should be core subjects in management training programmes. And these should also include some coaching on delivery style. Being able to ‘perform’ whether in front of an audience or a journalist is also an essential skill. (I have written previously about how poor presentations are endemic in business.)
I have lost count of the number of times people finish a media training session saying ‘even if I never speak to the media this is has been incredibly useful professionally’.
The ideal is to do it early, do it well and then top up the training as and when it is needed for specific events. That will avoid the sort of query I receive at least once a week: “can you cover press, radio and TV and give us some help with the messaging for three people in three hours?” It can be done but just not as well as I would like to do it.
So, if you are a learning development officer or an HR professional and some of this rings true – I would suggest asking your PR team about the problems they run into when looking for capable spokespeople. Then if you find I am right, start planning media and presentation training for your emerging leaders. If you think you are yourself an ‘emerging leader’ take my advice and wangle your way onto a media training course before you find you need it. You won’t regret it.
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