Posts

media training

Why critics of media training miss the point

Media training has long had its critics among journalists. As far back as 2001, Anne Robinson’s appearance on the TV show Room 101 became infamous for sparking hundreds of complaints when she nominated ‘the Welsh’ for fictional oblivion. What has largely been forgotten is that she also included media training on her list.

Media training often misunderstood

That acrimony has continued over the years with several of my former journalistic colleagues – on hearing I had ‘gone over to the dark side’ to become a media trainer – grumbling that ‘all it does is teach people how to avoid answering the questions’.

Alastair Stewart is just wrong

media training

Veteran newscaster Alastair Stewart says people should just answer questions. We disagree.

TV presenter Alastair Stewart illustrated this misconception again recently when offering advice on how to prepare, as a subject matter expert, for an interview. (The whole piece is at Jul28 on his Facebook page but as he is a prolific social media user it is hard to find! ) His top tip was “listen to the questions and answer them” rather than go in “with a predetermined set of must-make points”. And yet two of his other tips, “you know more than your audience” and “you won’t have long” run counter to his first point and highlight exactly why most people do need GOOD media training.

media training

Experts know too much

In nearly 30 years of journalism and media training I can’t remember coming across an interviewee who didn’t know their subject matter. In fact, the problem is usually quite the reverse; they know it so well that they can’t see the wood for the trees! During the initial interview in a media training session people often give rambling answers while they desperately try to make their point. Alternatively, some are virtually monosyllabic, assuming that lots of interesting information is ‘too obvious to mention’. Indeed many experts, particularly from the worlds of academia, science and technology, believe that ‘the facts speak for themselves’ and are surprised when, for most people, they actually don’t. Good media training is about helping people distil everything they know down into short, coherent points that they can deliver in a matter of seconds, in a way that a general audience can understand.

It’s also about sense-checking the way people talk and the language they use. I have lost count of the times when having asked what should be the simple question ‘What does your company do?’ I received an answer along the lines of:

‘We create compelling customer journeys by engaging with our clients and offering end-to-end solutions. We optimise operations and help our clients transform their value proposition.’

Virtually every sector and every business is full of jargon and acronyms that mean absolutely nothing to outsiders and what critics of media training fail to realise is that not everyone is a natural communicator who can switch easily from ‘the day job’ to being a media star.

Media interviews are often turned down

In fact, the world of the journalist is completely alien to most people and, as a result, many turn down an interview through fear. I often hear ‘What if I say the ‘wrong’ thing?’ and ‘What if they ask me something I don’t know? I don’t want to look stupid.’ Alastair Stewart’s view that interviewees should not have some predetermined talking points and, instead, simply answer the questions, ignores the reality of many expert’s experience – that their interviews were frustrating because they felt the journalist didn’t ask the right questions so the interview never really got going. Having some carefully thought out points that are well crafted, with proof points backed up by good examples, ensures an interview can be a win-win situation for both the journalist and the expert. For most interviewees this doesn’t happen magically on the spot, it is the product of good media training.

Here is a blog I wrote earlier on media on interview tips.

If you would like to book media training please call us on +44 (020) 7099 2012.

 

Alastair Stewart image from YouTube

 

 

remember the numbers

Remember the numbers! Media Training basics

Remember the numbers! This needs to be a new mantra for anyone planning high profile media interviews. Sadly the media are deeply unforgiving of someone who doesn’t know a number.

Nicola Sturgeon forgets the cost of Scottish Independence

Nicola Sturgeon was last Friday, the latest in a long line of politicians to forget a key number and be chased for it, in this case during a Channel 4 News interview.

Eventually, she admitted she had forgotten what number a leading academic had put on the cost of setting up Scotland as an independent nation. (The answer, by the way, was £450 million.)

Interestingly to me, this was a pre-recorded interview which was edited and packaged up. You can watch it here, the key exchange starts at 1.58 in. Even though the journalist, Ciaran Jenkins, could easily have left out the embarrassing moments showing Sturgeon forgetting the number, he, of course, chose to include it.

Chasing the number has become ‘fair sport’

Politicians do have it tough and are juggling a huge amount of information that they can be pigeonholed about at any time. In recent years it has become ‘fair sport’ to embarrass political figures with repeated questioning about a number.

It happened most excruciatingly to Diane Abbott here in an LBC interview about the cost of extra police.

It was said afterwards that Abbott was unwell; she has Type 2 Diabetes and was struggling to control her blood sugar levels and, it was claimed, was therefore confused during this interview. Shortly afterwards she stood down temporarily due to ill health, just before the June 2017 election.

Not knowing the number suggests a careless attitude

Jeremy Corbyn also forgot a key number in this BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour interview where he couldn’t remember the cost of a policy to provide free childcare to all pre-school children, a key policy in the Labour manifesto.

I do have sympathy but there is no doubt that not knowing how many millions of pounds you are planning to spend on a new policy is hugely damaging. It makes it look as if you have a careless attitude to public money.

Pay is another area where not knowing the numbers can get you negative headlines. And it’s not just journalists that are unforgiving.

Do you know how much you earn?

MPs on the Public Accounts Committee were extremely irritated when in February 2016, Google’s European CEO failed five times to answer a question about how much he earnt. In the end, he said ‘I don’t have a figure’. Given that he was trying to explain why Google was paying so little tax into the UK coffers, the performance led to bruising headlines. You can read the Daily Mail’s coverage of that event in February 2016 here.

And more recently Marion Sears, the remuneration committee chairwoman at Persimmon, admitted to the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy committee that she did not know the average pay of workers at her company, and appeared to forget that Persimmon had given the CEO Jeff Fairburn a £45m bonus the year before. None of which went down well with MPs or the media. Here is the Independent’s coverage.

The lesson: If you are doing a high-profile interview or a select committee – sort out the numbers and rehearse and learn the argument. In Messaging or Media Training sessions, we build facts and numbers into our message houses and then strongly advise interviewees to rehearse these aloud – to build what we call ‘tongue memory’.

If you want help with either message building or interview rehearsal The Media Coach team can role-play realistic interviews with you and provide coaching before the event.

Answer the question

Answer The Question! A Media Training Basic

Answer the question! A phrase that must be shouted at the radio and television hundreds of times a day. It is also a plea used by many a frustrated political interviewer. But last week interviewer Richard Madeley (of Richard and Judy) went one step further and after several attempts to get Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson to answer a question announced ‘interview terminated’ – out of sheer frustration.

I must admit I missed this storm in a teacup initially but by the end of the week, everyone was talking about it. And since then Madeley has written about it in The Guardian  (apparently it was the most popular thing he has ever done on television) and Charles Moore in the Spectator has stepped in to suggest that Madeley was in the wrong, not Williamson.

Just in case you like me missed it, here is the end of the Good Morning Britain interview. (The elephants in the background were explained earlier – Williamson was doing the interview from a Safari Park.)

This ruckus highlights something that has puzzled me for a very long time. Why have our politicians all been taught (and surely they must have been taught this) not to answer a question?

In our sort of media training, there is very strong guidance against ignoring a question. It is bound to lead to the journalist obsessing about the point and often prompts downright aggression. Much better to answer it and then also add something you want to say.

[I blogged here in September 2016 about the Prime Minister Theresa May’s mistake in constantly refusing to answer a question.]

In last week’s case, Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson was being asked by Madeley whether he regretted his ‘Trump-like’ choice of words when, back in March – in the aftermath of the nerve agent attack on the Skripals – he said ‘Russia should go away, it should shut up’.

Had Williamson anticipated this question he could have had a prepared phrase (or what we call a reactive line) such as:

“With hindsight, the choice of words was perhaps injudicious but people will have understood my frustration and anger at the attack on British soil…”

Or he might have chosen:

“No, I don’t regret the choice of words. There are times when straight talking is the right thing to do. But I don’t think the exact choice of words is the important issue here…”

Either way it is difficult to see what the long-term damage would have been and in fact, it would have been less of a news story than the actual refusal.

When we run message building sessions it is the preparation of arguments that takes the time. Preparing short responses to possible tough questions is usually fairly quick and straightforward. The trick is to try not to be quotable in your response. That can be hard if you are a high-profile politician (either of my suggested responses from Williamson could have made a news story but with little long-term impact) but much easier for everyone else.

The important thing is not to just ignore a question. A frustrated journalist who thinks he has the audience on his side is a dangerous thing.

How to sit and stand on TV Bill Gates

How to sit and stand on TV

How to sit and stand on TV is one of those things that we cover as standard in any broadcast media training. The rules are very simple and widely understood, so I was immediately struck when I saw this interview with Bill Gates on Friday. I happened to have the Sky News Channel on mute in my kitchen and my first thought was ‘goodness that chap looks a mess’ and my second thought was ‘Oh! That is Bill Gates’.

How to sit on TV: Bill Gates could do better

Now it has to be said that Bill Gates is – well – Bill Gates. He has nothing to prove to anybody and the fact that he is looking all crumpled in this interview is unlikely to make anyone think the less of him. However, for the rest of us whose reputation is not solid gold, perhaps it is worth remembering the rules.

5 rules for how to sit on TV

  1. Sit up straight and avoid leaning over to one side or another. It may feel comfortable but it looks distracting.
  2. Bottom in Back of Chair (remember this with the acronym BBC), and lean slightly forward. This makes you look engaged and as if you care.
  3. If you are a man, pull your jacket down at the back and together at the front but don’t button it up. Check your tie is straight.
  4. Keep your legs together, splayed is not a good look.
  5. Look at the person asking the questions. (Bill Gates gets this right).

Hand movement

Animation is good and hand movement is an important part of the communication process. It also helps the speaker’s brain! Tell someone who uses a lot of hand movement to sit on their hands and their brain seems to slow down. But, while we never stop people talking with their hands, we do suggest the movement stays well below the shoulder line. Hands popping in and out of shot at shoulder level is distracting. Judge this for yourself on the video. I think Gates’ hand movements (if it were anyone else) would shout ‘eccentric’.

5 rules for how to stand on TV

For completeness let’s cover off the rules for interviews conducted standing up.

  1. Put your feet hip-width apart to give you stability.
  2. Keep the bottom half of your body still. No swaying, no bouncing on your toes (a very common issue) and don’t dance – you will step out of the shot. This may all sound obvious but when people are nervous that nervous energy often finds strange escape routes.
  3. Stand straight.
  4. If you are a man, check your tie is straight, at the top of the collar and if wearing a jacket do it up (assuming it fits you).
  5. Use your hands to talk in a natural way but if you are worried about where to put your hands pick a neutral position, clasped in front or behind perhaps, and put them back there if you suddenly find yourself distracted by your own hand movement.

There is a lot to remember in a broadcast interview and while these tips will help you look authoritative they are not nearly as important as what you say. Having a clear rehearsed message is the single most important factor.

If you want tips for what to wear on TV look at our blogs here and here.

If you need help with your on-air performance you could always book another session with us at The Media Coach call +44 (020) 7099 2012.

 

3 subjects to avoid

3 subjects to avoid if you want to stay out of the headlines

3 subjects to avoid: sexist comments, racist comments and any allusion to the Nazis. This is assuming you do not want to attract lurid media headlines and critical coverage.

If you do stray into this territory you must be aware of the potential for newspapers and journalists to go to town with their ‘outrage’. This is despite the fact that many newsrooms are very sexist places to work and journalists make jokes themselves about all sorts of inappropriate things. Newsrooms are certainly not bastions of political correctness.

1.    Any sexist views

3 subjects to avoid

In the news this month has been the fallout from the Google memo, which suggested women were less suited to jobs in tech than men. The author criticised the companies diversity and inclusion initiatives and sought to explain why women may be underrepresented in the Google hierarchy; he claimed it was likely to be due to inherent biological differences between the two sexes. The full memo is here. It’s a bit turgid and certainly not in the category of a casual sexist remark. The coverage has gone on for at least two weeks and the author, who we now know is James Damore, has been fired.

3 subjects to avoid

James Damore lost his job at Google after writing an internal memo criticising the company’s diversity and inclusion initiatives.

Damore is the latest in a long line of people who have kicked up a media storm and then subsequently lost their jobs for saying (or in this case writing) something sexist.

In 2015 there was the 72 year old Tim Hunt, Nobel Prize winning biochemist and professor at University College London, who was giving a speech at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul, South Korea when he said:

Let me tell you about my trouble with girls: three things happen when they are in the lab; you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them they cry”.

This was tweeted by a very irritated journalism student from City University in London and from there it went viral. Shortly after, Tim Hunt was let go from his job. Here is his story of the fall out from the comments which were apparently meant as a joke.

If you detect a note of sympathy from me you would be right. I hope I am not sexist but if someone makes a sexist remark, while it may be wrong, I am not sure they should lose their job. The man I probably have the most sympathy for recently in this area is Kevin Roberts. He was the CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi and joined the board of parent company Publicis.  I know him slightly –  I did a documentary on his management style for Bloomberg television many years ago. I was sad to see him lose his job over some ill-considered sexist comments made in an interview with Business Insider.

Robert’s crime was to say that the debate about gender equality in advertising was “all over”. And when asked to explain the lack of senior women in the industry, he said they often turned down promotion because they wanted to continue doing the creative work and chose happiness over advancement. He suggested women were saying “we are not judging ourselves by those standards that you idiotic dinosaur-like men impose”.

You can read the full story here but it is behind the Financial Times paywall and I blogged about it last year.  However, the short version is that, after a few days of coverage and criticisim, Roberts felt it necessary to stand down from his job.

2.    Any racist views

Race is another highly sensitive area and given that blatant racism has been unacceptable for a long time it is somewhat baffling that people still say things in public without realising they are inappropriate.

Brian True-May, producer of the TV show Midsomer Murders, lost his job in 2011 for explaining why there were no non-white characters in the series: he said it was a ‘bastion of Englishness’.

This year Kelvin McKenzie lost his role as a columnist with The Sun – a paper he used to edit – for comparing footballer Ross Barkley to a gorilla. McKenzie said he was unaware that Barkley had a Nigerian grandfather.

3. Don’t mention Hitler, the Nazis or concentration camps

Another sure fire way to get the headline writers juices flowing is any mention of or allusion to Hitler, the Nazis, concentration camps or gas chambers.

This year a hairdressing salon in Australia – of all things – got into trouble for posting a photograph on Facebook of an elaborate hair style … clearly showing a tattoo on the neck of the model with the words ‘Mein Fuhrer’. The women in the shop say they had no idea what the tattoo meant or its connotations.

3 subjects to avoid

A hairdressers in Sydney, Australia,  posted this photo on Facebook without understanding the connotations of the ‘Mein Fuhrer’ tattoo.

Then there is the local councillor in Plymouth who – in a rage with his Tory and UKIP counterparts – gave a Nazi salute. He found himself making headlines in The Sun.

And then there is Donald Trump Junior who reached for a World War II analogy during the Presidential election – he said if the Republicans behaved as Hillary Clinton had ‘they (the media) would be warming up the gas chamber right now’. This caused a modicum of outrage although there was so much outrage going around at the time it got a bit lost.

Boris Johnson is a lot more careful than he used to be with his flowery metaphors but again in January this year he got critical headlines for saying  that the then French President, Francois Hollande, appeared to be contemplating ‘punishment beatings to anybody who wants to escape (the EU) in the manner of some World War II movie’.

So if you want to avoid critical headlines and job-threatening coverage avoid these three topics. Avoid them for serious comment, avoid them as metaphors or analogies and for goodness sake avoid joking about them in public.