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Managing emotion in a media interview

Managing Emotion in a Media Interview

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 Breaks Down

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?

Tips for Handling Emotion in Interviews

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.

Rehearsal Acts as a Sort of Aversion Therapy

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.

Brief the Journalist

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.

start with the end in mind

Plan Your Communications: Start with the End in Mind

Starting with the end in mind is such a useful way of thinking. I am aware it does not only apply to media interviews or presentations but is widely useful in everything from preparing a roast dinner to writing a business plan. So crucial is this idea that it is one of the seven habits of highly successful people identified by author Stephen Covey. 

start with the end in mind

Planning your communications: start with the end in mind

However, as a media and presentation trainer, I can tell you that most people do not apply this simple way of being more effective when it comes to planning their communications. In fact, most people don’t plan their communications, period.  The reasons they give are many and varied:

  • Too busy.
  • Talking or communicating is already a professional skill (so detailed prep for an interview or for a presentation is not necessary).
  • It is boring.
  • It’s not about me, it’s about the subject.
  • I am not clear what if anything I want the audience to think or do.

I could go on.

5 minutes strategic thought saves hours of preparation

start with the end in mind

Of course, the reality is 5 minutes serious thought will save hours of preparation and will deliver a better result.

So, if preparing for a media interview it is worth asking yourself these questions:

  • Who is the audience?
  • Which bit of that audience matters to me? If you are doing national media it is clear that most people watching, or reading will have only a passing interest in the subject but the audience will include a few hundred key influencers, potential clients, important regulators etc. Knowing broadly who these people are and what you want to say to them is helpful.
  • Is there anything I want people to do as a result of this interview: click a link, pick up the phone or make a purchase for example?
  • So crucially – what headline or main idea do I want to see in the finished piece – or if television or radio, what do I want the audience to remember?

Once you have this clear in your mind the preparation of ‘messages’ or if you prefer your argument will be much quicker.

For a presentation, it is a similar process:

  • Who is the audience?
  • What do I want them to remember from the presentation?
  • Is there anything I want them to do as a result of the presentation?

Advice to a younger me

If I could meet my younger self I would have a number of pearls of wisdom to pass on – top of the list would be to stop wearing heels to walk in. (Apparently crushed toes 20 years ago mean I now have misplaced toes so my feet find it difficult to keep me upright.)

But also high on the list would be to ‘start with the end in mind’ for all significant conversations. Even more usefully, I would advocate the practice of not only preparing for important conversations but preparing for unimportant ones. Once they have taken place I would suggest that my former self got into the habit of reviewing her ability to continue the conversation with the end in mind. Preparation can easily go out of the window in the intensity of the moment unless you have trained yourself. Training is easy to do because every conversation with the butcher, a neighbour or your stroppy teenager provides good opportunities for practise.

The guy that made me take this simple mantra – start with the end in mind – from a vague idea to a solid practice, was a UN negotiator I met in Kampala. I have forgotten his name, but I vividly remember his stories of negotiating with rebel leaders who had committed atrocities, in various parts of the continent. He had trained himself out of having any emotional reaction to the history of those he was dealing with and instead stayed completely focussed on his strategic aim, knowing the lives of innocent people (sometimes hostages, sometimes children) depended on it.

Few of my clients have such critical communication challenges, but we could all learn from his ability to keep his target in mind.

Here are other blogs we have written on related subjects

Preparing for a Media Interview: 5 key steps

5 Ways to improve that presentation

Developing Messages: Are you guilty of navel gazing?

The Media Coach is a group of working and ex-journalists who provide media and presentation training and message building for a wide variety of organisations. If you think we can help your team give us a call on +44 (0)20 7099 2212.

Photos used under creative commons licence.

 

Controlling the quote Robert Hannigan

Controlling the Quote in Media Interviews

Controlling the quote is not something that can be guaranteed in a media interview. Anyone who speaks to a press or web journalist for 20 minutes is likely to say somewhere between 3,000 – 5,000 words based on three to five words per second. Even if it is a three-minute radio interview the interviewee is likely to have said around 500 words by the time it ends. The journalist will have a wide range of options for the few words they put in quotation marks, choose for the soundbite or make the headline.

What matters to most people is that they don’t say (or agree) something by accident that ends up getting all the attention. Last week saw a clear case of this.

Controlling the quote

Facebook Threat to Democracy

On Friday, it was widely reported that the former head of GCHQ had stated Facebook was ‘a threat to democracy’. [GCHQ is part of Britain’s intelligence and security organisation that listens in on communications across the world.]

Just to illustrate how widely this was reported here is a selection of headlines.

Controlling the quote

Did he mean to say it?

Controlling the quote

Robert Hannigan agreed the quote but didn’t actually say it.

However, on closer inspection, it looks doubtful that the former head of GCHQ actually meant to say ‘Facebook is a threat to democracy’. If you read the story closely you can see this was not a phrase that he originated but in fact came from a response to a BBC journalist’s question.

This is how The Times reported it:

Asked on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme whether Facebook was a threat to democracy Mr Hannigan replied: “Potentially yes, I think it is, if it isn’t controlled and regulated.”

The thing to note here is that the one phrase that made all the headlines was not actually spoken by Hannigan. He just agreed it.

In fact, The Times quoted the Radio 4 interview even though they had spoken to Robert Hannigan themselves. Annoyingly I imagine, for Lucy Fisher, The Times reporter, Hannigan did not give (or agree) the standout quote of the day to her. She had to report something he said to another journalist in a different interview.

What I conclude from this is:

1) Hannigan does think Facebook is ‘potentially’ a threat to democracy but
2) He did not choose to couch it in these terms.

The clever journalist presented him with a rather dramatic, high-level version of his opinion and Hannigan agreed it.

If you don’t agree it, they can’t use it

We do not know if Hannigan was dismayed or delighted with the headlines he got all over the world. But we can be pretty sure it was not a phrase he had planned to use.

The takeaway message, that those of you trained by us have heard all Media Coach trainers repeat many times: don’t say ‘yes’ when a journalist rephrases your argument and asks you to agree it. If you don’t agree it they can’t use it.

And to be clear, we suggest interviewees never say ‘yes’ when a journalist does this. What can seem sensible, innocuous and often caveated (as with this example) in the conversation, can sound or look extreme and aggressive if transformed into a headline.

It is safer if interviewees pick their own words. It is safer still if they plan their key phrases before any interview.

It is all part of the discipline needed to do a media interview, assuming, of course, you are in a professional role.

The Media Coach has been providing media training in several languages for business and professional people for more than a decade. If you have a spokesperson who needs training why not give us a call on +44 (0)20 7099 2212.

Hannigan Photo distributed under a CC-BY 2.0 license.
Facebook logo provided Pixaby under a CC0 Creative Commons Licence

 

Nwws Management

News Management – the Brexit Deal Case Study

News Management is something we are going to be very aware of in the UK in the next couple of weeks. By all accounts ‘Selling the Brexit Deal’ is going to be a full-on political campaign.

The Prime Minister, having finally and somewhat amazingly ‘got a deal’ with the European Union, now has the daunting task of getting it through Parliament. This make-or-break parliamentary vote will take place on December 11th, just two weeks away.

News Management

PR Blitz is Planned

Before that, we are told, Theresa May will embark on a tour of the home nations followed by Question Time in the Commons and many more media appearances including a possible TV debate with or without Jeremy Corbyn.  (See the Telegraph headline here: Theresa May demands Brexit TV debate with Jeremy Corbyn as PM begins campaign to win Commons vote on deal.)

News Management

Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn may be invited to debate the Brexit Deal with The Prime Minister in a TV debate.

News Management Project of Highest Order

Co-ordinating all this activity, having a plan but also responding as things happen, trying to win hearts and minds, is a news management project of the highest order. In this day and age it is also 24/7. I notice the Number 10 rebuttal of Trump’s unhelpful comments last night was out very early this morning. News management is both proactive and reactive.

Media Training does not teach News Management

People often call us to ask for Media Training when what they need is News Management training. Typically, such calls come from entrepreneurs, CEOs of smaller organisations or people who have come from some other professional background, but now have PR or media in their title and are not quite sure what the job entails.  I usually try and point these people in the direction of a professional PR person or agency.

Established PR people see Media Training as having broadly two uses: Firstly, the preparation for new spokespeople as they step into a senior business role that may require them to speak to the media. Secondly, something that is available to top up that basic training and help individuals prepare for a particular launch or issue or interview. (The Media Coach team also offer something different than this, which is Facilitated Message Building, related to but not the same as Media Training.)

In the case of ‘the Brexit Deal’, news management is the job of Robbie Gibb, the PM’s Communications Chief. I wrote about his appointment here last year and have been waiting for his behind-the-scenes role to become more public. Now maybe the time.

I quote here from Monday’s POLITICO London playbook, written by Jack Blanchard, which drops into my inbox every morning.

Blitz Spirit: Theresa May returns to the Commons today to face another extended mauling from MPs over her newly minted Brexit deal. 

….

It marks the start of the next phase of the big No. 10 PR blitz to try to sell this Brexit deal to MPs and the wider public, which has already seen the PM endure two three-hour stints in the Commons, two live radio phone-ins, two press conferences, two speeches, two jaunts to Brussels and sit-down interviews with Sky News and Remoaner bible the Daily Mail.

Team sports: Before this afternoon’s expected Commons marathon, May will first convene a rare Monday morning Cabinet meeting to brief her senior ministers on yesterday’s summit. The meeting is expected to include a presentation from May’s director of comms Robbie Gibb on how to sell the deal on the airwaves over the next two weeks.

It is Robbie Gibbs who will be the guiding hand behind this frenzy of activity from Number 10 and he won’t just be coordinating the PM’s media appearances but that of all the loyal cabinet members too. It’s a big job.

No Hard Sell

From a PR perspective, the one thing you can guarantee is that most outlets will say yes to having face time with the PM. No one is having to do a hard sell to get the boss in front of the cameras on this one.

 

Corbyn photo from Flickr – Credit Gary Knight used under creative comms licence.

May feature photo from Flickr – Credit DonkeyHotey used under creative comms licence.

 

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

media training

Media Training: The ‘Justify Your Bonus’ Question

Media training sessions quickly flush out the questions that senior executives are most nervous about hearing from journalists. And ‘how do you justify your bonus?’ is up there in the top three.

This recent example of the Persimmon CEO, Jeff Fairburn failing to handle such a classic and predictable tough question is both funny and shocking. (Many thanks to those of you that drew my attention to this. I love that you all think of me when you see a bad interview!)

You clearly hear on the video a woman, probably his PR minder, stepping in to say her boss cannot be asked the question! Some have criticised her for jumping in.

Sympathy for PR

media training

BBC’s Spencer Stokes asked CEO Jeff Fairburn about his £75m bonus.

I have more sympathy. Her boss was failing to handle the ‘can you justify your bonus?‘ question from Spencer Stokes the Business and Transport Correspondent for BBC Look North.

Those of us who work in PR know full well that if something goes wrong in an interview, senior people love to blame the PR person. There is a certain type of business leader who believes if they pay enough for PR they can control the media. Fortunately, this is not the case.

But, I fear that had our hapless PR person not jumped in, she might well have lost her job. As it is, it was probably a very bad day for her and I, for one, am not going to blame someone for looking to demonstrate support (or attempt to control) in such circumstances. She may well have known that on many measures it was an inappropriate thing to do – but for her personally, it was perhaps better than the alternatives.

The fault here lies in the lack of preparation. Anyone in the public eye, with a large salary or bonus, can expect this question. It feels both uncomfortable and intrusive to be asked about remuneration but given that the gap between the haves and have-nots continues to generate headlines, these questions are not going to stop anytime soon.

What he should have said?

The trick is to practise a non-committal answer. I would suggest something like this:

‘The bonus is a matter of public record, it is set by the remuneration committee and agreed by shareholders. I am not going to comment on it.’

The speaker can then move on to something they want to say or simply leave it at that, understanding full well that the question will return. When it does, the answer should be the same but still delivered politely.

People who are infuriated by those in power not answering the question will hate this solution but there really is no alternative. If the speaker tries to justify any level of bonus by, for example, talking about ‘market rate for the job’, ‘the global marketplace’ or ‘the value I have delivered to shareholders’ he or she is going to open up a whole debate with the journalist that will likely include a bunch of quotes that make the speaker sound arrogant, unsympathetic to the poor or out of touch. The story will immediately grow ‘legs’ as we say in the business and be picked up and picked over by a whole bunch of other news outlets and commentators.

The answer should be as unremarkable and dull as possible

The best that can happen if someone senior is asked about a bonus or pay, is that the answer is unremarkable and unnewsworthy. That is why the way to deal with this question is to politely close it down with something that sounds as credible but dull as possible.

The lesson is clear: business leaders facing the media must do the preparation and get some media training so they can roleplay these things. They need time to discuss and understand the options and the wording so if that dreaded question comes they know what to say.

Above all don’t wait for, or expect your PR person to rescue you (at least not on TV or radio). And don’t get snarky with the journalist afterwards. It makes you look bad.

The Daily Mail article on this subject can be found here and the article from the Independent can be found here.

 

 

 

 

 

The art of oratory

The Art of Oratory and the Attorney General

The art of oratory is an old-fashioned way of describing the skill of mastering an argument and delivering it to move an audience. And there was something old-fashioned and somewhat extraordinary about a Tory conference speech from someone I had previously never heard of.

Somehow I had missed the story about the richest MP trying to claim 49p for a pint of milk, which seems to be the only previous time Geoffrey Cox made news headlines.  After his speech, The Spectator dubbed him the most important politician you’ve never heard of, and the Mirror called him the ‘Tory Gandalf ‘.

Barnstorming Speech

The recently appointed Attorney General, Geoffrey Cox spoke for a little over 11 minutes, as the ‘warm-up’ act for the Prime Minister. He spoke without notes in a barnstorming performance that was entertaining and uplifting. It was a call to arms for an embattled Prime Minister.

As ever, I am not commenting on the politics of what Geoffrey Cox says, but feel compelled to call out the fact that he said it really well. Those of us who aspire to be really good communicators can learn a lot from watching someone who really can deliver a speech.

Here is the speech:

Speakers Notes

This is what I see in this speech.

  • Within seconds of arriving on stage, the speaker connects with his audience, with a self-effacing comment. You feel he is really talking to the people in the audience, not broadcasting.
  • Because he speaks without notes he is able to stand beside the podium not behind it. One of my colleagues, Eric Dixon, always advocates this as a way to give you a better connection with an audience.
  • He is incredibly relaxed on stage. He could be standing in his living room, not in a conference hall of hundreds with a TV audience of potentially millions.

A Big, Big Voice

  • He has an amazingly deep and loud voice. Our voices are produced by a muscle and the more you use it, the stronger it gets. Professional teachers nearly always have loud voices, I have a very loud voice, and my camera operators are always having to adjust for it. Geoffrey Cox has spent his life in courtrooms and has a big, big voice. He has also learnt (I assume learnt) to make it melodic.
  • He speaks without notes – immensely impressive.
  • He quickly gets into personal and story-telling mode.
  • He pauses as much as he speaks – he speaks slowly and gives himself lots of thinking time.
  • He articulates every word – even long difficult phrases.

A Wide Range of Tone

  • He uses light and shade. Sometimes he goes quiet, sometimes he booms, sometimes he relaxes and then he is declaiming. He uses a wide range of tones in a very short speech.
  • He is not afraid of overacting or overemphasising. There are many extremely dramatic gestures. For example, he uses his whole body, bending almost double, to emphasis his point that Britain could no longer put up with the EU because ‘the price is just too high’. It is worth noting that most of his body language is very open and even when he gets a bit ‘nasty’ for example when talking about the Labour party, he softens it with a twinkle in his eye.

I could go on. The speech was not about policy detail and it did what always works – he lifted the Brexit discussion to grand phrases ‘this great democratic mandate’, ‘we need not fear self-government’, we will ‘step out as a free independent and sovereign partner to the others’ and so on. He said a lot of sweeping things that it is difficult to disagree with but do not help with the detail of what to do about the NI border or the Galileo space project. But to be fair that was not his brief. He was asked to galvanise those at the conference to follow their leader for a noble cause. And he did.

Others have called him out as a future Tory leader but I doubt it. If he had wanted the job he would not have chosen to quote Milton. It is too old-fashioned and plays too heavily into the stereotype of a public-school-educated, born-with-a-silver-spoon, out-of-touch-with-ordinary-people Tory stereotype. It seemed to me like he was just having fun.

Communicating risk

Communicating Risk in the Media

Communicating risk via the media is really hard. A good case study for this came this weekend when The Sunday Times splashed with a leaked report from the National Police Co-ordination Centre about planning for a No-Deal Brexit.  

Risk of UK Crimewave

Under the headline ‘Police Plan for Riots and Crimewave if there is a No-Deal Brexit’ the paper runs through some alarming details of what might happen. This includes a rise in crime as Britain suffers food and drug shortages, an expectation that people will become sicker (presumably because prescription drug supplies are affected) and concern about food and goods shortages leading to widespread unrest. It also predicts widespread disruption to the national road network.

The list comes from a confidential discussion paper which is yet to be presented by the National Police Co-ordination Centre. It was not a definitive version of anything – and of course it was written by someone told to ‘imagine the worst’ so the police could plan for it.

Clearly, the report is highly newsworthy but what is not stressed in the coverage is that this was part of a process of preparing for possible events, rather than predicting the events themselves.

Risk Story Killed

It was alarming stuff and widely reported on the day, but the story has died quickly – and I think there are a couple of reasons for that. One is that the Home Secretary Sajid Javid did a great job of killing the story when asked about the report on The Marr Show on Sunday. The link is below and the relevant comments run 9:45 -11:45.

The Home Secretary’s (clearly prepared) line was ‘I am not going to comment on these things in detail but is a good thing that the police, like everyone else, is preparing’. As you can hear he repeats a version of this several times despite Andrew Marr doing his best to get something more. Had Sajid Javid said something different, such as ‘it is possible there will be food and drug shortages’ the story would have had a lot more coverage.

That probably reads as a very slight difference in the form of words but in terms of the way a journalist can report the next chapter, it makes all the difference in the world. One kills the story and the other gives it a second wind.

Editors Maybe on a Short Leash

There are probably other reasons that the story did not get out of hand.  I suspect the BBC and perhaps some others are being very careful about reporting No-Deal Brexit risk. I have no inside knowledge but, having worked in the Corporation, I suspect there have been some very serious high-level discussions – in the last few months – about responsible reporting of Brexit ‘risk’.  As I said the political sensitivities are huge and the dangers of panic, fear etc. are so obvious. Editors and senior correspondents are almost certainly on a short leash.

However, this is just the start and there are a lot more stories about ‘No-Deal Brexit risk’ to come.

The wider point is that being open and honest about ‘risk’ is hard for a number of key reasons.

Four Reasons Why Communicating Risk is Hard

Firstly, there is a general consensus that normal people do not understand the concept of risk. Personally, I am sceptical about this but it is a widely held view. It goes like this: if you say there is a small risk of a terror attack in London this weekend, what people will hear is there is a possible or even likely terror attack in London this weekend.

The assumption then is that ‘normal people’ or a high proportion of ‘normal people’ will overreact.

Secondly, any journalist reporting that comment will report ‘risk of terror attack in London’, absolutely hardening up the story.

This is exactly what happened in The Sunday Times and in The Express who both hardened up the National Police Co-ordination Centre story to get the headline.  Here is The Sunday Times link and here is The Express.

Anyone glancing across the headlines without taking time to understand the story will be misled about the probability related to the risk.

Thirdly, there is another problem of communicating risk openly and that is that people get tired of being scared and under-react. Many risks do not actually happen. And that encourages people to think they will never happen. Public organisations are understandably careful about ‘crying wolf’. Too many earthquake warnings and people do not move when they are told they really need to.

And fourthly, being open about risk can be taken as a political act. And that is a real problem. Anyone will think twice about going public about a particular perceived risk if they think senior politicians will publicly attack them.

As a spin doctor and media trainer, I would like to be able to say there is a simple formula that answers this problem of communicating risk, but there really isn’t. It is complicated, it requires very careful planning and very disciplined communicators. And it is still difficult.

 

business storytelling

6 Tips for Business Storytelling

6 tips for business storytelling are detailed at the end of the article but first, let me explain where I am coming from here.

I was talking to a PR person at the weekend about her job hunt and she wanted to include ‘great storytelling’ as one of her key skills.

Now, I totally agree with her: both that storytelling is super important in PR and also that she is very good at it. But I am not sure she should mention it unless her potential employer indicates they think this way too.

business storytelling

Business Storytelling BS

The problem is that there has been a lot of BS about storytelling – fanciful executive courses that have people playing with bean bags and rewriting fairy tales. We all know the sort of thing. The result is there is a lot of scepticism about storytelling as a professional skill.

This and a couple of other conversations with clients set me thinking again about storytelling and how it relates to the communications work we do: media training, presentation training and messaging.

Why Storytelling works

I should say at the outset that I am absolutely one hundred per cent certain that stories work because of the way the human brain is wired. This is almost certainly dictated by evolution. I came to that conclusion many years ago and long before I started reading about the subject.

But don’t take it from me. Here is a serious and beautifully written article in Scientific American. It includes a quote from Professor of Ethical Leadership and Social Psychologist Jonathan Haidt…

“the human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor”.

While Professor Haidt has research and learned tomes to evidence his belief, mine is based on my own observations; that people remember stories much more easily than they remember facts.

And it is not just that people remember: if they hear a story they are more likely to connect.

A simple example that we can all relate to is the difference between walking around a stately home or museum looking at things, compared to walking around looking at things with someone telling you the stories that go with the inanimate objects.

Storytelling and the value of things

But it is also clear to me that stories increase the value of things, literally the monetary value. Pictures, furniture and jewellery where the story is known have a higher value. Here is an article about this on an antiques website.

And another delightful bit of evidence – the Significant Objects Project. You can read the full details here but in summary: In 2009 Joshua Glenn and Rob Walker bought a whole bunch of tat; chipped and tasteless ornaments etc. They then commissioned a bunch of writers to produce a short story about each object and then sold the story and the object together on eBay. In their own words, they sold $128.74 worth of thrift store (charity shop) junk for $3,612.51. This exercise has been repeated several times since and there are books of photos and stories that raise money for charity.

business storytelling

And my final bit of personal evidence is that stories help people fall in love. I have seen it and experienced it myself. The back story of a person or a family can have a profound impact on a potential partner. I am not aware that this has been explored anywhere but it would make a very interesting book.

6 Tips for Business Storytelling

So here are my 6 tips for using stories in business.

First – be clear on your objective. Boring but true. Don’t create great stories that somehow leave a different message than the one you wanted to communicate.

Second, business stories (anecdotes or examples) need to be carefully prepared, almost scripted. They are so powerful it is crazy to wing it and risk throwing away the benefits.

Thirdly – as you describe this story, anecdote or example use tangible language. Create pictures in people’s minds. There is a world of difference between;

The child loved dogs.

and

George had loved dogs ever since he was 4. His family had visited a distant uncle who kept two black Labradors. George had played with the dogs all day and during the night he crept downstairs to sleep with them in the kitchen – where he was found curled up in the dog bed the following morning.

Fourthly, use emotion – even just a little – and you increase stickiness (the hip word for memorability and engagement). You may be talking about a business problem rather than dogs and children, but briefly describe the frustration, annoyance or fear felt before the denouement and you will make the story more memorable.

Next, if possible craft what is called in the trade a narrative arc that includes conflict or other nasty or bad stuff and has a point of transformation from bad or uncertainty to good. That can be boy kisses girl, missing child is found, accused is acquitted or the tractor part supply line problem is solved! The conflict and subsequent resolution will increase stickiness.

Finally, finish off with a feel-good scene in which the moral of the story or the point of the story is clearly stated. Don’t leave the audience to work it out unless you are absolutely sure they will.

If you can’t deliver the full suite above, at least use some of it: a bit of tangible language, a bit of tension.

Of course, your story may need to be very short if you are using it in a presentation, speech or media interview, and that is another skill.

Just remember the power of story-telling and go practice!

 

 

 

 

Preparing for a media interview

Preparing for a Media Interview: 5 Key Steps

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.

Pre-flight Checklist

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.

Preparing for a media interview

Like a pilot preparing for take-off, an interviewee should run through some disciplined pre-flight checks.

Step 1: Your Objectives

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.

Step 2:  Ask Who is the Journalist? What is the Story?

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.

Step 3: Prepare your Argument

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?’

Preparing for a media interview

Once you have done the preparation for an interview, you can be confident, in control and above all compelling.

Step 4: Plan for Tough Questions

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.

Step 5: Rehearse

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.

After Thoughts

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