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professional communicators

8 tips for professional communicators

Professional communicators, whether writing or speaking, need to remember these basic rules to ensure what they say is remembered by the audience.

A client asked me at lunch the other day to just give her the top 5 things we say when trying to help people communicate better. I couldn’t stop at 5 and ended up with 8 but this is what I said.

1. Speak in simple language

This is the key universal challenge. It is the one thing high-powered professionals struggle with most. But it is essential to work out how to tell your story in layman’s language.

professional communicators

“If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.” – Albert Einstein

2. Be tangible

This is the advanced version of keeping it simple. It is much easier for people to understand and remember what you are talking about if you explain it in words that create a picture in people’s minds. Here are a few examples:

Rather than ‘access to financial services’ – say ‘open a bank account, take out a loan etc’.

Rather than ‘leveraging our resources’ – say ‘using the people, the money and the knowledge we have to do more …’.

Rather than ‘influencing health outcomes in a population of lactating women’ – say ‘improving the health of breastfeeding mums in a way that can be measured from month to month’.

3. Use metaphors, similes and analogies

All professional communicators will use metaphors, similes and analogies. Here are a few that have stuck in my mind over the years:

professional communicators

Economist Andy Haldane once delivered a speech about banking regulation entitled ‘The dog and the frisbee’.

In 2012 the economist and regulator, Andy Haldane, delivered a speech entitled ‘The dog and the frisbee’. He was drawing a comparison between catching a frisbee and preventing a financial crisis: his takeaway message was that writing down heaps of detailed regulation will not help anyone prevent a crisis. Here is a snippet:

Catching a frisbee is difficult. Doing so successfully requires the catcher to weigh a complex array of physical and atmospheric factors, among them wind speed and frisbee rotation. Were a physicist to write down frisbee-catching as an optimal control problem, they would need to understand and apply Newton’s Law of Gravity. Yet despite this complexity, catching a frisbee is remarkably common. Casual empiricism reveals that it is not an activity only undertaken by those with a Doctorate in physics. It is a task that an average dog can master. Indeed some, such as border collies, are better at frisbee-catching than humans. …
Catching a crisis, like catching a frisbee, is difficult. Doing so requires the regulator to weigh a complex array of financial and psychological factors, among them innovation and risk appetite. Were an economist to write down crisis-catching as an optimal control problem, they would probably have to ask a physicist for help.

And here are a couple of shorter ones:

Love is like the wind, you can’t see it but you can feel it.
– Nicholas Sparks, A Walk to Remember

We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.
– Maya Angelou

Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.
– Albert Einstein

4. Throw in well-rehearsed hard evidence

I have a simplistic approach to this. For the media, three numbers make an argument. When I was on the board of the National Association for Gifted Children* we used something like this:

On a normal distribution curve of intelligence, the top 3% of children can be considered gifted. That is three in every hundred, which means there are more than 10 gifted children in your local primary school. If you, as a teacher or a mum, do not know who they are – it’s because they’re hiding.

Notice that in this case it is not three different numbers but the same number stated in three different ways.

[*NAGC has now changed its name to Potential Plus]

professional communicators

Jeremy Hunt will often line-up detailed numbers when explaining the challenges faced by the NHS.

You can often list your key numbers. Here is a passage from a speech by Jeremy Hunt UK Health Minister :

We have not stood still: compared to six years ago, our remarkable professionals are treating 1,400 more mental health patients every day, 2,500 more A & E patients within 4 hours every day, doing 4,400 more operations every day, 16,000 more diagnostic tests every day and 26,000 more outpatient appointments every single day.

This is the sort of paragraph, familiar to professional communicators, that is the filling in the sandwich between the first articulation of an argument and the second – as in the technique Point-Evidence-Point.

In a speech, you can include more numbers but too many and the audience gets bored. For an interview stick to three or four, neither you or the audience will remember more.

5. Tell stories

Stories, anecdotes, examples or case studies are by far the most memorable elements of any communication. Our brains are hard-wired to remember stories over facts. We have blogged about this extensively already, for example here and here.

6. Make sure what you are saying is interesting and credible

Sounds obvious doesn’t it but you would be surprised. In both presentations and interviews, even professional communicators will say things they know sound stupid but feel it is expected of them by their company or organisation. Never turn off your own judgment.

7. Have a clear argument

If you are a professional communicator you will know that you have to check and check again that your argument is crystal clear.

8. Craft then rehearse all the above

Your presentations and your messages for any interview should be rehearsed aloud. There is no substitute. Think you don’t have time? I can assure you it will be quicker to edit, improve, commit to memory and correct if you say it aloud.

If you would like help with your messages The Media Coach can facilitate bespoke message-building sessions for your organisation.

 

All images from Pixabay.

Business writing: a 7 step plan and a few other tips

Business writing: a 7 step plan and a few other tips

The Media Coach is often asked if we run courses for business writing and the short answer is yes we do. [See more in the last paragraph]. The enquiry normally stems from deep frustration of someone senior who has just read a paper or report from someone more junior and thought ‘what did they teach them at school!’.

Business writing: a 7 step plan and a few other tips

Senior staff are often moved to ask: ‘what did they teach you at school?’.

I am a stream-of-consciousness writer for whom grammar and spelling do not come easily. One of my colleagues at BBC Look East once said to me: ‘You are very unusual. Most people who can’t spell don’t care. You can’t spell but at least you care!’ I think this was a sort of weak compliment. Anyway, I have put a lot of work into it over the years but I am still deeply insecure about my spelling and grammar. Reuters, where I worked later in my career, had a very good ‘two sets of eyes’ rule and this is one I impose throughout the Media Coach, yet I know mistakes still get through.

I may be an inaccurate writer but I am not someone who struggles to put words on the page. I have always been able to write and write fast. But if you are not like that, what advice can we give? Well, here below, are the Media Coach tips for both sets of writing problems: how to get started and how to check and check again.

Have a plan

Sounds obvious but you cannot write a document – whether a press release or a white paper – without a clear understanding of the business purpose of the document. This involves identifying the audience and the objective.

Pay heed to the structure

Structures are not blindingly obvious, whatever anyone tells you. Most business documents have an established style. If you are being asked to write a type of document that is new to you, you need to find out what is expected. Find other examples and analyse the sections. Ask if there is a template. It is much easier to get started if you have clear chapter headings.

Business writing: a 7 step plan and a few other tips

Start writing – even if you think it is rubbish

Everyone knows it is easier to correct, polish and hone once you have something to work with. Don’t expect to get it right first time but just get something down on screen. When the time is right for a natural break, walk away and come back to it with fresh eyes. Rewrite, tweak or reuse paragraphs of your original in a different order.

Read it for sense

Once you are nearly done on a short document or have a substantial amount written on your long document, read it through for sense. It is always most effective if you do this aloud. Ask yourself: will your audience be able to follow the thread of the argument? This is crucial. Put your most self-critical hat on and ask: is it clear? Can you use less jargon? Can you substitute less formal language? Perhaps fewer words or more words, shorter sentences, fewer sub-clauses, etc. The writing must flow logically from one paragraph to the next.

Read it to check grammar and spelling

Always best done after a break. Reading for sense and reading for grammar and spelling are to my mind two different things. This time you are looking for missed apostrophes (its instead of it’s), commonly mistaken words (there instead of their), missing commas, etc. Check the spelling of all names even if you think you know: is it Hilary Clinton or Hillary Clinton?

Ask someone else to read it

For me essential, but may not always be practical.

Sort out the layout

Not worth doing this earlier but at this stage you are checking the fonts are right, that the margins are the same and that the style is the same throughout. If you have made changes, you may have mucked up the layout or the sense. Check it again.

Once you have some words on the page, read once to ensure it makes sense and a second time to check the grammar and spelling. If you change one or the other you will need to check again.

I fear there will be people who have worked with me guffawing into their Chablis to see me write this. But I have sweated over how to write better most of my adult life, so I feel I am entitled now to give a few pointers from my experience.

You will be relieved to hear that I don’t run any of the Media Coach writing courses. We leave that to Oliver Wates, a former Reuters reporter, bureau chief and desk editor (the guy who corrected everyone else’s copy). He has been my most patient and tolerant advisor on these things for more than a decade and he can build a fun, interactive course that is designed precisely to meet the needs of your team if you need such a thing. Just drop me an email lindsay.williams@themediacoach.co.uk or give us a call if it’s something you would like to discuss.

Business writing: a 7 step plan and a few other tips

It’s easier to start writing if you have a clear business objective and some chapter headings. (And coffee!)

Meanwhile, if you are struggling to self-educate on these things, here is our suggested reading list.

Economist Style Guide There are lots of style guides, the Times and the Guardian, for example, both do one. All are useful but we particularly like the Economist’s version.

Eats Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss is a classic; it’s really a grammar primer but is readable and funny rather than a dry textbook.

The Pyramid Principle by Barbara Minto is maybe a bit old fashioned but I have had it recommended to me a number of times and so include it here. This is all about helping you bring clarity to your writing.

Fowler’s Modern English Usage I have never lived in a house that didn’t have Fowler’s on the bookshelf. Both my parents were journalists and before the internet this is where you checked easily confused words, etc. However, there is nothing in here that you can’t find more easily online in my view and I rarely look at it. But if you don’t know what you don’t know, it might be worth buying cheap and dipping into.

Photo notes: Feature photo from istock, used under creative comms licence. Other photos from pxhere.com

Do journalists matter

Media strategy: Do journalists matter?

Do journalists matter in this age of social media? President Trump seems to relish a public bust up and you could argue it is not doing his popularity ratings any harm.

Trump relishes a public bust-up

Indeed, amongst his supporters, it seems to actually enhance his popularity.  And there appears to be no end to his willingness to let his frustrations show as illustrated by his ongoing feuds with CNN, the New York Times, the BBC and the list goes on….

There is an argument that with the rise in influence of social media, mainstream journalists are now almost irrelevant to a successful media strategy? Some even argue mainstream media is dead.

Media strategy: Corbyn gave priority to social media

In the UK, the recent election also provides evidence that the mainstream media have lost their influence. Since he became leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn faced hostility, even derision, from much of the traditional media. Whether by choice or necessity he placed his faith in the power of social media.

And that faith paid off – with a much better result in the election than virtually anyone predicted. (Though still winning more than 50 seats fewer than the Conservative Party.) All a long way from The Sun newspaper’s gloating headline after the 1992 election: “It’s the Sun wot won it”.

Can you now drop traditional media from your PR strategy?

So does it matter if companies and organisations antagonise journalists they don’t like?

I would argue that that would be a risky strategy.

Firstly, a recent study by Reuters concluded that mainstream media stories are the lifeblood of topical social media conversations in the UK. Social media amplifies mainstream media even if it sometimes eclipses it.

Secondly, politics is a very different environment to the corporate/business world. Trump and Corbyn have built their personas on being outsiders – there to challenge the system.  There are very few companies or organisations who can pull this off successfully over years and years.

And that is the key difference between business and politics: the need to build – and maintain – a much longer-term reputation. Warren Buffet has frequently warned employees: “lose money for the firm and I will be understanding. Lose a shred of reputation for the firm and I will be ruthless.”

Do journalists matter

Warren Buffett has always stressed company reputation takes years to build and moments to destroy.

Here are two contrasting examples which show the positive advantage of “playing the game” with journalists and the perils of not doing so:

Richard Branson has for years had a good relationship with journalists and has made himself available for interviews, both on his businesses and as an industry expert. And his companies’ reputations have emerged relatively unscathed despite being caught up in crises such as the price-fixing scandal with BA and the West Coast Train crash in 2007.

In the world of sport, as a result of what Tiger Woods felt was an unfavourable interview early in his career, he virtually shunned all contact with journalists, apart from what he was contractually obligated to do at tournaments. And for much of his career he was untouchable, based on his performances on the course. However, when the scandals hit, journalists took great pleasure in settling scores and indulging in a large slice of schadenfreude.

Do journalists matter

Tiger Woods avoided talking to journalists wherever possible. Some say, when things went wrong, he paid a heavy price for denying them earlier access.

Building relationships with journalists takes time. It never guarantees you will be immune from criticism but it does mean you have ‘credit in the bank’ and will get a hearing when things go wrong.

Other people’s thoughts on this:

A TechCrunch blog from February this year

The Guardian’s take

The Guardian again after the Manchester terror attack

And for the long read here are two Reuters reports on disruption of mainstream media by social media. They seem to suggest more of a coming together with social media amplifying stories from the mainstream at least in the UK.

  1. Mainstream media and the distribution of news in the age of social discovery
  2. Mainstream media and the distribution of news in the age of social discovery
Don’t just answer the question

Media Training Basics: Don’t just answer the question

Imagine this ridiculous scene: You go to a doctor with some slightly worrying set of symptoms in the hope that he or she can reassure you or at least throw some light on what ails you. However, on this particular day your doctor refuses to do anything but answer questions. She (let’s say) has a huge wealth of medical knowledge that would be very useful to you but she refuses to share it unless you ask the right question. Ridiculous I hear you say. No one would behave like that!

Don’t just answer the question

But actually, this is exactly what most novice interviewees do in a media interview. They just answer the question.

Don’t just answer the question: know what you are there to say

In our book, media interviews should never be about just answering questions. You should arrive at the microphone or in front of the journalist knowing what you are there to say. This is absolutely not to say you should ignore the journalists’ questions. That is really annoying for both the journalist and any audience.

Of course, it is clear to all PR professionals that working out what the interviewee is there to say is not so straight forward.

Don’t just answer the question

Why knowing what to say is not so simple

Firstly, if the identified senior business executive spends most of his life talking to colleagues or fellow professionals, he will likely assume knowledge that a general audience doesn’t have and use jargon and technical language that is inappropriate.

Second, he will almost always forget to fill in the context. It is another version of assuming knowledge. One of my training colleagues likes to say ‘don’t forget to state the blooming obvious’.

Thirdly, in business, if you talk to a general audience about making money you are not going to get a good hearing. In the UK making money, whilst necessary, is thought to be a rather grubby activity.

And actually, it is probably not the important point. In fact, most business people spend most of their time worrying about doing a good job for their customers, they only think about costs and margins when talking to the boss. The problem is, if they treat the journalist as they would a grilling from the boss they will come across as hard-hearted and grasping rather than on the side of the angels. (There is an exception to this for financial and investment media who think making money is good. As we all know you have to tailor the message.)

Be credible

So, any spokesperson has to be helped to build a narrative that tells the story that needs to be told. That story needs to be rehearsed so they show up at an interview knowing what they are there to say. If they don’t they will just answer the questions.

And then they must be able to take the opportunity opened by a journalists question to land a message – but do this in a credible way. Credibility and likeability are the holy grail here.

Don’t just answer the question

Who does not have this ability?

• Theresa May. She ignores questions and lands her message without credibility.
• Donald Trump. He usually has no message and makes up a new one in response to the question. Alternatively, he trots out some tired platitude such as ‘Making America great again’ which works for him it seems but is not a strategy we endorse.
• Most Friday Boss participants on Radio 4’s Today programme. They rarely get beyond answering the question.

Who does have this ability?

• David Davis. Generally brilliant at answering the question but then moving to what he wants to say.
•  John McDonnell. Also brilliant these days in the toughest of interviews.
• Nigel Farage. You don’t have to agree with anything he says to know he is an excellent political communicator.
•  Nick Clegg. Continues to impress despite the tide of history turning against him.
• From the business community, Sir Martin Sorrell is always a prepared and credible interviewee.

We think most media trainers – our competitors – just prove how difficult media interviews can be. We constantly work with our clients to help them identify the messages and then codify them in a way that can be easily remembered in the interview.

If you watch or hear examples of bad (or brilliant) interviews do let us know. We are always looking for examples to use in our training.

Why Macron won

Why Macron won: the Media Coach lens

If my circle of acquaintance is anything to go by (and maybe it isn’t) France’s new President Emmanuel Macron seems to be more liked by the international community than many of his own countrymen. Politics aside, part of the reason could be that at his best he communicates in a way that is easy for many English speaking (NB NOT anglophone) audiences to identify and connect with. Below are three Macron communication traits that I think give him the edge.

Why Macron won

Why Macron won: energy

In his book Don’t Be Such a Scientist, Randy Olson argues that all great communicators successfully connect with several different organs of the body – head, heart, gut and groin.  Macron doesn’t meet all these criteria (his set piece speeches can be tedious) but he’s physically forceful and animated during  interviews and 1:1 exchanges.

He’s not especially tall,  but he compensates for a lack of height with optimism, intense eye contact, forward focused body language and hand gestures that paint pictures as well as reinforce points. For example, during the 3rd May debate with Marine Le Pen, he used a piece of scrap notepaper as a proxy for a payslip to illustrate how one of his proposed employment tax reforms would work. He also counts items/issues off on his hands and underscores points very visually. A lot of politicians do this but few have the same businesslike, positive energy as Macron.

Why Macron won: he makes it tangible

One of the main criticisms levelled at Macron by his critics was his supposed lack of policy substance. This may prove to be true but he does use lots of tangible examples. I appreciate I am not glued to French TV but whenever I’ve seen him speak this is very obvious. In this excerpt from a TV exchange with French farmers he’s manages to explain why EU farming and trade policy matters to France in colloquial, visual terms by talking about exports of raw milk, Camembert and yoghurt and apples (in the South West) before moving on to wine and finally the impact that steel dumping by China had in the North and Eastern parts of France.

Why Macron won: great sizzle

During interviews and debates Macron eschews more traditional methods of French political rhetoric, (which tend to be discursive before building up to a final conclusion). He gets straight to the point and is quick with sharp rebuttals and one liners that are not only highly quotable (incidentally, the French word for sizzle is le gresillement) but also jump language barriers. For example, during the above exchange with the same farmers he described himself as a ‘Européen exigeant’ (demanding European) and characterised Marine Le Pen as a ‘mensonge sur pattes’ (a lie on legs). And one of his most memorable lines from the debate last week was when he called her ‘La Grande Pretresse de la peur’ (High Priestess of Fear). This picked up headlines not just in France but all over the world.

Of course, several of the techniques I’ve just discussed are ones we teach. This is not to imply that Macron is some kind of crypto Anglo-Saxon politician in disguise. But part of his appeal may well be that as a smart energetic, concrete communicator with a direct style he is someone who can resonate with audiences outside his own country, even when speaking in his mother tongue.

 

 

Mugwumps steal news headlines

Mugwumps steal news headlines

Mugwumps stole a lot of headlines last week.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, wrote a piece for The Sun in which he suggested that people may think Jeremy Corbyn (leader of the opposition Labour Party) was a ‘mutton-headed old mugwump’ and feel sorry for him but in fact he poses an enormous threat to our country if he gets into Number 10 Downing Street.

Mugwumps steal news headlines

You may think this is just Boris being Boris, colourful language is what he does and not much else: more buffoonery than strategy.

Mugwumps dominated news agenda

Well, I beg to differ. Boris dominated the news agenda for a full day with the mugwump insult. It was a day in which he was on numerous media outlets – saying all sorts of things, some of them controversial, but no one was interested in anything but mugwumps. During that day we were all reminded perhaps a thousand times – at least if you are a news junky– that Corbyn could be characterised as a ‘mugwump’ and by implication a rather soft and muddled individual unfit to run the country. This is way more coverage and way more effective than Conservative leader and Prime Minister Theresa May’s more sensible mantra of ‘strong and stable leadership’.

Mugwumps steal news headlines

Corbyn’s response to Mugwump insult: ‘We are eight days into the election and Boris Johnson has run out of serious arguments ….I don’t do name calling’.

My personal theory is that Boris used to say stupid things by accident but in doing so learnt the power of a colourful phrase. Now he ‘weaponises language’ with deadly effect. The Telegraph helpfully collected some of the great Boris quotes many of which I suspect were less crafted and planned than the mugwump insult.

Mugwumps: an example of weaponising langauge

The ‘mugwump’ insult was a focus for a set piece 8:10 interview on BBC Radio 4 Today programme where it was helpfully repeated for those chattering classes that do not stoop to read The Sun newspaper. The story then led the BBC’s political coverage for most of the day.

Mugwumps: a raft of ‘explainers’

The press for two days was then full of ‘mugwump explainers’. Here are a few.

The Metro headline was: “Mugwump is actually a word and this is what it means”

The Guardian headline was:  What is a mugwump? An insult that only Boris Johnson would use. This also includes a snappy little video with the history of the word.

The Times – behind a paywall – sorry – but headline: “This mugwump is a dandiprat”

Birmingham Mail headline: what is a mugwump? This university professor has the answer

And there are many more.

Boris used ‘mugwump’ to create acres of coverage for what the Conservatives believe is their most important differentiator in the election; comparing the leadership style of Jeremy Corbyn to the strong, sensible, mainstream style of Theresa May.

Mugwumps and Media Trainers

All of our trainers work to help clients with their messages. We try to help them with carefully crafted quotable phrases that will sum up an argument in a way that gets headlines (even if only in the trade press). Serious people constantly and consistently shy away from saying anything ‘too racy’ or anything that makes them appear ‘unprofessional’ or ‘not serious enough’. We understand. But we do not believe those people always understand the ‘opportunity-cost’. 

Just in case you haven’t caught on, we at The Media Coach call prepared quotable language ‘sizzle’ and we blog and tweet about this regularly – you can follow the twitter handle @mediasizzle if you want to see the world the way we see it. If you want us to help you build quotable messages then give us a call on +44 (0)20 7099 2212.

Jeremy Corbyn image used under Flickr creative comms

 

 

Election and other bits and bobs

Election and other bits and bobs

It’s election time –  unexpectedly – in the UK. This gives those of us that follow public communications lots to think about and discuss. Instead of our usual article I decided to just share a few things I have been thinking about:

Just to restate a basic – this blog is apolitical. I comment on communication style, skills and lessons. Not on who people should vote for.

Watching Corbyn’s election communication style

Having become something of a lame duck leader Jeremy Corbyn gave a rather good first speech of the campaign last week. You can both watch and read it here. He has since spoken in Scotland and been interviewed on Andrew Marr and he looked relaxed and reasonably happy. Somewhat more in control than he was at the start of his leadership. He could still learn a thing or to from us about controlling interviews. 

Election and other bits and bobs

Someone pointed out to me that Corbyn is looking as if he is going to follow Trump and the Brexit referendum Leave campaign and concentrate on big picture assertions and ignore the detail: Shout loudly about ‘enemies of the people’, threaten big business, Philip Green etc. and avoid the complexities of reality. It has worked for others.

Blair steps into the fray with a confused message

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair – in my view normally a brilliant communicator– stepped into the campaign with a very confused message in an interview on BBC Radio 4. What he was probably saying was vote liberal or vote tactically but it was not clear. I know he was trying to avoid the wrong headlines but he needs to rehire Alistair Campbell.

Theresa May loses key comms personnel

And a final observation about the UK election this week: we note the departure of two key people from Theresa May’s PR team as explained here in the FT. Katie Perrior Downing Street Director of Communications resigned immediately after the election was called, while Lizzie Loudon, the Prime Ministers personal press secretary announced her resignation last Friday. This is a significant change and it will be interesting to see if May’s buttoned-up ice-maiden style changes.

French elections fascinate

We are also watching with fascination the French Presidential election. Not much to say about this today yet but more (from Laura in Brussels) in the near future. But we did notice this article in the FT which suggests politics is all about style over substance.

Election and other bits and bobs

Airline apology: how it should be done

In other news, there was this snippet you may have missed about an unfortunate incident on an American Airlines flight. Clearly, there were echoes of the United Airlines story of earlier in the month but this time the apology was swift and apparently unmuddied by ambiguity.

Lucy Kellaway shares her embarrassing public speaking experience

I am a dyed in the wool Lucy Kellaway fan, she is always an entertaining read. Assuming you have a subscription to the FT, this column from her is about how she got over confident and did a bad speech. It is worth a couple of minutes if only to remind ourselves it can happen to any of us. I did something very similar many years ago. Pride comes before a fall!

And finally…we make the news (in Estonia)

And finally, Laura Shields the Brussels Director of Media Coach International Ltd made the media herself in Estonia. The Environment minister there blogged about his training with her – including posting pictures –  and it was picked up by a prominent online news site. If you can read Estonian you will find it here. We suspect google translate doesn’t do it justice.

Laura-Estonia-Environment-Minister

 

Photos used under creative commons licence, Wikimedia etc. 

PR Basics

PR Basics: Don’t overpromise  

PR basics include a rule that you don’t promise something you may not be able to deliver. If there was one outstanding headline from last week’s UK budget it was that the Tories had broken a promise not to raise National Insurance. Chancellor, Philip Hammond announced in the budget on Wednesday measures that included a tax rise for the self-employed despite the previous manifesto promise not to do so.

PR Basics, Philip Hammond

UK Chancellor Philip Hammond is said to have broken a manifesto promise not to increase National Insurance

According to the Guardian newspaper: ‘The Conservative party’s 2015 manifesto was unequivocal, promising four times that a Tory government would not increase National Insurance. It did not mention the self-employed and offered future chancellors no wriggle room.’

PR Basics: Avoid public U-turns if possible

For us, the PR Rule broken here is don’t say something that you might later have to backtrack on.

If we want another hugely damaging example from politics we have only to remember the Liberal Democrats 2010 manifesto promise to scrap tuition fees. This was an election promise made before they found themselves in a coalition with a Tory party.  Personally, I feel that makes a material difference but the electorate is much less forgiving and the tuition fees broken promise seems to have ruined the career of Nick Clegg, one of the most able politicians of his generation. Not to mention wiping out the LibDem presence in the House of Commons. 

PR Basics

Even incorrect forecasting can be damaging. During the Brexit debate in the UK, those who argued the markets would ‘punish’ the UK if Vote Leave were to win, have since been publically lambasted because their predictions did not (fully) materialise. The public often does not make the distinction between a forecast – a best guess about the future – and a firm warning of what might happen. (My mother constantly rails against the weather forecast, which she says is ‘always wrong’. No amount of me pointing out it is a ‘forecast’ and not a promise makes any difference. These people are ‘misleading’ her.)

PR Basics: Avoid any ‘hostage to fortune’ 

Businesses too can fall foul of overpromising. Way back when, I clearly remember the, to me, avoidable pressure on the Chief Executive (later Chairman) of Rentokil who had overpromised. Sir Clive Thompson was always described as the ‘self-styled Mr. 20%’. I am not sure who used the phrase first but Sir Clive was certainly not unhappy with it. He delivered something like 20% growth in Rentokil profits every year for 13 years! But when in 1999 he moved to lower the target investors took their revenge. Even as a journalist I thought Sir Clive crazy to set this near impossible target for himself. He was ‘kicked upstairs’ to Chairman and finally ousted in 2004, apparently for ‘being too obsessed with meeting short-term targets’.  It seemed he could not detach himself from the Mr. 20% label.

It is something we come across often in training. Enthusiastic executives of course have a vision they are working toward. But while talking in broad brush strokes is fine, often it does not do to share the detail of that vision with journalists. The media just love to write that people or companies have ‘missed’ their target, done a U-turn or a flip-flop.

PR Basics

Executives are often tempted to overpromise in an interview

 PR Basics: Highfalutin promises can cause negative headlines 

Good PR people always caution against this. They know that being too clear about targets or making highfalutin promises can often cause negative headlines further down the line. Here is an incomplete list of mundane things we would advise against being too definite about.

  • There will be no further job losses. Who knows there might have to be?
  • We are expecting 20% growth in sales/profits etc. You might be confident but such a public prediction turns a 10% increase into a failure.
  • We want to be number one in the market within two years. Better to say one of the leading players in the market.
  • We expect to be profitable by Q4 2018. This is a difficult one because it is the sort of information you have to share with investors and therefore it may already be in the public domain. My advice would be not to lie if asked outright – stupid if it’s already published – but if possible not draw attention to it in media interviews, and if asked be cautious about it rather than bullish. If it is a major important element of a story that won’t help but hubris is easy to spot and may lead to mischief from the journalist. All in all, this would be more of a judgment call and our advice would depend on what else you have to say.
  • Margins are set to rise to 25%. Here again being vague is the standard. Unless they are published in your annual accounts you may be best to avoid talk of margins. Again you may have an internal forecast but is there really any benefit to being specific?

PR Basics: There are always exceptions

As with all rules, there are exceptions. I have taken part in discussions where CEO’s or other senior bods have weighed up the pros and cons of a ‘hostage to fortune’ pledge and decided to take the risk  – because the benefits outweighed the possible costs.  That is sensible and their prerogative.

Often our role is to bolster the PR advice and ensure ‘enthusiastic’ interviewees don’t make casual public promises or forecasts without understanding this basic rule of PR: avoid a hostage to fortune comment unless there is a very good reason not to.

Don’t forget, if we can help you prepare your spokespeople for a public announcement – results, product launch or a new direction – give us a call 020 7099 2212 to discuss the options.

Photo used under Creative Commons Licence

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The Wealth of Language

Will Self is one of Britain’s most idiosyncratic journalists.  Most popular writers would think twice before using words like rodomontade, juvenescent, irenic or febrillity in a 10-minute radio blog (Jan 15th). Think twice, and then delete them, substituting more common alternatives – bluster, rejuvenated, peaceful and feverishness.

The Wealth of Language

Journalist Will Self

And most popular writers would be right. Communication, especially in our hectic modern age, is all about reaching the largest possible audience in a form which is easy and pleasant to absorb. Spoken or written, it’s all the same.

The Wealth of Language: Keep it Simple

The advice most commonly given is to Keep it Simple – use common, everyday language, avoid complex terminology and grammatical structures, keep your sentences short.

Simple, however, does not mean dull, and we can learn a lot from Will Self in that respect. One of the pleasures of listening to him is enjoying the skill with which he deploys the enormous resources of the English language. He uses the breadth and depth of the language beautifully, with a wide range of better-known vocabulary and a wealth of cultural and political references.

English is an enormously rich language and if we want to keep our audience engaged and, when appropriate, stir their emotions, we need to use it imaginatively. So:

  • avoid repetitions of the same word. Use synonyms. If you have referred to “hens” a couple of times, try “chickens”, “poultry” or simply “birds”.  If you have already used “reform”, try “improve”, “upgrade”, “enhance”, “redesign”, re-make” – any number of alternatives.
  • steer clear of that bland, bureaucratic style of language whose over-use so irritates the general public. Address envelopes, not issues. Appeal to people, don’t reach out to them.  
  • throw in references to events or people that all of your audience will find familiar.  Add richness to your message with a mention of Mozart or Julius Caesar, Beyoncé or David Bowie, Nine-Eleven or the Brexit vote, Lionel Messi or Tiger Woods, the 2008 Crash or the Greek debt crisis.  
  • vary the tone. We always encourage you to illustrate any point you make with an example, usually involving individual people and often from your own experience. This is a good opportunity for a change of tone, make it personal, wield that most powerful of words – “I”.

If you or your team would like help with some of these elements or other ways to tighten up your grammar, enrich your writing style or lift your corporate writing from the mundane, the Media Coach can offer short, bespoke workshops.

There is always something that can be improved, even if we cannot hope to have you writing with the mastery of a Will Self, a writer who blends serious messages with a familiar, personal style that entertains while it informs.

Incidentally, it is important also to note that when he slips in words like recondite or factic, you can usually tell from the context roughly what is meant. He does not put them out in a vacuum. You may not get all the subtlety of a certain word, but you get the general drift.

To less talented writers – and that is virtually all of us – who are tempted to reach for the dictionary for some rarely used language, we simply say: “Don’t try this at home”.

Photo used under creative comms licence

Mitch

10 tips: what to wear on TV

What to wear on TV: is a question we are asked all the time.

Back in November I wrote ten top tips for women and promised we would also provide ten top tips for men. Just to reiterate: as media trainers, we think what you are wearing is one of the least important things to worry about if you are doing a TV interview. But we aim to provide the information our clients want. So here goes.

what to wear on TV

Normal business wear is a good principle to follow when being interviewed on TV

What to wear on TV: normal business wear

  • As with women, the overarching principle for professional people being interviewed on television is ‘normal business wear’. If you work for an NGO you will likely wear different clothes than someone running a funky design company. Whatever you would wear for work will probably work if you are being interviewed on TV.
  • Even men sometimes need make-up. We do understand that most red-blooded men baulk at the idea of wearing make-up but if it’s offered by a TV station we suggest you don’t turn it down. Many man have what we might diplomatically call a very high hairline. This can present a problem for the cameraman: a shiny pate will bounce light like a mirror and be very distracting.
  • Glasses on or off? The truth is it probably doesn’t matter. But it is not a good idea to take your glasses off just before an interview as you are likely to have an indent on the bridge of your nose which again, can be distracting. It is true that if you wear glasses on camera you can find studio or camera lighting is bouncing off the lenses and obscuring your eyes. However, this is the camera operators problem, not yours and they can easily adjust the shot to avoid the problem.

What to wear on TV: jacket and t-shirt

  • For most of our clients, we would suggest men wear their jackets on camera. Ties are optional and really depend on the culture of the organisation you are representing. As with women, the jacket not only looks smart, covers any embarrassing underarm sweat marks but also gives the technicians somewhere to put the microphone.
  • If you do wear a tie please, please check the knot is right at the top before the interview begins. Also, ensure the tie is hanging straight. Small misalignments can make a big difference to the image and it is easy to give the impression that you are overly informal or don’t care.
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A small misalignment in your tie can quickly leave the wrong impression

What to wear on TV: think of your socks

  • Give some thought to your socks! The vast majority of interviews are filmed as a ‘mid-shot’ which is the waist upwards or slightly higher. The problem is you may not know what the studio set is like and what shot they are planning to use. It is not something interviewees can have any influence over. If they put you on a low settee (think BBC Breakfast News) there is every chance your legs and socks will be in shot some of the time. If they are brightly coloured or worse too short you are again providing a big distraction to what you are saying. Three inches of hairy leg between sock and trouser bottom will be the main preoccupation of a third of your audience. I am aware that Jon Snow has been wearing highly coloured hugely distracting socks for a very long time but it is part of his brand and he is on our screens most nights which means there is no novelty value.

What to wear on TV: what colour?

  • People often ask ‘what colours can I or should I wear? The truth is it makes very little difference these days so long as you don’t wear checks. 20 years ago camera technology struggled to cope with black, white, bright red etc. Today, black and white are best avoided if possible but only because they can be unflattering in harsh light. Softer colours are more flattering. Pink and blue shirts are considered preferable to white but again it is marginal. However, as with women, one important rule remains; don’t wear high contrast checks. If you do the picture will ‘strobe’ making it look as though you have recently been standing in a nuclear bunker. While this is not a crime, it is distracting.
  • Check your hair. For women the most common problem is long hair falling across their eyes and either being distracting or being constantly flicked away which is also distracting. For men, this is less of a problem but the early morning cow’s lick is very common. It is often right on the crown of the head and not instantly seen when looking in the mirror but will show when you move your head around while speaking. It is not a crime but not ideal.
  • Please do also consider your posture. Sit up straight, don’t loll and consider the BBC rule – bottom in back of chair. Leaning slightly forward means you look interested and caring.
  • Finally, where you look during the interview is much more important than what you wear. Hold the eyeline with the interviewer as much as possible unless you are doing a ‘down the line’ in which case you will need to stare down the lens of the camera.

If you want to prepare for a television or radio interview why not book a session in our studio. We can realistically recreate the interview you are about to do and you can watch and critique your own performance as well as enjoying expert coaching. That means you are much more likely to get it right on the day.

What to wear on TV: other articles

Don’t just take our word for it. Here we share again an article about what to wear on TV.
We condensed it down to 10 top tips but here are 22 tips on what to wear for a TV interview.