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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

 

 

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

 

 

body language

Body language always tells a story

Body language is in the news this week.

The rich and famous spend their life in the public eye and with cameras always on them and plenty of paid pundits to give an expert opinion it is difficult not to offend someone somewhere.

The brain is wired to take in and interpret visual information above all else. Neuroscience has in recent years confirmed what many had already deduced.

Body language – why we notice

It’s said that 50-60% of the brain is involved in processing visual images and that the brain will not only see but interpret an image in about a tenth of a second.

So it is not surprising that relatively subtle visual clues can set Twitter alight.

Trump’s misstep sets Twitter alight

And that is what happened when President Trump apparently walked in front of the Queen while inspecting her honour guard at Windsor Castle.

And this is how the New York Times reported the incident.

Body Language

It was really just a few seconds and if you watch the start of the video you can see The Queen gestures to Trump to go in front.

The actual incident doesn’t seem to me to warrant the storm of protest. And in fact, at least one commentator suggests that Trump was really trying to obey the normal rules of etiquette during this short visit with the Queen and mostly did rather well.

Royal sisters-in-law body language made the news

There was a similar rush to interpret the body language when Kate and Meghan – Royal sisters-in-law – got together at Wimbledon. This was written up in the Mirror, the Express and the Daily Mail.

This is probably not the sort of news that I normally care much about but it does illustrate an important point. People are wired to read body language and they cannot help themselves interpreting it.

People are wired to read body language

People often ask me for specifics on how they can change their delivery style to appear, for example, more authoritative, or more approachable. I have learnt that saying smile less, nod your head less or lean forward, has a limited impact. You need to change the mindset. Just as an actor needs to get into character, so does a presenter or an interviewee. If it’s you, try imagining you are delivering this presentation as an older sister or doing this television interview in front of your son’s classmates. Change the programme running in your head and the body language will sort itself out.

If all else fails you could try ‘power posing’. I am told it is a discredited theory (Wikipedia is clear on this point) but I know therapists that still advocate it. Stand in a powerful pose for a minute or so (perhaps in the cubicle of the loo to avoid embarrassment) and see if it changes the way you feel.

Body Language
I have written before about what sort of on-air presence gives the best television interview. To read this blog click here.

If you would like help with your presentation or on-camera interview style we have a stable of excellent coaches who would be delighted to help. Just call us on +44 (0)20 7099 2212.

Power Pose image used under creative commons – Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) 

 

 

 

message dicipline

Message Discipline and Resistance to Towing the Line

Message discipline is one of the key things we teach in Media Training. And it has been interesting this last weekend to see the issue of discipline in communications move right to the centre of the political debate.

Message discipline and collective responsibility

Following a long meeting at Chequers, Prime Minister Theresa May has re-imposed the principles of collective responsibility and persuaded (!) Cabinet members to stop arguing against each other in public over Brexit or leave the Cabinet. As we know, at the time of writing David Davis and Boris Johnson have both chosen to leave.

Message Discipline

Prime Minister Theresa May is attempting to re-impose collective responsibility on her Cabinet.

Collective responsibility is a democratic convention which means members of the Cabinet must publicly support all governmental decisions made in Cabinet meetings, even if they do not privately agree with them. This support includes voting with the government in the Commons and towing the line in media interviews.

There are clear parallels in business where executive boards operate a similar system.

However, it does, of course, lead to difficulty if there are individuals who have strongly held beliefs which they feel they are unable to express.

Having clear, written, agreed messages is another version of collective responsibility. If you have several senior leaders speaking to the media it is important that what they say on sensitive subjects is aligned: with each other and with the organisation.

However, imposing the sort of discipline required to make this work can be very tricky.

Here is a selection of the problems we come across and the possible solutions.

PR professionals are too junior to demand discipline

Telling people what they can and cannot say in public can be tricky if your job title or seniority band is lower than your spokesperson. This usually arises only if the spokesperson lacks experience. Experienced operators know that the PRs are their best friend and they take the advice unless there is a very strong reason not to. However, I have personally had situations where it has been helpful for the CEO to pop-in and lend his authority to a set of messages. It’s all about having someone higher up the food chain to make it clear this is the way things are done.

Spokespeople worry about their professional reputation

This is very common and I have written about it before. The fear is understandable. Senior, clever people do not want to be quoted in public as saying something that lacks credibility or sounds stupid. And they don’t want to sound as if they are parroting lines written by someone else. Typically this is resolved by negotiation over the message but can also require a robust explanation of why a message is necessary in the first place. As PR practitioners we must remember that the risks of random media comment are not as clear to others as they are to us. Sometimes we need to spell them out with examples of where it has gone horribly wrong for other people.

Media Training is very helpful here because, by role-playing interviews and then discussing them, it often becomes clear that there is a way for corporate messages to be used but still sound and feel credible. The fear of using messages is dispelled by a bit of practise and playback.

Message Discipline

Media Training can provide the opportunity for spokespeople to get comfortable with messages.

Messages are too bland

This is another really common objection. If the chosen messages are too obviously based around marketing or just too corporate, spokespeople will quite rightly baulk at using them. It is initially not obvious to everyone that marketing messages and media messages — whilst having some relation to each other — are not the same thing. There is a whole science behind this but at its simplest marketing messages are about creating interest while media messages are much more about a compelling, often multi-faceted, argument.

One of the most successful marketing slogans of my lifetime comes from the mobile phone company Orange (now swallowed up into EE). Many people will remember the phrase ‘The Future’s Bright, The Future’s Orange’. But in the 1990s the CEO sounded stupid when he repeatedly used this phrase in media interviews with me and others. It was a good marketing message, not a good media message.

People find it difficult to use prepared messages

This is a funny one. I come across people who have never heard of ‘messaging’ before but who, given a modular script in the form of a message house, can use all the elements in a credible way, in their first role-play interview. But I also come across many other, equally smart people who find it extremely difficult to remember the prepared elements or to stitch them together in an interview, in a way that makes sense. It seems to me it’s all about the way each individual’s brain is wired. People think differently and process information differently. Whilst there is the odd person who is a natural, most need to be taught to use messages. But it doesn’t take long. It’s not rocket science. I have lost count of the number of clients who say to me ‘how come you can remember my messages better than I can?’. And the answer is: because it is a formula. I spend my life crafting and using messages for my clients. I have learnt how to learn messages!

(If you are wondering what I mean by messaging I have written about this here and here.)

If we can help install message discipline into your spokespeople — in the nicest possible way, of course —please do give us a call on 020 7099 2212.

 

Image of Theresa May from Wikimedia Commons

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.