Posts

tough media interviews

Tough Media Interviews – How To Prepare

Tough media interviews require proper preparation. There are so many car crash interviews that you wonder why anyone ever goes on TV.

From a media training point of view a different question springs to mind. Why do very intelligent successful people make the mistake of not doing their homework, and allow themselves to ‘lose it’ on air? At the end of this blog post, I share my tips for exactly how to do that homework.

Keep Emotions Under Control

But first, let’s look at how not to do it. In the US this week there was a classic overreaction from a soccer coach who was asked a pretty ordinary question that, I read, was predictable and had been asked before. It would have been better to give a prepared diplomatic answer rather than storming off.

Tough Media Questions – Have a Prepared Answer

The Coach, Bob Bradley probably didn’t do himself much harm with his public display of petulance. But the former Persimmon CEO who was caught out in October last year, almost certainly lost his job, in part because of his refusal to answer a gently put question about his £75 m bonus. It was a subject that had been all over the media just a few months before and surely it would have been possible to have a neat answer such as ‘my salary is set by the remuneration committee, not by me’.

Tough Media Interviews – Do Your Homework

And here is a really old one that I had not seen until last week. It’s funny because this very senior chap thinks he can stop BBC Watchdog using the pre-recorded interview by waving his hands around. This may have been an issue of poor risk assessment. It was a pre-recorded interview and the Dental Association rarely attracts controversy. Plus the issue of mercury in fillings is an old chestnut. But this was Watchdog, a show whose reputation is all about tough interviews.

Refusing to answer a question, walking away, storming out, getting cross and ‘losing it’ once the camera is rolling is a seriously bad idea and is bound to make a bad interview more damaging than any uncomfortable struggling through.

The one everyone of a certain generation remembers is 1982 when then Defence Secretary John Nott stormed out of an interview. This is mentioned in a useful New Statesmen compilation of the worst political interviews ever.

It is much harder for politicians to anticipate all the tough questions and have all the numbers front of mind. I have quite a lot of sympathy for Dianne Abbot who spectacularly failed to do her sums when interviewed by Nick Ferrari on LBC two years ago. For business people, it tends to be a much more limited universe of possible nasties.

How to Prepare for Tough Questions – My Top Tips

  • With more than 2 people in the room brainstorm what the tough questions might be for any particular interview. It’s important to include generalists who have not been close to the issue.
  • Before the brainstorm, someone needs to look at the stuff the journalist has written about before. Check the cuttings.
  • Also, do not limit the discussion to directly relevant questions. What is ‘out there’ on the wider news agenda? Look at politics, regulators, scandals or trending stories such as the gender pay gap or mental health at work.
  • Once you have a list of tough or difficult questions, work out short but credible answers. These may be factual and dull or they may be ‘close down’ answers such as ‘that is simply not a question for me’. Either way, these lines can be prepared. These reactive lines need to be written down and stored somewhere secure. Do not take them into the interview with you unless they are locked in a briefcase or password protected.
  • Finally, rehearse the reactive lines aloud. Reading them in the taxi on the way to the studio is simply not real preparation.
  • Practise delivering the lines not just correctly but with the appropriate level of humility, warmth, authority, etc. Get the tone right. (I blogged about getting the tone right here.)

Of course, the sure-fire way to prepare for a tough interview is to hire Media Trainers with real front line journalism experience, who can, not just role-play the interviews with you (or your spokesperson), but help craft the lines and coach on getting the tone right. When you have been helping people get it right for more than a decade it becomes pretty obvious what works and what doesn’t.

using pictures

Using pictures to make your ideas memorable

Using pictures will help make your message memorable. This is a known and understood statement of fact. Advertising, speech writing, politics and data science all apply the idea that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’. And yet this simple concept is so often left on the shelf when it comes to business communication.

I am thinking about his because I recently watched a documentary about the World Memory Championships and had a bit of an ‘a-ha’ moment. I had heard of memory palaces but I hadn’t quite got it all clear in my mind. Here is a trailer for the documentary which explains it pretty well.

 

As a result of watching the full documentary, I am currently trying to learn ‘The Major System’ so I can remember numbers more easily. I am doing this for fun but it is an interesting exercise in using pictures for memory.

Here is another really simple but helpful Ted Talk which is misleadingly titled but is about the power of pictures.

I have some other tips for using pictures for communication.

In presentations:

  1. Take the bullet points off the slides and use pictures instead.
  2. There are myriad of sources for pictures you can acquire for free or cheaply. We use Pixabay and Flickr – both free, but also Istock. I have recently discovered beautiful.ai which is all about online slideshows but has a vast library of great pics.
  3. Use your own photos. In professional life, I think there is vast scope for whipping out the phone and taking photos of your team, your projects, your commute or something else that just speaks to you. Using these in your presentation in a considered and logical way can make the whole thing fresh and inclusive.
  4. Use photos but draw on them or annotate them. (You can buy software that adds speech bubbles. although there are cheaper ways to do this.)
  5. Childish sketches or hand-written diagrams can also work if you dare to share them.

 

using picturesusing pictures

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In conversations or interviews:

Create a picture in people’s minds. If you do this your idea will be remembered. All you have to do to do this is to use tangible language.

If you talk about ‘the discomfort of public transport’ you will not create a picture. If you say ‘standing in the rain waiting for a bus’ or ‘squashed into a commuter train with someone’s backpack in your face’ you are creating pictures.

I remember someone talking to me about ‘data cleansing’ for a pension fund. It was all rather dry and unmemorable until she spoke about her first ‘data cleansing’ job which started in a dusty room full of hand-written ledgers. She didn’t actually show me a picture – I created the picture in my mind, and several years later I remember it well. Below is exactly as I imagined it.

using pictures

I am always interested in good sources of pictures or fresh ideas of how to use them so please feel free to share.

interview soundbites

Interview soundbites: prepare in advance or journalists will feed you theirs!

Interview soundbites are essential to journalists. They need those quotes and will often turn them into headlines. And that is why, at The Media Coach, we always spend time during a media training session helping clients prepare their own interview soundbites. This ensures they get their points across succinctly and coherently, in a media-friendly way, that makes an interview a win-win situation for the interviewee and the journalist.

Unfortunately for journalists, if an interviewee doesn’t do this vital preparation it can mean the process is more like a trip to the dentist to have a tooth pulled. There is an out and out battle to try and extract a few quotable words. Faced with dull and unquotable answers, journalists are highly likely to resort to trying to put words in an interviewee’s mouth to get something useable. [And that is why we think media training is so important as I wrote in a previous blog linked here].

Don’t let journalists write their own interview soundbites

A humorous take on this journalistic trick was highlighted in a montage on the US current affairs programme Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. Time and again you see presenters or anchors suggesting a quote and the interviewee repeating it.

 

So, as we see in the video, a journalist may try to get something quotable by asking a question phrased with emotive or subjective language. As a journalist myself, it was not an ‘interview trap’ I was specifically taught; rather I just learnt quickly that if I asked a bland question I tended to get a bland answer.

Nervous interviewees in particular, or those doing an interview in a language which isn’t their mother tongue, often unwittingly repeat language from the question – helpfully fed to them by the journalist – to give themselves thinking time at the start of their answer. While it can be benign with merely an attempt to make an interviewee more succinct and ‘sexy’, it can also lead to unfortunate headlines and leave interviewees thinking they have been misquoted.

That’s why we strongly encourage people to develop their own quotes rather than relying on the journalist’s version of the soundbite. We also warn people to be careful about agreeing to or simply saying “Yes” in response to a journalist’s paraphrasing of an answer. It’s much safer to develop your own effective soundbites before the interview.

Beware the headline-grabbing last question

Another example of the soundbite-seeking technique is to round off an interview with a headline-grabbing closing question. This can be particularly dangerous if the interviewee is aware that the interview is coming to an end, so relaxes and drops their guard.

How to avoid falling into this trap was demonstrated by Andrea Leadsom during a recent interview with Robert Peston (view the full 12-minute interview below but the last minute is the relevant part).

 

Seeking Ms Leadsom’s views on John Bercow’s role as Speaker of the House, Robert Peston uses phrases such as “impugned his impartiality” in his questions. When her answers are fairly careful chosen (and unquotable), he also tries the paraphrase technique by asking her if what she is really saying is Mr Bercow should “wind his neck in”. Spotting the trap, she skilfully (and with some humour) sidesteps it by evoking the famous quote from the BBC’s original version of House of Cards saying “You might say that I couldn’t possibly comment”.

How to stay safe and in control of the interview soundbites

For the less experienced at handling media interviews, the solution is threefold:

  1. Prepare thoroughly.
  2. Ensure your messages and soundbites are carefully crafted into a format the journalist can use.
  3. Remain vigilant throughout the interview to avoid repeating any headline-grabbing phrase fed to you by the journalist.

Here are some of the other blog posts I have written on this subject:

Media interviews: is fear of failure leading to missed opportunities?

Developing messages: Are you guilty of navel-gazing?

If that feels all rather difficult you may want to pick up the phone and talk to us about booking a short media training session. The Media Coach 020 7099 2212 or drop us a line at enquiries@themediacoach.co.uk.

 

authoritative feature

7 tips for appearing more authoritative as a woman

About half the women we train struggle to sound as authoritative as they would like –  when presenting or being interviewed by a journalist, or on camera. It is often something that is relatively easily improved, if not fixed.

Here are my top tips for appearing more authoritative

 

authoritative

1. Prepare mentally
One of the very obvious patterns we see as trainers is that people find public speaking or being interviewed so uncomfortable, they really don’t want to think about it until they absolutely have to. If this is the case, my first suggestion (of course) would be to find someone to pay for training with The Media Coach. We really can help. Failing that, be aware that, like an exam or a job interview you cannot give it your best shot without thinking about it. By preparing mentally I mean articulate, to yourself, how you want to come across. I know this sounds self-obsessed, but it really works. Identify the version of you that you want your audience to see. ‘Confident’ is not necessarily the most useful adjective here – I prefer words like warm or kind, definite or flexible, trustworthy, knowledgeable, in control, etc. It would be really useful to remember a time when you felt all those things on your list and as NLP practitioners would say ‘hear what you heard, see what you saw, feel what you felt’. In other words, tell your subconscious as clearly as possible – ‘that’s it’! That is the person I want to be when I stand up. If you can’t find a version of yourself, find a role model. Practise thinking yourself into this ‘mood’ or ‘mind-set’.

2. Body language
You want your body language to communicate the image of you that you have identified in step one. This usually means shoulders back, chin parallel to the floor (not tipped up or down) and then consciously relax a little. Breathe. Shake your shoulders out without losing the frame. Again, stepping into a controversial area one easy thing to try is the power-pose. Some believe that simply standing for a minute or two in a powerful pose – hands on hips, legs apart – can trick your brain into feeling more powerful. Others think this is bunkum. But it costs nothing except a couple of minutes to try. And, at the very least, those two minutes might give you time to remind yourself of the sort of person you want to project. One word of warning please do this in private or in a safe environment.  Power-posing in public is guaranteed to lead to ridicule as it did for Sajid Javid last year.

3. Pause
I know I have said this many times before, including in a recent blog post. But I cannot leave it out. Authoritative, confident people do things in their own time and are not overly influenced by the excitement or energy of others. You can control a room with silence. But baby steps first, take a breath, pause, gather your thoughts and you will sound more authoritative.

authoritative

4. Slow down
Obviously, closely related to the pause but not the same. Many people and in particular women speak too fast (myself included). What stems initially from insecurity, fear of boring others or a desire not be bored yourself, becomes a bad habit that is difficult to shake. The ideal is to be able to consciously vary the pace you speak, slowing down when you need the thinking time, or you are trying to land a point but speeding up when it is unimportant detail. But the first step is to get control of the speed. I spend quite a lot of my coaching time finding ways to help people to speak more slowly.

5. People pleasing
Not exclusively a female trait but seen more often in young women than in other groups. It can take various forms but often involves too much smiling or an unconscious verbal agreement with the other person talking: as in ‘yes/sure/absolutely’ etc. When coaching some people, I will often try asking them to act really irritated, grumpy or annoyed. When they do, and we record and playback, what we get is a million miles from grumpy, but it just sounds a bit more definite and authoritative. It is difficult to gauge this for yourself without the help of either an audio or video recording.

6. Lower voice
Margaret Thatcher famously had coaching to lower her voice – you can judge for yourself from this video if you think it was an improvement. Personally, there are a lot of other things I would change (for example she is too slow) but it does show what can be done.

7. Self-talk
One of the most useful bits of self-help advice I ever had was ‘be careful what you say when you talk to yourself’. Negative self-chatter is stressful and life-sapping. Having high standards, being critical of yourself is one thing, but constant self-sabotage is very common and hugely damaging. I once made a terrible mistake in a public speaking competition – as MC I forgot to introduce the person who was to give the vote of thanks. I was, at the time, absolutely mortified. However, I had a great boyfriend who said: let’s be clear you got up and had a go when most people wouldn’t. You can hold your head up high. Speak kindly and encouragingly when you talk to yourself.

The benefits

My own view is that putting a bit of effort into conquering a fear of public speaking and moulding your communication style can pay huge dividends in life. I often hear from former clients and I remember one young woman terrified of public speaking who made huge progress on one of our courses. Two years later she wrote to thank me and tell me she had become an ‘ambassador’ for one policy initiative in the UN, had completely changed her job and her life and now routinely did large policy presentations. The word empowering is overused but being able to speak confidently in public is genuinely empowering.

party conference speeches

Party conference speeches and the power of the pause

Party conference speeches from the party leaders are the big set pieces of the annual event. In many ways, nothing can be more important and stressful to the leaders but in other ways, it is a blank sheet of paper. They can say what they want, as long as they want, at the pace they want. In general, the audience in the room is supportive even if the wider audience is more judgemental.

As I write I have just finished watching John McDonnell address his party conference. Whatever your politics he is, nowadays, one of the great political communicators. We look for warmth, authority and animation in any speaker and he has it all. His delivery is well-paced, and he comes across as generous to others, a man of the people and inspiring. He is also good at media interviews. (Please remember I am commenting on style not politics.)

As ever with professional speakers who have a supportive audience, he makes the pauses count. And there are a lot of long pauses, not all of them dictated by applause.

[Last year, I blogged about another example of a conference speech which made very extensive use of the pause. This was the Conservative Attorney General, Geoffrey Cox.  Whether you love or hate the Churchillian style, he certainly made his mark at the 2018 Conservative Party conference.]

Learning to pause is one of the key tricks to being an effective speaker. Most inexperienced presenters speak too fast and never pause.

We want the audience to hear every word and to have time to digest the whole sentence. Pauses play their part in making an argument digestible, but they are so much more than this. It takes confidence, guts even, but it is worth taking ‘the pause’ seriously. The dramatic effect can lift what you say from prosaic to inspiring.

Here is a short ‘how to’ video by an old-fashioned guy who never-the-less really knows what he is talking about. It is called the Power of the Pause.

There are so many relatively easy tricks to public speaking and yet the standard of professional presentations we are all exposed to continues to be woeful. If you want to upgrade your presentations, spend a few hours with one of The Media Coach crew and just see what we can do for you. Call us on +44 (0)20 7099 2212 to book yourself in.

tough and aggressive media interviews

Dealing with tough and aggressive media interviews

Tough and aggressive media interviews are in evidence most days in the British media. The Brexit frustration, chaos and confusion is making most of us exasperated and the journalists are reflecting that with challenging interviews.

As a student of managing media interviews, this throws up lots of examples of people handling difficult questions.

And this is front of mind for me personally as I had a client last week (no names, no pack drill, of course) who wanted to practise really aggressive interviews – interviews which in my view he is very unlikely ever to face outside a training room.

I always say the most difficult questions are those where you can’t tell the truth but you definitely can’t lie. Many people, when faced with aggression and persistence will give in and tell the truth even if they know they shouldn’t, which of course is why barristers and journalists have perfected the art of being aggressive and persistent.

[Just to be clear there are lots of occasions when it is ethically the correct thing to do – not to tell the whole truth. For example: when publicly asked about personnel matters such as salaries or sackings, ahead of mergers or take-overs when it is illegal to reveal to one set of shareholders something that is not revealed to all, ahead of legal proceedings and of course during negotiations.]

Most people who talk to the media will never face really aggressive questioning, but it is instructive to analyse how others do it. The most aggressive interviews that I am aware of these days are probably not on the BBC but are perhaps on LBC. Nick Ferrari and Eddie Mair are both capable of making anyone feel very uncomfortable.  Here is an example from a couple of weeks ago which not only shows Mair’s quietly aggressive style, but also that Jacob Rees-Mogg goes into the studio prepared to give as good as he gets. This ‘have a go back at the journalist’ technique is not one that we recommend but it does stop you as the interviewee being the victim. The question, of course, is does it damage or support the authority of the government’s message.

On Sunday we saw the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sajid Javid, interviewed on Andrew Marr. Javid appeared to blatantly make two mutually contradictory statements: One was that the government will abide by the law of the land and the second is that it will leave on October 31st even though a law was being passed to prevent leaving without a deal. What is interesting about the interview is the confidence and clarity with which Javid holds the line on this apparent impossibility, despite Marr’s best efforts.

The viewer’s reaction to this performance will depend on whether he or she supports or despises the current government. But again it shows politicians refusing to be bowed or manipulated by the interview process. I would conclude that the government spin doctors do not care what Andrew Marr and the Remainers think, they want the team out there talking directly to their own supporters. Javid is getting a message out to those that matter at this moment.

On the same programme, we heard Amber Rudd explain why she quit the government and the Conservative Party. It was absolutely obvious that this was a very well-prepared media event, well messaged and each line clearly articulated. For example, she had what sounded like evidence of not enough effort going into making a deal: ‘I asked and I was sent a one-page summary’. She also said ‘21 of my colleagues, who are good moderate conservatives’. Not a phrase she thought up during the interview. Personally, I think she came across extremely well in this interview and wonder if she is positioning herself as a possible next prime minister.

This is not a very aggressive interview but I have included it because asked by Marr if the issue that led to her resignation was a question of lack of trust, she said ‘I am not going to use those words…’

This is a very standard line that we often suggest in Media Training. People are usually surprised that we recommend they are so direct – but it is important to understand that every journalist is looking for a quote, a headline or a soundbite and they are often keen to write this themselves – and ask you to agree. Had Rudd said ‘yes’ to that particular question the headlines would have quoted her as saying she left the government because she couldn’t trust Boris. Stating bluntly that she will pick her own words allowed her to control both the interview in the moment and also the way it was reported during the day.

We have written about managing tough interviews many times before. Here are a selection of previous blogs.

10 Tips for surviving aggressive interviewers 

Media Interviews you just can’t win

Your TV interviewer may be annoying but storming out isn’t great either

If you think you need support preparing for a media event or a media interview give us a call to discuss how we can help tel:+44 0(20) 7099 2212.

Informality - Johnson

The rise and rise of informality

Informality is taking over the world or at least that is my perception. If I Google this I find very few articles which makes me a little nervous about my own judgement but I have been mulling this for several months. Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and other successful political figures (love them or hate them), connect with their audience in part because they are seen as ‘one of us’.

Speakers connect to audiences by appearing to be ‘one of us’

All speakers want to connect with their audience and there are many ways to do this. But increasingly younger generations – and voters – are disrespectful of anyone who seems to set themselves apart. And they connect with people who are informal.

What do I mean by informal? Well here is a very short clip from Boris Johnson this week (3rd September). He is standing on the steps of Number 10 and looking fairly prime ministerial. But in this 40 seconds we get the phrases – ‘pointless delay’, ‘no if’s, no but’s and ‘we will not accept any attempt to…scrub that referendum’. Shortly before this clip starts he also said ‘I promised we would not hang about’.

In this case, it is the words that are informal but in other cases, it is the style of delivery.

It’s not just the words that can be informal

In this recent clip, we have a ‘fireside chat’ with our PM in the middle of a party!


Despite the fact that Boris occasionally includes obtuse references to the Classics (as mentioned in this blog) – he doesn’t behave as Theresa May, Gordon Brown, David Cameron or other Prime Ministers have done. And I think there are lessons to be learnt from this.

What is the place for informality business leadership?

In both presentation and media training, I am often urging people to be less formal. Some are formal in their choice of language – many of you will have heard me urge people to ‘come down the language ladder’. By this I mean use everyday language, not business language. But there is good reason to do more than strip out the jargon.

Part of the current distrust and disrespect of power translates into distrust of people who sound like they have power. So my advice to clients is to err on the side of informality. Generally to be a little more informal than they think they should be. That’s if you want to connect to your audience, and if you want to lead your audience. The younger the audience the more informal the approach we recommend.

But a quick warning: this is not the same thing as trying to be hip! Authenticity is important and suddenly quoting a rapper (unless you are a genuine fan) or sporting a T-shirt with an anarchic saying, is not likely to win many plaudits.

If you would like help planning for a media interview or a presentation call us to discuss what we can offer, tel: +44 (0)20 7099 2212.

metaphors

A Minute With The Media Coach: Metaphors

As we continue our summer specials, instead of bringing you our usual blog this week we bring you number five in our series ‘A Minute With The Media Coach’.  This week fellow trainer, Eric Dixon and I discuss the benefit of finding a good metaphor when talking to the media.

message building

A Minute With The Media Coach: Message Building

As we continue our summer holiday mode, instead of bringing you our usual blog this week we bring you number four in our series ‘A Minute With The Media Coach’, where fellow trainer, Eric Dixon and I discuss message building. This is the one to show those senior executives suspicious about ‘being told what to say’.

 

presentation training

A Minute With The Media Coach: Presentation Training

We are continuing our summer holiday mode and instead of our usual blog offer a short video, number three in our series ‘A Minute With The Media Coach’. This week fellow trainer, Eric Dixon and I discuss some of the common mistakes we see during presentation training sessions and how to avoid them.