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media training basics

Media Training Basics: On-Air Presence

Media training basics include how to behave on-air so that your audience trusts you.

Whether you are a candidate to lead a party, a new prime minister or a business leader launching a product or vision, we think this requires three key things:

  • Warmth – because it is a good idea if the audience likes you
  • Authority – because it is an even better idea that it sounds as if you know what you are talking about.
  • Animation – because the studio and the microphone will ‘shrink’ you.
    Most people have to be themselves plus 10% to come across well on-air. In this short video, previously shared on LinkedIn, fellow trainer Eric Dixon and I explain our thinking but disagree about how to explain this.

 

 

But if you don’t have these great attributes how do you acquire on-air presence?

Media Training Basics: Animation

Animation is perhaps the easiest attribute to acquire. The people who are naturally good on television are those that are larger than life and often rather hard work at dinner. This is not always true but people who seem quite normal on TV are often really big characters. An occasional interviewee doesn’t need to cultivate a whole new persona but just use a little more energy when speaking. Hand movement and head movement can be good so long as they not so noticeable that they are distracting.

Media Training Basics: Authority

Authority is more intangible. We know it when we see it but trying to cultivate it can be challenging. There are, though, some basics.

  • Don’t speak too fast. This is probably the most common way that people undermine their own authority.
  • On television make sure you are looking in the right place. This can be straight at the camera or at the interviewer depending on the set-up. But hold a steady gaze and don’t let your eyes flick up, down or sideways if you can help it.
  • Don’t use highfalutin language. We mention this every other week so do not need to labour the point here, but jargon and professional language does not make you sound clever; it makes you sound arrogant and out of touch. Be colloquial.
  • Consider a personal anecdote. People trust the opinions of those that have relevant personal experience. These need to be planned, rehearsed and above all short but they can really work.

Here are some other tips about being more authoritative in general. And here are some tips written especially for women in an article in Forbes, although most apply to men as well.

media training basics

Having a coach to help you improve can make a big difference

Media Training Basics: Warmth

Warmth is perhaps the most elusive. Some people have it by the bucket-load even if they are not the most polished interviewee. It is worth a lot. If you don’t have it naturally on-air you can try the following things.

  • Try smiling more, particularly at the beginning or end of an interview. Even on radio, you can hear a smile.
  • Try to be less formal. Often people lack warmth because they think they are required to be very, very serious and correct.
  • A trick I have often used is to ask the interviewee to pretend they really like the interviewer. Of course, in reality, they probably hate the presenter and the process but if they can pretend or act ‘attraction’ or ‘affection’ it will come across. Clearly, this could be taken too far and it will be acting. When coaching people we find that once they hit the right tone – and then watch it back on video playback – they can usually find it again. With coaching, it will become their default on-air tone at which point it is ‘job done’.
media training basics

Think about the tone as well as the words when preparing for an interview

Getting the tone right is half the battle and will compensate for other missteps in an interview. In the end ‘people buy people’ as the saying goes: so developing a good on-air presence is something worth working on.

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

Arron Banks

Arron Banks, Bluster and Punch – A La Trump

Arron Banks had the opportunity, on mainstream television last week, to explain why supporting the unofficial Brexit leave campaign Leave.EU with £8 million of his own money was legitimate and the right thing to do. He appeared on the  Andrew Marr show on Sunday. The show attracts an audience of 1.5 – 1.7 million which is pretty good for a politics show and well ahead of Peston on Sunday and Sophy Ridge on Sunday. Details of these Sunday political shows and relative audiences are in this article.

Given that this was to be such a crucial interview for Banks, I assumed he would have done extensive preparation: taken a lot of advice to ensure a convincing argument which would move the story on.

Bluster and Punch

Having watched the interview, I am pretty sure he did not take much advice. Instead, he went for a modern style of interview which has been honed by the US President but copied by others, which I am naming ‘bluster and punch’. This is the Trump school of arguing: don’t bother trying to convince those that do not agree with you, simply instead arouse those that do agree with you to a heightened sense of injustice and betrayal. Click here for the BBC’s write up of the event.

To me, it looked like a shameless attempt to obfuscate and defend by attacking others. However, I have to say that although I disapprove of the style, it has proved to be effective, at least at winning public votes. I am not so sure it worked for Banks.

Andrew Marr, not the most aggressive of interviewers was clearly flustered by the lack of rationality in the performance. In fact, he seemed somewhat flustered before the interview started.

I have no knowledge of where the 8 million donated to Leave.EU came from, not much in the way of suspicion and am not clear on electoral law.

But I can tell you that the Aaron Banks’ argument was not prepared for the interview by a professional spin doctor or PR advisor.

While Banks started off well by saying the `Money came from Rock Services’ and that categorically there was ‘no Russian money’ it all went downhill from there.

If you want to make a clear argument for the media (or the public) you need to build it step by step with proof points for each step.

Arron Banks

Confusing and Distracting Use of Numbers

Banks chose not to share such evidence. He didn’t say what sort of insurance customers he served – business or individuals or both. He said it was half a million, the size of Manchester. This was a confusing comparison as only central Manchester has a population of half a million, what most of us think of as Manchester is almost 3 million.

Worse the numbers led to more questions. I spent a lot of the interview thinking if you have half a million customers and you gave away 8 million pounds then those customers on average donated £16 to Leave.EU. Which does beg the question how much profit is he making per customer in the highly competitive, usually low margin insurance sector?  I am sure I wasn’t the only person thinking like this, which means the planned evidence provided here was hugely distracting.

If you are building an argument for a media interview the numbers want to be clear and easily understood, not raise more questions.

Make the Argument Clear

Similarly, in explaining the structure of his companies, Banks did not choose to make it clear. The implication is that Rock Services is a parent company or as Andrew Marr kept calling it a ‘shell company’ and that there are a number of brands that feed profits into that shell company but he seemed unprepared to share details, leaving the clear impressions that he was choosing to hide that information.

If he had said:

Rock Services is the parent company to a number of brands, including A, B and C.”

 …we would have all instantly stopped thinking it sounded dodgy.

As an advisor, I would also have suggested it was a good idea to explain why the donation was made. Surely, it would have been helpful to have a sentence that said ‘I donated this considerable sum from my own wholly owned business interests’ because I sincerely believe it would be better for the UK if we left the stifling, rules-bound, undemocratic, single market’. Without this helicopter view, the whole interview sounded defensive.

As the interview went on Banks’ argument seemed to me to get less and less credible. But he seemed more and more bullish.

Lambasting Others Undermines Credibility

Criticising others, blaming corruption, malice, bias and the BBC can all be done in moderation but to simply state everyone who disagrees with you is without credibility, is to undermine your own credibility. It is like the old soldier on parade who said ‘they are all out of step except me!’.

Given the controversial run-up to this interview, Banks and his advisors (if he had any) could be sure that Marr’s researchers would gather and read everything that was ‘out there’ in the public domain and relentlessly go through the cuttings to hone the tough questions. Apparently, they even sent someone to Companies House.

Planning for Hostile Interview

From a PRs perspective, the more confrontational the interview is likely to be, the more predictable the questions. And that makes the planning much easier.

As a preparation exercise you identify all the likely questions, then you need to craft succinct, credible answers. There may be some questions for which your spokesperson chooses to say ‘I am not making that public because it is commercially confidential’ or ‘I am not going to comment on that’. Clearly, you cannot do that for every question. I referred to this Close Down technique in my blog last week. 

Generally, only if you land a credible answer can you then take the opportunity to broaden the conversation to make a wider point such as accusations of bias, corruption etc.

I suspect Banks thinks the interview went well because he is clearly thick-skinned and he believes he is right and everyone else is misguided. If his intention was to deliberately muddy the waters – but take the opportunity to reiterate allegations that there is an insidious but widespread Remain Campaign still on the march, he probably fulfilled his brief.

However, if his intention was to sway an undecided public that his campaign contribution was above board and put to rest any fears that he might have done something wrong, he failed.

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