The words you think make you interesting to journalists are anything but


Interviewees overuse certain phrases which devalue them for journalists

When, if ever, is it acceptable to describe something as a ‘game-changer’ to a journalist?

One exception might be when a multibillion dollar tech company suffers a shock defeat in a court case which has landmark implications for the rest of the sector. That’s probably acceptable. Just about. But only because it’s probably an accurate reflection of the facts, and spoken by a lawyer, which means he will have chosen his words with precision.

However, I was still disappointed that I couldn’t find a better quote in this morning’s FT when reading about the Google data-privacy verdict. Not with the journalists, but with the people giving them the quotes. If the hacks had to resort to ‘game-changer’ for the quote then we truly are in a sorry state when it comes to word smithery.

There is a pervasive trend for media spokespeople to use phrases and soundbites that they think make them sound as though they are being interesting and profound when they are being anything but. In media training we call it ‘ positive-bland’ and it refers to people who use language incorrectly, or pick phrases that are so dull or overused so that they become meaningless, if not vacuous during interviews. This is not the same as using jargon, which carries its own evils, but positive-bland can flirt dangerously close to management-speak.

Game-changer is, indeed, a guilty culprit in the lexicon of positive-bland. Other usual suspects include ‘passionate’, ‘innovative’, ‘tragedy’ (really: when was it a tragedy that a football club fired its manager?) and ‘it’s all about the customer-experience’. PRs should also take note when trying to pitch to journalists. As one journalist friend mournfully notes, the most overused pitch phrases are ‘exclusive’, ‘unique’ and ‘I’ve got a scoop for you’. Invariably, they haven’t.

When crafting soundbites, it is important to pick words that are not only creative and fresh but also accurate. Otherwise, if everything is a ‘tragedy’ or ‘game-changer’, how are people going to take you seriously or find you interesting enough to quote? This was particularly evident during the financial crisis when certain prominent business journalists got very overexcited when Northern Rock went bust. But when the big American banks started going under six months later they had no way to capture the seriousness of what was happening because they had already used up all their superlatives.

If you are happy to use boring yet hyperbolic phrases that make journalists roll their eyes, then carry on being bland. Or you could spend ten minutes thinking of some different words that set you and your organisation apart. It might be an incredibly useful, if not game-changing, shift in approach. But it almost certainly won’t be a ‘paradigm shift’.

Video conference image

Six tips for getting in-house videos right

When I first arrived in Brussels and was still freelancing as a journalist, I used to work with a Belgian cameraman who would describe some of the less impressive TV reports we worked on as ‘bricolage’ (DIY, or Do-It-Yourself).  It seems that every language has its own term for the cut-and-paste stories people who work in TV sometimes have to scrape together when they are short on good pictures, guests and/or time.

Given how hard it can be for TV professionals to get what they want, the stakes are even higher for non-industry people who have to produce videos as part of their job but don’t do it regularly. With many companies trying to cut costs, Brussels is seeing more and more in-house production, whereby junior communications staff are now being given the task of making videos which once would have been outsourced to an agency.

But it takes more than an enthusiastic 25-year-old with a working knowledge of Final Cut Pro to make a good video. So, whether you’re doing a conference report, social media or lobbying video, here are some tips on how to avoid your own version of ‘bricolage’ and having to call in expensive editing help to sort it out.

1.    Get a clear brief


Getting the soundbites right is key for in-house video production

It sounds obvious but you’d be surprised by how vague production briefs can often be. Make sure you understand exactly what your boss wants before filming starts, as this will help you and/or the cameraman (see Point 3) work with the edit in mind. Find out who the key people are you need to talk to and what you want them to say.

2.    Write some decent questions

The soundbites structure your story, so it is crucial to get them right. If you are talking to five people, don’t ask them an identical set of questions if you want to get something interesting that moves your story forward. Put together questions which will encourage a range of opinions and not just PR puff about why your event was great. (You might be making a puff piece but no one wants to watch an interview that is overtly so).

3.    Direct the cameraman

It is unlikely that you will be doing the filming because it’s hard to do it well.  So you will be spending money here. However, it is your job to tell the cameraman what you want, particularly if you are not going to be with them all the time and they aren’t going to do the edit. Do not tell them just to get general shots if you want something specific for the covering images.  Some cameramen will take the initiative and will film background material with the final edit in mind. But those who don’t edit (and a lot of them still don’t) won’t.

4.    Do the important interviews yourself

Or get someone you trust to do them. Inject some energy into your delivery as that will encourage the interviewees to respond in the same way. Ask focused questions that encourage stand-alone answers that the audience will be able to understand without knowing what the question was. If your interviewees have not had media training, then direct them. And re-do the answers if you are not happy; they won’t look better in the edit if you don’t like what you get during filming.

5.    Get timecodes

For the important interviews get the video timecodes from the cameraman before they deliver the footage to you. That will save you endless amounts of time trawling through the footage when you come to the edit.

6.    Leave yourself time

Edits take longer than you think even if you follow all of the steps above. If you have decent soundbites then pick them and lay them down first, followed by the background footage, captions and any music. This will take longer than you think, particularly if you are doing it on your own and have to factor in re-edits if the boss doesn’t like the first version.

Good luck!