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Don’t just answer the question

Media Training Basics: Don’t just answer the question

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

Don’t just answer the question

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

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

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

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

Don’t just answer the question

Why knowing what to say is not so simple

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

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

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

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

Be credible

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

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

Don’t just answer the question

Who does not have this ability?

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

Who does have this ability?

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

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

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

Mitch

10 tips: what to wear on TV

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

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

what to wear on TV

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

What to wear on TV: normal business wear

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

What to wear on TV: jacket and t-shirt

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

A small misalignment in your tie can quickly leave the wrong impression

What to wear on TV: think of your socks

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

What to wear on TV: what colour?

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

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

What to wear on TV: other articles

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

What to wear on TV

What to wear on TV: our 10 top tips

What to wear on TV is a question we are asked all the time. As media trainers, we think what you are wearing is one of the least important things to worry about if you are doing a TV interview. But we aim to provide the information our clients want. So here are our 10 top tips. We are dealing here with advice for women but will come to advice for men in the coming weeks.

What to wear on TV

Any sort of jacket is a good idea on TV, partly because it gives somewhere easy to attach the microphone

What to wear on TV: normal business wear

  • As an overarching principle start with ‘normal business wear’. We are not talking here about dressing as a TV presenter or as a celebrity (they do not need our advice). But if you are being interviewed as a representative of an organisation wear something that would be appropriate to going to work for that organisation. This will clearly be different if you work for a tech company where jeans and a black polo may be the norm compared to running a bank where you will be suited and booted every day.  If you work for an NGO you will likely wear different clothes than someone running a funky design company. Whatever you would wear for work will probably work if you are being interviewed on TV.
  • Women need make-up. I remember seriously offending someone from a very politically correct NGO by saying this but my view is that it is a bad idea to go in front of the camera without make-up. Firstly, it is important to understand that TV lights are harsh and will be unflattering. Secondly, almost every other woman on the programme will be wearing lots of make-up and you will look odd if you don’t. Clearly there are exceptions; if you are reporting or saving lives in a war zone there are more important things to worry about. [Orla Guerin MBE is a BBC journalist who reports regularly from the Middle East and is a legend in her own lunchtime. I don’t know for a fact that she never wears make-up but it certainly doesn’t look as if she does. But I totally make allowances as a viewer as she is usually wearing a flak jacket and interviewing distraught relatives of recent victims of some atrocity or other – and absolutely clearly has other things to worry about. But if she was in the studio doing an interview I am sure she would wear make-up and so should you.]
  • This does beg the question what sort of make-up? My topline advice is a good foundation and take steps to make your eyes standout.  Use blusher if you need it and normally wear it while lipstick is optional.
What to wear on TV

The safe wardrobe option for an interviewee is jacket and t-shirt, it is the outfit most often chosen by female television presenters

What to wear on TV: jacket and t-shirt

  • For most of our clients, the ‘safe’ outfit for a woman interviewee is a jacket and T-shirt or jacket and shift dress. The T-shirt should not be too low on the neckline – any cleavage is distracting so avoid showing it. Similarly not too high on the neckline: polo necks are very rarely seen on TV for good reason. They are too hot for a studio environment. Most female newsreaders stick to the jacket and T-shirt formula and it is a very safe one.
  • Having a jacket gives somewhere to clip on the microphone and saves any embarrassing need for wires up under a dress or pulling a delicate top out of shape.
What to wear on TV

Avoid scarves and overly large jewellery: simple lines are least distracting

 

What to wear on TV: avoid scarves

  • Avoid scarves and overly large jewellery. I would advise trying to keep a clean ‘unfussy’ image and amazing jewellery will again only distract from your message. Dangly earrings are to be avoided as they will move and again distract from what you are saying.
  • The vast majority of TV interviewees are shot from the midriff upwards, something that is called a mid-shot. However, unless you absolutely know that is how the interview will be shot you may want to give some thought to the bottom half! Crucially, if there is even a remote possibility that you are going to be on a low settee – do not wear a short skirt. If you do you will surely spend the whole interview tugging at the hem at and worse being distracted by the amount expanse of your legs on show.
What to wear on TV

Jackets can be worn with a shift dress but if it’s too short you might be worried about showing too much leg

What to wear on TV: what colour?

  • People often ask ‘what colours can I or should I wear? The truth is it makes very little difference these days so long as you don’t wear checks. 20 years ago camera technology struggled to cope with black, white, bright red etc. Today, black and white are best avoided if possible but only because they can be unflattering in harsh light. Softer colours are more flattering. However, one important rule remains; don’t wear high contrast checks. If you do the picture will ‘strobe’ making it look as though you have recently been standing in a nuclear bunker. Whiles this is not a crime, it is distracting.
  • Hair off the face. If you have long hair consider tying it back. Viewers need to see both your eyes to trust you. Also, there is nothing more irritating than someone constantly flicking their hair back off their face.
  • Finally, where you look during the interview is much more important that what you wear. Hold the eyeline with the interviewer as much as possible unless you are doing a ‘down the line’ in which case you will need to stare down the lens of the camera.
What to wear on TV

TV lighting means it is a good idea to wear make-up if you are being filmed

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

What to wear on TV: other articles

Don’t just take our word for it, here is an article about what to wear on TV.

We condensed it down to 10 top tips but here are 22 tips on what to wear for a TV interview.

getting media interview basics right

Remember to get the basics right

You’d think that being the chairman of a high-profile group campaigning for Britain to stay in Europe would at least require you to remember the name of the organisation concerned.

You’d think.

But as Lord Rose, chairman of the ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’ group discovered in an interview with Sky News, even such obvious details can slip from the mind in the heat of the moment.

“I’m Stuart Rose and I’m the chairman of Ocado,” he started telling political editor Faisal Islam before realising that whilst true, that role was not relevant to the interview that was about to follow.

“Sorry – chairman Stay in Britain… Better in Britain campaign,” he stuttered, before trying to clear the decks with “Right, start again!”

Sadly, the next two versions were no better.

“I’m Stuart Rose and I’m the chairman of the Better in Britain campaign…er… Better Stay in Britain campaign.”

Four attempts, none of them correct. Not only embarrassing, but also a mistake which went onto overshadow his key message – the claim that the EU brings in an additional £670,000 a year for the average British business importing or exporting goods within the union. Very few of the media reports which followed that interview made mention of his key statistic, and chose to highlight his opening errors instead.

A mistake like that matters. If the chairman of an organisation can’t remember what it’s called, why should anybody else? And with a plethora of different pressure groups campaigning variously to stay in or leave the European Union, yours needs to stand out.

So how can you make sure you don’t forget something so fundamental?

The key is good old-fashioned practice. As well as going through possible interview scenarios in advance, something called ‘tongue-memory’ comes into play, making it easier to remember those words and phrases which have actually been uttered out loud beforehand.

You should also seize any useful mnemonics available out there. The more unusual, the better – and as far as Lord Rose was concerned, he had already been offered a helping hand by his rivals.

Eurosceptic campaigners positively enjoy referring to the ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’ group as ‘BSE’ for short – the unfortunate acronym also standing for Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, which led to the EU banning British beef in the 1990s.

All he had to do was take their acronym on board, and use it to spell out the correct order of the letters beginning the words in his group’s name.

Simple, dramatic and effective – and even more powerful because it uses an intended insult from the very people opposing you, to help you on your way.

Paxman

Top Tips for Surviving Aggressive Interviews

The tricks journalists use in an aggressive interview are small in number and well known; and in reality, really aggressive interviews are rare. But if you think your spokesperson or you could be facing aggression 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 even senior bosses 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.Top tips for aggressive interviews

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’ 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. 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.

Newsnights Jeremy Paxman perfected the 'rabbit-punch' question

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 loose 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 recent Sky News interview Kay Burley uses 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.

storming out is never good on tv

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

Storming out of a live TV interview never ranks among the top tips of media trainers.  Exasperating as interviewers can be, walking off set more often comes across as petulant than defiant, particularly when it’s the kind of fodder today’s political and media journalists love to cut (selective) clips from in order to create a piece of thoroughly trivial TV puffery that bloggers then feel compelled to write about and hate themselves for.

Yesterday’s piece of bait was an exchange that took place between Sky News’ Dermot Murnaghan and Shadow Business Secretary Chukka Umunna. According to the headlines a ‘furious’ Mr Umunna ‘stormed out’ of an interview after he was asked to comment on a letter that he hadn’t read.

If you watch the video it’s not nearly as exciting as that. But it does contain a few useful lessons on interview etiquette:

Mr Umunna was asked to comment on something he didn’t have first-hand knowledge of and he rightly tried to shut it down and move on.  Although this is a good idea from a PR perspective, at the same time it’s pretty disingenuous given that the letter in question was the top news story of the day in the UK and Mr Umunna, a senior member of the Opposition, should have read or at least been properly briefed on its contents in advance. The same lesson applies (to a lesser extent) to ordinary mortals outside the world of politics. You should always be aware of the big stories in your area, if only so that you are not caught off guard and know how to handle the curve ball question you aren’t expecting (or don’t want to take).

2) If you are informed but are still going to plead the ignorance line you should be prepared for the journalist to give you a hard time, as evidenced by…

3) The snippy and irritated line of questioning from Mr Murnaghan . He attacked Mr Umunna for refusing to comment on the letter until he’d got the ‘party line’ straight and then tried to box him into the corner and put words in his mouth by asking whether the letter ‘was patronising to Muslims’. This was a classic aggressive interview technique and one that Mr Umunna didn’t fall for. It’s usually not a good idea to call the interviewer ‘ridiculous’ though. They generally don’t like it.

4) Always remember the value of smiling when closing something down. Mr Umunna looked annoyed. How much better his performance would have looked if he had smiled patiently at being asked to comment on something he hadn’t read. Perhaps he should have taken up the offer of returning half an hour later with an informed answer.

In the end it was a visibly peeved Mr Murnaghan who cut the interview short when he couldn’t get a direct answer/attributable quote to his question. His surly line of questioning about the ‘party line’ made him look pretty bad. He ended up ‘winning’ the headlines battle on a technicality, though because it was pretty silly of Mr Umunna to get up and leave, particularly when the interview was clearly ending.

So overall, null points on both sides. But clearly, a pair of disgruntled egos.