4 lessons from Olympians in how to handle media interviews

With the London Olympics now done and dusted and the Paralympics in full swing, there are plenty of spokespeople in other walks of life who could learn from the media performances of our athletes.

These days, an athlete’s success is judged not only by how fast, high or long they can go. How they perform when they step off the track or pitch is also a measure of how they will be regarded by the public at large. And that means – how well did they come across in their media interviews?

Bearing in mind that many of the athletes will never have encountered such media exposure before , it’s fair to say that most acquitted themselves admirably in front of the cameras.

So what can businesses learn from these Olympians?

1. Allow your personality to come across

Putting aside their individual performances on the track/in the ring/on the lake, those athletes who will arguably be most remembered are those who conveyed something of their own personality in the interviews they gave. From the host nation these included:

  • Nicola Adams – the boxing princess from Leeds with a winning smile and a rich Yorkshire accent who just bowled you over with her naturalness.
  • Mo Farah – easy with words, slightly impish, incredulous at his two gold medals, and just plain likeable.
  • Bradley Wiggins – a real ‘bloke’, down-to-earth, no standing on ceremony.
  • Mark Cavendish – one of the lads, took to TV punditry after his cycle race, obviously learning the TV ropes as he went along, but took the viewing public with him.

All these athletes were themselves in front of the camera. We saw a bit of their character and they therefore will stick in our minds as the real greats of the Olympics.

Corporate spokespeople need to remember that allowing a bit of personality to shine through will resonate strongly with their audience and help get their message heard and remembered.

2. Don’t rely on rhetoric

There’s no doubt that interviews with sports stars have over the years become very stereotyped. Often it’s as though they are reading from a prepared script from which they dare not depart. But the media stars at the Olympics were those who didn’t just trot out the usual platitudes that you hear in so many sports interviews.

So, while a company or organisation might have a raft of messages that need to be conveyed in interviews by their spokesperson, if that person comes across as a robotic speak-your-weight machine the messages will pass people by. So as well as the individual’s personality they should find a way of conveying the company’s messages in a way that is natural and jargon free.

3. It’s not just what you say that’s important

Most of the athletes looked pretty comfortable in front of the camera, even though some were still recovering from their event. But there were a few exceptions.

Andy Murray, for example, committed the cardinal error of rarely looking at his interviewer. Instead, his eyes were too often set in another direction, as though he didn’t want to look at the interviewer and, by extension, the viewer. It’s as though he can see his taxi waiting twenty yards down the road with the meter running, so that the interview is really holding him up – he looked like he’d rather be somewhere else.

Spokespeople from all walks need to remember that body language, eye contact and simple manners in an interview are as important as what you say.

4. Always remember your audience

One of the biggest media stars of the Olympics was Usain Bolt. And while much of his popularity came as a result of his incredible achievements on the track, there is little doubt that how he handled the media played a significant role. He nailed all the above points, but what truly set him apart as one of the champions of the media interviews was how he remembered his audience.

When interviewed by the BBC, Bolt always made a point of thanking the people of Birmingham for looking after the Jamaican team and Birmingham University for their help with training. There wasn’t a mention of the Jamaican coaches or his family, it was all about how Brits had played a part in his success.

So, other spokespeople take note: yes, an interview is often a critical and possibly rare moment to convey your organisation’s core messaging, but unless you keep the above lessons in mind, both the spokesperson and their organisation can come across as faceless, impolite and out of touch. Result: no-one’s listening.

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