There was an illuminating moment on BBC radio this morning that shed light on where a spokesperson’s head should be when they are being interviewed on TV or radio.
The Today programme on BBC Radio 4 was paying tribute to the legendary BBC weather forecaster, Ian McCaskill, who has just died.
The moment of enlightenment came when a former colleague of Ian, John Kettley, explained what was required to be a good weather forecaster.
John relayed how Ian was “very knowledgeable” and “highly professional”.
However, according to John, he “was not necessarily a meteorologist’s meteorologist on the screen”.
That phrase unlocked a revealing insight into where so many interviewees go wrong when appearing on the air. They simply cannot get to grips with the fact that they are not talking to their peers, but the general public.
John Kettley explained that the job of being a TV weather forecaster was all about “putting across a scientific story”.
He went on: “We were getting information from Bracknell (the former HQ of the UK Meteorological Office) in scientific terms, and a weather presenter – a good one – would put that story across as if you were talking over the garden fence or bumping into someone in the supermarket”.
“We had to change the language and make it language that people could understand”.
In other words, the BBC weather forecasters would receive lots of scientific mumbo-jumbo from the Met Office – isobars and whatever – and have to translate this into words that would register with a member of the public who might be contemplating a walk in the country that day, going out sailing or tending the garden.
Too many interviewees forget this basic requirement.
So, if you work for a pharmaceutical company, don’t simply churn out messages about the “efficacy” of a new drug for Alzheimer’s. Talk instead as though you were addressing a son or daughter with a parent suffering from the Alzheimer’s and how the new drug might ease their condition.
If you are the spokesperson for a construction company that’s just won a contract to upgrade port facilities somewhere in the world, try to avoid describing your task as improving “infrastructure”. No one drives into a port and admires the “infrastructure”. They’re impressed by new “jetties”, “car parking facilities” and “customs buildings”.
NGOs frequently use the phrase “capacity building” to describe their aid work in overseas countries. Nobody in Africa welcomes an international NGO into their village because they can provide “capacity building”. It’s because the village will now have “piped water” for the first time, or “electricity” or a “new school”.
In other words, therefore, you have to do what Ian McCaskill did so well when he absorbed all the meteorological speak and scientific language and translated it into words that viewers and listeners would understand.
In other words, when going on air, an interviewee should get their head outside their company’s or organisation’s HQ and prepare instead for a simple chat over the garden fence with their next door neighbour.