A row of unfamiliar faces along the other side of the conference table. Three, four, maybe five. The start of another media training session.
Soon those faces will begin to swim into focus and their owners’ characters will start to emerge as the course gets under way.
Yet already, even before the course has started, we know the participants will fall into one of four recognisable categories.
The highly confident participant
First up – literally – is the participant who can’t wait to get started. Most commonly they are senior management, with a limited attention span but with a limitless amount of confidence. Even as the microphones are put in place, they are describing their success in addressing a recent conference – “four or five hundred people from all over Europe – I loved it, they loved it” The unstated thought is that, confronted by a single questioner for three minutes, this will be a doddle.
The fact is that taking your seat at the microphone, without having bothered to even consider your possible key messages, is heading for trouble. There is nothing an interviewer likes better than puncturing pomposity. Pretty soon, the realisation dawns that addressing a conference, with time at your disposal and armed with a script you have written yourself, is a whole lot easier.
Every senior executive has the knowledge to tackle almost any issue related to their company or organisation. What they lack, without adequate preparation, is the ability to arrange those thoughts into words and soundbites which will engage the attention of a general audience. And it is foolish to assume that the questions will be arranged in such a way as to accommodate their key messages. On the contrary they will have to fight for the space and the opportunity to say what they want to say, in other words, deliver the key messages.
The self-conscious participant
At the other end of the scale from the over-confident senior manager is the self-conscious pessimist. This type of participant can be swiftly identified from their opening remarks – “…this is terrifying, I’ve never done anything like this…”. The sight of the camera and cameraman can similarly produce a sense of panic – “…I hate seeing myself on video.”
The cure for this state of mind is astonishingly simple. Get in front of the microphone and camera and do it. What the interviewer wants to do is to tap into the interviewee’s expertise. The ownership of that expertise and knowledge is after all the reason behind media training. The objective is to translate that knowledge into an interesting story for the audience, offering them something new, interesting and perhaps even directly relevant to their own lives.
So what follows is a conversation between an expert and an interviewer who is asking the kind of questions that the audience might ask if they were in the interviewer’s chair. Engaging fully with this conversation is, for the interviewee, the route out of self-consciousness, and into a confident deployment of knowledge.
The success of the training for this participant is signalled by the dawning truth that, after all their earlier misgivings, they can actually do it and do it well. When the interview is played back and reviewed, what threatened to be the greatest ordeal of all suddenly becomes a realisation that this is not only possible but could even be enjoyable. After all, most people are comfortable talking about their work, and this is often nothing more than a conversation inviting them to do just that.
The intellectually-inclined participant
Somewhere in between the two extremes of the over-confident manager and the participant mired in self-doubt is a very different interviewee – the participant for whom this is an intellectual exercise. For this person, the interview is used as an opportunity to dig below the obvious facts and issues and display a level of detailed knowledge that may impress its owner but, frankly, is beyond the interest-level of the average audience.
This is a tricky situation for the media trainer. Pointing out bluntly that this approach will leave the audience none the wiser will not work. A better approach would be -“How would you explain this to your ten-year-old nephew?”. The youngster may be ahead of you on everything from pop culture to coding, but he will not be familiar with your industry jargon. Nor will he have the slightest interest in layers of detail. For him, the most important questions are the simplest ones – “…but uncle, what do you do all day?” It might require a moment’s reflection, but you have the knowledge to phrase a reply that will satisfy him.
There is no substitute for simplicity and clarity in dealings with the media, especially in broadcast interviews. The fact is that we – the listener or viewer – cannot immediately replay any passage of an interview that we don’t understand. It has gone, the moment is past, and we are left struggling to understand and in the end, almost certainly giving up. What brings interviewees up short is the shock revelation that their audience do not understand what they are talking about, and may indeed have switched off.
However, in one important respect, the intellectually-inclined interviewee has real value in the media training environment. Armed with a deep knowledge of their subject, they are best qualified to deliver a simple message. First, though, they must be persuaded that a simple message or explanation is not somehow unprofessional. Once they have accepted that, they can use their expertise to craft a straightforward, attention-grabbing message. It is, after all, only the expert who can deliver a simple, accurate and truthful version of a complex subject.
The refusenik participant
Perhaps the most challenging of all those attending a media training course is the refusenik, who can see no point in engaging with the media. Indeed, they can foresee only trouble and torment if they talk to journalists. They will quote numerous examples of journalistic skulduggery, often citing a sensational headline or an unwarranted invasion of privacy to prove their point. Pointing out that not every journalist is employed by the Mail Online has little effect, because they will then turn to the Today programme and John Humphrys as an example of the belligerent school of presenting, hunting down the innocent interviewee with constant interruption.
It is, however, an appropriate moment to point out the positive aspects of engaging with the media. First, consider the size of the audience. It is almost certainly true that even a local radio interview will be heard by more people than you will meet in your life. Secondly, it is also true that, once you have selected and honed your key messages, there is little more to do than engage in a conversation with a journalist. Of course that involves a degree of concentration and commitment, but these are skills which you already employ in your day-to-day work. Media training simply offers you a safe and instructive arena in which to practise.
To be a media trainer is a privilege. In order to fashion realistic interviews, we are offered a glimpse behind the scenes of a company or organisation and that includes their worries, fears and occasionally their secrets. All this, of course, is delivered on the understanding that it remains totally, one hundred per cent confidential.
Then our work can begin. We listen, comment, dig a little, all the time helping them towards a clear description or explanation of the issue that has brought them to the media’s attention. At this stage, the views of an outsider – the media trainer – can be invaluable. We come unencumbered by company rules, mission statements or Q&A documents, just as any other journalist would. Instead we are equipped with the journalist’s curiosity and determination to get at the facts. The result can be both dynamic and instructive, and by the end of the session, we will all have traveled a considerably distance from that tableau of senior personnel grouped expectantly and perhaps nervously along the other side of the conference table.