You know media training has been worthwhile when your audience doesn’t even notice it. When they do spot it, it’s sometimes as damaging as not having had any or perhaps not enough.
Wasn’t it Mark Twain who said he’d taken months to prepare an off-the-cuff speech?
In the second TV debate on Scottish independence, broadcast last Monday, Alex Salmond, the man driving the “Yes” campaign, seemed to display several signs of media training preparation, which made him look anything but impromptu and natural.
In contrast, the face of the Better Together campaign, Alistair Darling, looked at times like he needed more training.
For example, his closing speech failed to match Salmond’s for passion and fire-in-the-belly rhetoric. Too often he looked to his script (nothing impromptu there) and the emphasis seemed strangely mis-placed at times.
But let’s return to the possible tell-tale signs of Salmond’s coaching.
Many media trainers will emphasise the need to “connect” with the audience and that’s not easy when you’re told to stand behind a lectern, so I’m willing to bet some adviser told him to leave the lectern and come round to the front of the stage at the start of any answer to a question from the audience.
The trouble was this move looked so blatant, such an obvious attempt to woo both the audience at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow and the TV viewers at home, it backfired. Cue derision.
Media training should not be based on “one-size-fits-all”; it has to be tailored to suit the person in the spotlight. So if you’re the kind of speaker who always bestrides a stage with confidence, fine, but if you’re one of those who tends to adopt a more formal static pose, stick with it. In essence, If you want to come across as natural and relaxed, for goodness sake don’t try something that doesn’t come naturally.
And then there was the name-checking. Again, media trainers often suggest that if a member of the public asks you a question, whether it’s during a radio phone-in or a live TV debate, you should make a point of mentioning their name in the reply – it shows a will to connect on a personal level. But if you do it at the top of your answer each time – à la Alex – it becomes much too obvious and stilted; far better to occasionally drop a name further into an answer.
The truth is, I don’t know if either Darling or Salmond has had media training. What I do know is that media training is not a way to reinvent yourself in front of the public. It should never turn a shrinking violet into someone who could wow the audience for 90 consecutive nights from a Las Vegas stage. But it should always make your good points better and your bad points disappear.
If someone offered you that, wouldn’t you give it your vote?