When an interviewee comes across as boring or anodyne on TV or radio, this is often blamed on media training. You only have to check out tweets after some boy band singer or politician has spoken publicly to spot such criticism.
Media training should not be used to ensure an interviewee just plays safe, but dull. It should be a way to ensure they have the powerful communication skills to match those of the interviewer, a person who is at home in their “natural habitat” and doing their “day job”. (Never forget the interviewee is out of their comfort zone and not doing their day job.)
If a journalist can’t communicate, they should look for another job; if an interviewee can’t communicate, they should look for the right media training.
This week I heard two great examples, within hours of each other, which show how someone with immense knowledge can struggle to explain something that ought to be straightforward, while a journalist can do that most difficult of tasks: make the complex comprehensible.
The first was about how GPs’ leaders voted at the weekend to stop looking after care home residents, saying these patients have complex needs beyond the capacity of their doctors’ surgeries.
This would be a contentious issue at any time, but coming in the midst of the junior doctors’ dispute meant any spokesperson defending this issue would need to “hit the ground running”. In other words, they’d need to make the case swiftly and powerfully.
Step forward onto Radio 4’s Today programme Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chair of BMA’s GPs committee. It was soon clear that “in the patients’ interest” was a key message – it was repeated several times. But it was obscured by too many mentions of a “contract”. Regardless of the reality, no-one wants to think their healthcare is about who is contracted to look after them.
Plus, too much of the interview was couched in generalisations and it took the interviewer, John Humphrys, to do what the interviewee should have done: give an example. So it fell to Humphrys to say: “..if a GP chooses not to look after Mrs Smith, who he or she may have been looking after for 20 years and who then has to go into a care home…”
An example like this brings an interview to life and, crucially, makes it easier for the audience to relate to what’s being put forward
As has been said many times this week following the death of Sir Terry Wogan, when you’re on the radio imagine you’re talking to ONE person. What this interview needed was something like, “So if you have a relative in a care home today, who perhaps needs to be treated by psychiatrist or oncologist, we’re simply saying that those are the best people to treat them, not their GP.”
Humphrys rightly continued to challenge, because there was not a “knock-out blow” to silence reasons why this decision might not be a good idea for patients.
Now fast forward a few hours to Radio 4’s World at One programme. A journalist was tasked with explaining a far more complex issue: gene editing. The story, about UK scientists being given the go-ahead by the fertility regulator to genetically modify human embryos, could so easily have bamboozled the audience. But BBC health reporter James Gallagher used a simple analogy to explain what this was all about. He talked about it being like taking pair of scissors and then opening “a huge encyclopaedia and going to one specific page in one volume and changing one letter in that thing..and then the scissors I was talking about, they’re the things that make the cut that allow you to edit that one letter in the genetic code.”
Admittedly he was not being challenged, but it was so simple and yet so effective, even the presenter Martha Kearney immediately remarked, “Very clearly explained!”
This is not dumbing down; it’s about making matters that should probably concern all of us intelligible to as many people as possible.
So if you want to convince the public of your case – whether it’s the positives of gene editing, or GPs not treating you in a care home, or the benefits of electric vehicles, a food supplement or a more eco-friendly fuel for oil tankers, you need to picture Joe or Joanna Public in your mind and speak to THEM.
And to do that you need to take more than a letter out of a page, you need to take a whole leaf out of the journalist’s book.