In my humble view one of the best sports presenters on British television is Gary Imlach. You might not have seen him much on TV as he’s normally tucked away on ITV4 presenting coverage of the annual Tour de France.
Like Adrian Chiles, ITV’s football presenter, Gary does not come across as an ‘insider’ – someone so close to the sport they are covering that they rarely ask difficult or embarrassing questions and whose coverage is therefore bland.
To the viewers Gary and Adrian are blokes in the pub – someone you find yourself next to while queuing up for a pint and with whom you have a chat about last night’s England performance or the latest leg of the Tour. Both presenters are on the side of their audience.
This past fortnight Gary has been hosting the nightly highlights of the Vuelta – Spain’s version of the Tour de France.
Last night he came out with a very telling phrase.
Gary was cueing up a short clip of the Spanish cyclist Alberto Contador. He broke his leg during the Tour de France and all agreed it was amazing that he is back so soon, taking part in the Vuelta.
Until now Contador’s line to the media had been to underplay his chances of winning the Vuelta. Last night he flagged up the possibility that he might actually end up being No 1 on the podium.
Gary’s reaction to this clear change of media tack was that Contador had decided to put aside his “memorised PR lines”.
“Memorised PR lines” is an affliction suffered by too many sportsmen and women these days (it’s also an epidemic among most politicians, but that’s another day, another blog post).
I first became aware of this several years ago when the former England cricket captain Alec Stewart was interviewed on TV. I cannot remember whether it was after a Test Match defeat or victory but Alec spoke about the future of the England team “going forward”.
“Going forward”? – one of the most glaring examples of vacuous corporate-speak.
I have a lot of respect for Alec Stewart, both as a cricketer and a commentator. But where did that phrase come from? This didn’t sound like Alec talking. I don’t know whether Alec had received some (very bad) media training or had been submitted to a messaging indoctrination session by a cricketing ruling body. Either way, it just didn’t sound like him.
The problem with today’s sportsmen and women is that they often come across as being pre-programmed when it comes to the interviews they give – the “memorised PR lines” as Gary Imlach describes it.
The result is that their personality is knocked out of them. What they say often sounds robotic.
There are exceptions of course. In the world of cricket Andrew Flintoff tells it like it is, in his own words, and therefore has a place in the hearts of cricket followers and possibly the wider public.
But for the most heart-warming example of a sports personality who eschews the over-programmed messaging and comes over as himself, I return to cycling.
You need to look no further than Sir Bradley Wiggins, Britain’s winner of the Tour de France and the Olympics time trial in 2012.
I cannot think of a sports personality in recent years who has so manifestly come across as a man of the people, not part of the sporting world’s ‘in-crowd’.
Take this for an example.
Interviewed for a TV documentary, Bradley said this about his place in the world of cycling:
“There’s a child in me that keeps thinking, ‘Sod the Olympics, you know, I want to go there and win it, but I don’t want to be part of Lord Coe and his band of merry men.’ ”
It was a clear snub towards the sporting establishment and I dare say some of his cycling chiefs cringed.
The fact is, however, that Sir Bradley Wiggins has probably done more than anybody to elevate the sport of cycling in Britain and to get thousands more people out on a bike – for their daily commute or a jaunt through the country lanes on a Sunday morning.
So, Gary Imlach is right. Sports men and women can be over-drilled, when it comes to talking to the media. Good media training is about getting the balance right – between representing your sport, your team or your organisation effectively and getting your messages out there, but being yourself while doing so.