Who would you least like to ask you a question, especially when there’s a TV audience of thousands, possibly millions?
Jeremy Paxman? John Humphrys? Eddie Mair?
True, their forensic questioning has seen off government ministers and top bosses, but there’s someone who could prove even more damaging to your reputation:
As anyone who last night watched the BBC’s Tory leadership debate Our Next Prime Minister will probably testify, it was the public’s questions that proved the most challenging part of the programme. And their responses to the candidates’ answers were damaging too.
And there are very valuable lessons here for anyone who does a media interview that involves the public, not just those who want to make No. 10 their home.
Lesson 1: answer the question
The first question was a really tricky one because it began, “Can you guarantee…”. In other words, it’s asking for a promise and anyone who replies, “Yes, I can guarantee…” is in danger of making themselves a hostage to fortune. None of the candidates fell into that trap, but equally none of them really addressed the question directly. It was a poor start and things got worse…
Lesson 2: name the questioner
The second question in the debate came from Carmella in Southampton. She talked about her family and husband, and asked the candidates, “Why are you even contemplating a no-deal Brexit?”
That great broadcaster Terry Wogan used to say he had an audience of one, when in fact it ran to millions. But Michael Gove began by saying “Because we’ve got to leave the European Union.”
Here Gove should have recognised that although he too had a message for the millions who might think like Carmella, he needed to address her right at the start by name. It was a personal question that deserved a personal response.
Boris fared even worse by clearly failing to remember the name of one questioner, who he then referred to as “our friend from Bristol”!
Register the questioner’s name as soon as you hear it.
Lesson 3: the public can have a devastating final word
Time and again on last night’s debate after all five candidates had had a go at responding to a question, the presenter, Emily Maitlis, rightly went back to the questioner for a view on the answers they’d heard.
Often their responses were devastating in their directness:
“I’m not reassured at all…” said Carmella.
“I was hoping for more,” said Mark in Belfast.
“Rory, you’re completely out of touch, you just did not answer my question,” replied James in Oxford.
When 15-year-old Erin in Glasgow was asked, “Who has impressed you the most?”, she responded, “To be honest, none of you has impressed me in the way that I’m looking for!”
Boris scratched his head, and it sounded like someone quipped, “We’ve failed gang!”
The smarter reply would have been to offer to talk to Erin after the debate and see if they could convince her.
When you have a finite amount of time to make your case, if you fail to impress the questioner, offer to follow-up later. It shows you care – you’re not just interested in your performance there and then.
At the end of the debate, I’d argue that we, the audience, had learnt a lot – that yes, these five highly-educated men were competing for the biggest job in the country, but Joe Public could still teach them a thing or three.