Political Interviews – How to Spot Media Training
Danny Lawson/PA Images
As you read this, it’s highly likely that the Theresa May is deep in preparation for one of the major media interviews of the general election campaign. Tonight’s grilling on BBC 1 by veteran journalist Andrew Neil is the first of a series of party leader interviews taking place this week, including subsequent one-to-ones with Jeremy Corbyn, Tim Farron, Nicola Sturgeon and Paul Nuttall. Politicians going head-to-head with senior journalists usually prepare and rehearse such critical interviews with their closest advisors, right down to the last detail, to make the most of this moment when voters are really paying attention. Any that don’t do so, risk making an embarrassing mistake or gaffe (see my blog on Diane Abbott’s car crash interview with Nick Ferrari on LBC). Often this preparation will have included media training.
Media training can be extremely effective at transforming speakers who are nervous, robotic, confusing, verbose or over-confident (arrogant or smug) – all absolute no-nos for all politicians but particularly party leaders. Now for the big but: it should never be obvious that a speaker has been media-trained or their performance will look forced, staged, lacking in empathy and simply not credible. A spokesperson should instead come across as a naturally authoritative, empathetic and clear communicator, which why quality training, by experienced, specialist Journalist Media Trainers, is far superior to any other kind.
Here are the tell-tale signs that might tell voters the party leaders have been media-trained (well or poorly) ahead of interviews, hustings and speeches:
- Repetition of messages
A key part of media training is to ensure that the spokesperson’s messages are clear, make sense and are compelling, so that the audience can absorb them and, ideally, react (buy a brand, vote for a party etc). Some repetition is a good thing and a well-trained spokesperson will use a number of variants of the same message, using different words and examples to make their point. However, incessantly repeating phrases or slogans is likely to alienate the audience, who’ll rightly feel they’re being spoken to like imbeciles. It will also provide excellent material for sketch writers and comedians to spoof, which can be damaging. Phrases such as “strong and stable” and “for the many not the few” don’t work if they end up in every single answer.
Smiling, especially when you have a positive message, is an excellent way to connect with your audience but it must be natural. A natural smile allows the audience to let down their guard – they assume you’re pleased to see them/address them and they want to like you. BUT you only have to google ‘Gordon Brown smile’ to see how a fake smile can completely undermine credibility. Over-smiling, or smiling inappropriately may just be nervousness but it could also show that the speaker is not genuine, doesn’t really believe what they’re saying and can’t be trusted because they’re pretending to be likeable/compassionate/passionate/electable.
- Controlled body language
“What should I do with my hands?” is a question I’m asked by almost every person I train. The aim is to look natural, which is very difficult in the highly unnatural, highly charged environment of a big-stakes interviews. Under normal circumstances, nerves, impatience or anger are highly visible in a person’s body language, so spokespeople are trained to control their movements. They will sit upright with feet planted on the floor, keep their eyes on the interviewer instead of letting them wander or looking up or down when thinking and make sure hand movements are small. Sadly, some speakers are taught to adopt pretty bizarre hand movements, such as: hands with all the tips of the fingers touching (very common for politicians); tips of forefingers and thumbs touching (also very common); karate-chop style hands when emphasising a point or answering under pressure
- Controlled breathing
One of my mantras in media training sessions is “Take a breath”. To speak clearly, project confidence and project the voice, we need sufficient air in our lungs. Sounds obvious but untrained speakers often forget to take a breath before they speak. Doing so avoids having to take a breath in the middle of a sentence, which can make someone appear to be struggling or under pressure. Filling the lungs with air helps to bring out the bass tones in a voice which makes it sound rounder, warmer and stronger. It also helps calm nerves and focus the mind!
- Self-calming techniques
Under stress, the body goes into fight or flight mode, producing extra adrenaline and cortisol. Speakers can experience a racing heartbeat and nervous ticks such as coughing, blinking excessively, twitching, even laughing! Breathing deeply, whilst engaging the diaphragm (as in yoga or meditation), is the first and most important way to calm nerves. Other techniques include: pressing the thumb of one hand into the palm of the other; keeping feet flat on the floor and pressing downwards to dissipate stress from the upper body
SNP leader and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon taking part in the Scottish Leaders’ debate at the Mansfield Traquair Centre in Edinburgh. Andrew Milligan/PA Wire
- Measured delivery
A measured delivery is vital for public speaking of any kind. It suggests calm authority and a credible message, whilst ensuring the audience can understand and absorb what’s being said. Speaking too quickly suggests nervousness and makes it hard to understand the speaker. So, media trainers usually spend some time slowing down a speaker’s pace. On the other hand, a too-deliberate, too-measured delivery can sound unnatural, patronising and smug and can also be a sign of poor media training.
- Addressing tricky questions
Not answering the question is possibly the most irritating and complained about behaviour of politicians in interviews. Those who’ve had media training learn a skill called ‘bridging’ in which they acknowledge the question they don’t like/can’t answer, before going on to talk about the thing they really want to discuss. This technique only works if the tricky question is addressed with interest/empathy/humour, followed by a seamless, almost imperceptible glide to the interviewee’s preferred topic. Cursory acknowledgement and a hand-brake turn to a completely different issue shows someone with poor bridging skills who has no interest in engaging with questions but whose only agenda is to control the interview,