The art and science of communications: From strategic to personal

Monthly Archives: September 2010

You can be articulate, gregarious, the finest after dinner speaker, suave and sophisticated, witty and always with a quick turn of phrase but amid the heady and complex environment of a media interview, a real cerebral battleground, even the best can slip up and produce that damaging but newsworthy soundbite.  Then, all your fine words and sound arguments are wasted.  It’s so easily done but can be also easily mitigated against.  Here, several tips to avoid those “I want my life back” moments:

1.  You or your PR/Press office get that phone call requesting an inteview. Seriously analyse the offer and the interviewer. Interviews are a good thing, don’t go away thinking anything else, but closely examine each interview request and do some research on the journalist – what’s their objective, do they have an agenda, what have they reported before?

2.  Consider the “what’s in it for me” question. You need to know your own objectives.  Without knowing that, how can you measure your success or ROI after a media engagement?  If doing the interview doesn’t service your objectives, then consider why you’re doing it at all.  As we said, generally interviews are a good thing, especially when they serve the interests of all parties – you, your organisation, the journalist and the public.  If not, alarm bells should be ringing.

3.  Contextualize. You are unlikely to be giving an interview in isolation, others will be talking – in the media, on the internet, in pubs and cafes.  Be aware of the situational context you are entering, including who your audience is and how they see the world.  Claiming one thing but being unaware that others are seeing it very differently will place you in a far from influential position – even if you are speaking fact.  It’s the ‘nothing to see here’ factor when it’s obvious there is quite a bit to see.

4.  Plan it. Based on your objectives, develop messages to service them (not just say the right thing).  Identify supporting ideas, get hold of supporting information, identify your ‘red lines’, seek out newsworthy soundbites, garner and be utterly sure of critical facts.  Prepare for obvious and tangential questions.  This is where a bloody great big whiteboard comes into its own and writing down your thoughts and ideas wil help mentally anchor your plan in your head.

5.  Practice, practice, practice. It’s an old cliche but if you fail to prepare, you are prepared to fail. Do serious Q&A and make sure that whoever is helping you gives you a hard time – if you are senior in your organisation, they have to be confident enough to deliver a little truth to power.  Further, that Q&A (as well as your planning) must not be ego-centric, it must be coming from a perspective outside the organisation.  What is obvious to you may not be obvious to others and vice versa.   To this end, an external mentor or media trainer may be worthwhile investing in. And it’s not just about your words – visuals, or non-verbal communication, have to be practiced.

Investing time (if you’ve the luxury) in all of the above is vital.  A good PR/press office will have a lot of this already done beforehand, although obviously not all.  Take the time and the interview will go smoothly, as long as you use the usual tips and tricks of media interview conduct (bridging, rhetoric, using figures, soundbiting etc).  But just two other things to do during the inteview:

6.  Listen.  Journalists and the public can easily recognise when you’re in transmission mode and it will annoy them.  They both want a flowing dialogue, with reasonable responses to reasonable questions.  If it’s apparent you’re not listening, you’re on the way to alienating them, regardless of what you say.

7.  Think before you speak. Your first answer may not always be the best.  If you’ve planned and practised, it probably will be but just pause to check.  If the interview is a pre-record, then time is on your side – even ask for a break before you answer,  if need be.

The research, preparation and planning can pay huge dividends in interviews but unfortunately too few invest in it.  Those minutes in front of a camera or microphone can only be quality and service your needs if hours have been spent beforehand preparing.  And remember that if you’re fortunate enough to have a team to help you, use them, or call in others who can.  There’s no need to deal with this alone, after all, millions may be involved on the other side of the process.

Shakespeare, Henry IV part 2, Act 1 Scene 1: Yet the first bringer of unwelcome news hath but a losing office. Pretty eloquent stuff (well what would expect of the Bard?) but basically in modern parlance we’re talking “Don’t shoot the messenger”.  Bad news is often reason enough to feel like pulling the trigger, but just plain bad communicating is just asking for the metaphorical bullet between the eyes.  So how can we try to avoid the bullet?

Rule one in ensuring an effective message is carefully selecting the appropriate words and phrases. Culture, education, gender, language skills, age, even things as nebulous as emotions play a role in the way in which words, phrases and sentences will be perceived, and that’s not even catering for the vast number of words in English which possess differing meanings to different people.  Context and the syntax applicable to that context (the rules of the Queen’s English do not always apply) also have significant effect.

Simplicity is key, and especially in media engagement, where context, culture etc will be a much more amorphous.  The more simple (without losing the essence of the message) the less likely to be misunderstood, cause confusion or, even worse, offend. And this is where your average technocrat, official, reasonably educated guy or gal, often goes astray.  When writing documents, briefing panels, scribbling papers, especially in an official capacity, there is often a mesmerising desire to use distracting, confusing, misleading, obfuscating, imprecise wording (try reading an official document – corporate or public sector – you’ll see what we mean).  Now that’s acceptable (to a degree) on paper, but not in speech.  If the audience is struggling to merely comprehend the wording, any message those words should convey, are going to be lost.  At this stage, the receiver may well, check the magazine for bullets.  So, for simplicity’s sake, what to avoid:

  • Slang, jargon or regional expressions, as they might not be understood by everyone.
  • Abbreviations or acronyms unless well-known.
  • Technical terms unless the audience is fully aware of the topic.
  • Neologism (see point above*)
  • Politically incorrect words (unless of course that is the objective and also remembering the context (some audiences may be receptive)).

Now, in public speaking often we can gauge the crowd and thereby the context, but it’s a little more difficult over the media.  Simplicity here really is key.  And being simple in the explanation of a complex issue is far from simple.  It takes time and preparation and is as far removed from technocratic, business speak as possible.  Some see rapport as a major player in communication, or a common ground between speaker and listener (or viewer).  But when millions are watching or listening, rapport as such doesn’t exist (it may between journalist and interviewee, which can help (if the journalist is respected/liked by the audience)) and the common ground will lie in simplicity and ensuring that as little effort as possible is required of the audience to decode the words and ‘get’ the message (and then hopefully do something with that message).   It’s worthwhile pondering here that giving a presentation is very, very different to giving a media interview – the mechanics of the former, we practice every day when talking with others, the mechanics of the latter (talking to one person, whilst actually trying to engage with thousands, even millions, through that person) are rarely experienced.  Being a good public speaker doesn’t necessarily make media interviews easy – it could even be a hinderance.

* By the way, it means the use of newly coined words or phrases

Keep the ego out of it

As mentioned above, keeping it simple, stupid, isn’t all that simple to do in practice.  And that’s often because of ego.  We all naturally communicate ego-centrically – I’ll say it this way because if I heard it, I’d certainly understand it.  Yeah, well, the message isn’t for you, it’s for your audience.  Public speaking and presenting always involves assessing your audience and servicing their requirements.  Those audiences tend to be smaller and, to a degree, homogenous.  In a media interview, the audience is as heterogenous as they come.  Of course, if you’re really up to the mark, you’ll know exactly what your objective is and who, of that audience, you need to convince or persuade to achieve it.  If not, or you’ve got to carry the vast majority of the entire audience, then the communication, the words, phrases, construct, need to cater for the needs of the entire audience.  And that means decoding your syntax into theirs.  And the more heterogenous the audience is the more neutral that syntax, and those words, are going to be. Note, this is not about being neutral in terms of position or passion but in syntax and style.

So it’s got to be as simple and as neutral as the audience, not the speaker or interviewee, dictates.  Otherwise, the gun’s hammer gets cocked.

But there’s got to be flair

Brilliant – it’s got to simple and neutral, and that’s difficult to do, especially with a complex subject or issue.  Well, we’ve not quite finished.  Simple and neutral is getting there but there’s a hitch – too simple and neutral and the audience will fall asleep, and that’s only assuming the journalist or editor has bothered to air what’s been said and recorded.  Got to have a little flair, a little ‘sizzle’ to it.  If it’s boring, it’s going nowhere – the media will shun it and the audience will ignore it.  Both will go elsewhere for their information.  Of course, credibility matters, but many will be claiming that credibility and the ones who can be credible but interesting with it will win out.  And that’s not just about words but also in the way that their said, both verbally and non-verbally.  If the delivery doesn’t have that something special, fingers will tighten on the trigger.

Words simple, syntax neutral, delivery exciting and all via a third person or filter, the joutnalist/camera – easy!

If it’s bad news, the messenger often gets shot, but by preparing carefully and considering the above, then hopefully the wounds won’t be fatal.

Isn’t technology wonderful?  In a world full of information and content is king, anyone with a video camera can film, record and download to their heart’s content.  In the good old days, an organisation had to rely on expensive production companies to produce video material and then hand-deliver the tape to distribution centre.  Now, it can be done by anyone, anywhere at any time and delivered to the wires almost immediately. And so began the rise of the Video News Release (VNR).

As part of any communication strategy in the digital age, producing one’s own video material is now widely accepted.  Digital convergence has increased the demand for video, a demand driven by both print and broadcast media for web application as well as for traditional broadcast.  If you’ve something to say or promote, why wait for the media to come to you (and deliver your message in their terms) when you can produce the content yourself (under your conditions and control) and provide it to them.  Although there is always the issue of being seen as ‘propaganda or spin’, any quality content – balanced, open, well produced and edited, with relevant background information – has a good chance of gaining traction in the media – a bonus when advertising is going through patchy times.  In fact the media are hungry for these VNRs.

But here’s where the problem lies – balanced, open, well produced and edited, with relevant background information (note: balanced and open – CB3 isn’t too keen on the ‘Fake TV news’ style VNR)  Experience shows that much of the content provided through VNRs is of poor quality, even from top companies who have paid for production.  Editors at Reuters, AP, AFP etc  are constantly bombarded with VNRs which are indecipherable, poorly shot, almost unedited (or so they appear), with rambling commentary and little supporting data.  One might as well pick at random something from Youtube and try and make something of it (and there’s some weird stuff out there!).  Trying to make something useful from some of these VNRs is almost futile, disheartening and annoying – a waste of an editor’s time and the providing organisation’s effort.

Wow .. you can do all sorts with these things!

The technical capability – a decent camera and basic software – to produce good VNRs is everywhere.  The wise have embraced the idea of providing self-generated content to the media, even encouraged their people to do so (with some degree of control).  That’s far from dumb – it’s very smart.  But the knowledge to use that technical capability has been lacking, as many working in the newswires, those who will get the good content out across the globe, are attesting.  They want, they need, the content but they need it to be good (not necessarily excellent – there’s room for a little grittiness).  The more work they’ve got to do to make a mish-mash of poor quality material into something they’re happy to use, the less likely the can use it and, even if they do, that it’ll attract attention.  (Same principle applies with press releases – make the journalist’s life easy). It’s not rocket science and not a new problem – the effective use of technological resources must be matched by the human capability to utilise them, which will involve a degree of training and experience.  Unfortunately, as in many cases involving social media, organisations have failed to recognise this.

It’s not difficult – you don’t need cameramen, editors, soundmen etc – your people, be they in PR or on the front line, can do it.  They just need to be given the knowledge (and we’re not talking about the camera manual here) and training to do it.

Good VNRs can be invaluable, be they internal interviews, product promotion, disaster reporting or simple news release.  But if they remain dumbed down, due to the sheer lack of training and competence of those given cameras and told to ‘get on with it’, then they’ll be consigned to the Youtube hinterland (note: if they’re good Youtube will enhance their value anyway).

A letter to the Daily Telegraph (22 August 2010) recently caught CB3’s eye:

SIR – The parlous state of the public finances in Britain provides the perfect opportunity for British taxpayers to end their half-century-long experiment with “development aid”, which has, since its inception, stunted growth and subsidised bad governance in Africa.

As Africans, we urge the generous-spirited British to reconsider an aid programme they can ill afford, and which we do not want or need. A real offer from the British people to help our development would consist of the abolition of the Common Agricultural Policy, which keeps African agricultural exports out of the European marketplace.

It is that egregious policy, combined with the weight of regulations, bad laws and stifling bureaucracy, subsidised by five decades of development aid, which prevents Africans from lifting themselves out of poverty.

Andrew Mitchell, the Secretary of State for International Development, speaks about a “moral imperative” to combat poverty around the world. We could not agree more. The British have a unique opportunity to cut the deficit and help Africa: please, ask your new government to stop your aid.

Andrew Mwenda
Editor, Independent newspaper, Uganda
Franklin Cudjoe

Executive Director, IMANI Center for Policy and Education, Ghana
Kofi Bentil

Lecturer, University of Ghana and Ashesi University, Ghana
Thompson Ayodele
Executive Director, Initiative for Public Policy

Give him a wad of cash or give him a chance?

Now, the notion or concept of free market trade, tariff barriers, CAP, competitive advantage etc do not tend to feature in the public’s eye when considering providing aid and succour to the African continent (or elsewhere for that matter).  Charities, doing sterling work, do concentrate on gaining funding from a variety of donors, but with cries of rampant corruption in aid-receiving nations, an increased desire of the public to see where there hard-earned cash is going and severe cuts in government aid packages, perhaps now is the time to look again at campaigning and lobbying for regulatory change, requiring people’s support, some of their time, but less from their currently beleagured financial coffers.

Of course,the major charities do so already, but is it a time to increase the emphasis on this tack, and tackle what many, including the contributors above, consider, with reasonable justification, the main obstacle to real development?  It’s a difficult sell, but with the current problems of aid funding coupled with the continuing recession, the timing may be prescient.