All Downhill From The First Answer

If you've ever listened to the radio for any length of time, particularly speech radio, then you'll have heard an interview that will make you cringe.

I'm going to talk about such an interview in this article. Listen to the interview from BBC Radio 4 on Friday 24th August.

So - the interview is with Patricia Yates from Visit Britain. She's accomplished at what she does and has a good, listenable voice. I'm saying this because I don't want her, or anyone else, to think that I'm targeting her - I'm not. I'm just using her interview to illustrate a few points about prepping for an interview.

As the title of this article suggests, it all goes wrong with the first answer. We don't know what's happening where Patricia is, but something significant enough to make her claim that 11 BILLION people stay at home in the UK! She seemed unsure before she even gave that figure and corrects herself as soon as she says it. However, she goes on to say some more figures - none of which answer the question that she was asked!

Then, the interview just seems to get away from her. She doesn't always answer the questions that are being asked, and the presenter is doing his best to not make this any more stressful that it clearly already is for the guest. There are some unscrupulous interviewers who would have gleefully jumped on her early nerves and used them to make her look foolish. Not so on the Today Programme!

What this all shows us is the importance of 1) Prep and 2) Rehearsal. She would have know what the subject of the interview was, so could have easily prepped and rehearsed an interview beforehand. None of the questions put to Patricia were particularly difficult, and everything fell well within her remit at Visit Britain. So - why is this one such a difficult listen?

Well, firstly - we all want the interviews to go well. We don't mind hearing interviews that are a little prickly, hostile or confrontational - if there's a good reason for it. But very few of us want to hear an awkward interview - when the guest is clearly struggling with the mere fact of being asked questions on the radio; and that's what was happening here.

Of course, there is always the chance that Patricia Yates just had a major brain freeze and found that everything she has prepped for had just fallen out of her head. It could be that she was a last minute replacement for another guest, or that she was just fed bad information.

Whatever it was, I cannot imagine that she finished the interview and thought "Yes, that was a good one!". 

Could she have prevented it? Possibly.

Going back to the prep and rehearsal aspects that I talked about earlier - the first answer is one that you want to make sure you get absolutely right. If you know that the interview is going to be about the rise in popularity of "staycations" in the UK, then there are only a couple of options as to what the first question is going to be:

  • How many people are "staycationing" in the UK this year?
  • Is it not cheaper to go abroad?
  • Why should people think about staying in the UK for their holiday?

All three of those questions were asked, in one form or another, and none of them were properly answered. If Patricia Yates had prepped and rehearsed the answers, she would have felt more assured with what she was saying - rather than going for the scattergun 'stats and generalities' approach.

If you're being asked to be a guest on an interview that is connected to your job, then you should be ready to go at pretty much a moments notice; it's your job after all. That just wasn't the case here.

It's good that she admitted that she had gotten the figure wrong at the beginning, but she should have just take a second or so to gather herself and start again. Many people think that that isn't possible - but it is. A second's gap is enough to reset your brain, regroup and begin again.

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Walking Out Of A Press Interview

I thought that I would talk about the UKIP group leader Gareth Bennett, who walked out of an interview with WalesOnline last week. The link to the interview and the website is here.

The interviewer was Ruth Mosalski. She is an experienced journalist, who wanted to speak to Mr Bennett about some of his views, which had been seen as controversial.

I just want to take a second to talk about myself. I realise that a lot of the media interviews I post contain either politicians, or have a political lean to them. I just want to state here and now that I do not seek to push any particular political agenda with these articles and videos - I'm just looking at them from a media training point of view, that's all. Okay, on we go...

It all starts off fairly innocuously when Ruth asks about immigration. Mr Bennett would have known that this was coming and would have prepped for it, or his accompanying press officer would have prepped him. It's clear from how he begins to answer that he knows what his answer is going to be. It's a well-rehearsed answer. However, with Ruth begins to challenge him - talking about the shopkeeper at the end of the road - things begin to change.

Gareth Bennett makes the point that HE is talking about the net effect of immigration, whilst she is talking about individuals. That's a fair argument - but his whole body language and tone becomes a little hostile here, as though he's being sarcastic. That's never a good thing from an interviewee's point of view. Politeness is key. Ruth is a great interviewer and likes to poke at her guests from time to time. The correct response from an interviewee is to take a moment, remain calm, and make your point about the difference between net immigration and individuals.

Then, at about 3.20, Mr Bennett makes, what I feel, is another interview faux pas. He sighs, looks up and starts to tell Ruth Mosalski what she needs to do. How she needs to think about the matter of immigration. Now - do you think that that is going to endear you to the interviewer, or create a divide between the two of you. Yep - it's the latter. It doesn't matter if the interviewer doesn't think in the right way, there's a very definite right way to get your point across; and it's not sighing, rolling your eyes and being sarcastic.

I've said it time and time again (in fact, it's in a Media Training Checklist that I published, which is available here) that politeness is key. Your words aren't the only thing that people take away from an interview. Your tone, your delivery, your dress, your body language - they all go towards people's impression of you. Quickly on that note, if Mr Bennett knew that he was going to be filmed, I would have probably applied a little foundation. That sweaty sheen gives off the impression that he was nervous. Whether he was or he wasn't, that's the impression that he was giving off.

A few moments later, following the burkha question, Mr Bennett sighs again. I can't tell you how off-putting this is.

Now, some of you will be thinking that there is nothing that Gareth Bennett could do in this interview that would make you like him. His political views are not in line with your own, so you're never going to love him. That's not the point, though. The point is for you to listen to what he has to say - and for him to be allowed to say it. Ruth does that here - but Mr Bennett seems to be reacting because he thinks he knows whats coming, what Ruth thinks, why she thinks that - and what's wrong with that thinking. If he had been courteous, charming, a little self-deprecating throughout the interview - we would have come away with a very different view of him.

So - to the walk-out. He decides that Ruth isn't listening and is a 'rubbish interviewer'. How it looks to us, though, is that he is unwilling to answer the question because he perceives that the interviewers intention is to show him up, or make him look foolish, or uncompassionate.

I don't know about you - but that's not what I was thinking at all. I thought that it was a rigorous interview where both sides were a little prickly.

In summary - he shouldn't have walked out. It would have made him look so much better if he had remained calm, been courteous and continued to answer the questions. True, his answers might have made things more awkward - but, in that case, you've got to look at whether or not you should have said them in the first place if you're not willing to sit down and properly debate and stand by them when challenged. Just to repeat, though, this isn't a judgment on Mr Bennett or UKIP. I'm speaking from the position of a media trainer as to how he could have dealt with things differently.

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