A couple of weeks ago (March 14th), media training expert George Dearsley came to give a guest lecture to our course. We were briefed in the weeks leading up to the lecture that we would need two volunteers from the class to sit in front of the camera and be interviewed; George would be asking about our hobbies or passions. There was a mix of media experience in the room, with a few of us having had some form of training or another. We had had another talk from George earlier in the year and it was interesting to hear about some of the people who he had trained. A handful of the group’s ears pricked up when we heard he did a media training day with FIFA as there are about three of us who are eager to get involved with sports PR.

As he began his second lecture at MMU he asked for the two volunteers to introduce themselves to him. He was met with silence as us wide-eyed students looked at each other, each of us hoping we wouldn’t be the ones who ended up on camera being professionally analysed. Eventually, out of sheer desperation and in the interest of self-preservation, we (like all great friends should) started to throw each other under the proverbial bus. “Oh Saul said he would love to do it!” said a few of the girls on the course. “I heard Becks had been preparing for this for weeks!” Saul retorted. Sadly for the both of them, Karma came round to bite them in the arse and they were both called upon to be interviewed.

Saul was up first, and it quickly became apparent that George’s interview style was considerably more Jeremy Paxman than it was Jonathan Ross. George had a very professional manner and the hard-hitting, almost confrontational nature of his questioning caught most of us off guard at first. However, it was soon clear that this was all intentional, in an effort to ensure that the wisdom he would subsequently bestow upon us would resonate all the more strongly.

The class was surely keen to watch Saul squirm during his interview, but to the disappointment of everyone but him, the man in question handled himself pretty well by all accounts. After it was over, we watched it back as a class. The objective was to pick it apart. What was good? What was bad? How could it be improved? Following that, George gave us some of the hints and tips on being interviewed that he’s gleaned from his years of experience.

Some of what he said seemed, after he pointed it out at least, to be largely derived from good ol’ common sense. Concepts such as watching your posture, maintaining eye contact and keeping a smile on your face aren’t exactly revolutionary. So it’s strange that none of us really picked up on these things until they were brought to our attention.

George also emphasised the importance of preparation, suggesting an interviewee should as ask many question as necessary regarding  the nature of the interview (e.g. length? print or broadcast?) beforehand, and referencing Steve Jobs’ 10:1 approach to public speaking (10 minutes of prep for every one minute of speaking). He further drove home the importance of a strong initial statement, or, as he called it, an ‘opening gambit.’ This should be a line which effectively engages the audience, and may even take the form of the conclusion that you want them to reach. From there, you should focus on getting across your key messages in 3 to 4 points. Provide statistics and examples wherever possible to back up what you’re saying, and try to use language that adheres to The Three Ps. The first of these is Positivity; avoid negative words and phrases at all costs, and don’t be lured into the trap of repeating any that the interviewer might have used. The second is People – everyone loves a good human interest angle after all. The third and final P is Pictures, which refers to dropping a couple of metaphors and/or similes into your story for the audience’s benefit

Another really useful pointer that George gave us, is that a camera doesn’t always pick up on natural enthusiasm and charisma. As we all watched Saul’s interview back, this definitely rang true. The guy on the screen, sat in an almost catatonic state rigidly answering questions, was a far cry from the lively, passionate individual that the rest of us had just seen interviewed in person. George’s solution? To be 10% more vibrant than you think you need to be, in order to compensate for the camera sucking the life out of you.

And so, armed with all of this new knowledge and insight, Becks set out to put it to good use in her interview. Key messages had been considered, language carefully selected and an opening gambit meticulously prepared. She was ready for anything…except George throwing a curveball by opening with a question that was hardly an ideal set-up for her to deliver that killer leading line. Understandably flustered, she set about simply answering the question she was asked. Opening gambit be damned! This prompted an exasperated cy of “noooo, cut!” from George. And here, folks, began the next major lesson of the day: there’s always a way to get your key message across in an answer, even if the question doesn’t lend itself perfectly to doing so.

The thing is, interviewers will occasionally ask unwanted questions. It’s never advisable to avoid such questions completely, but you don’t have to tackle them head on, either.  Mr. Dearsley suggested three scenarios. Firstly, deliberate whether you can answer the question with a flat-out “no” before moving on to the point you actually want to make. Alternatively, maybe you can answer with a “yes, but…” and segue way into your message? If all else fails, rebut the question using something like “with respect, that’s irrelevant” and move on to your topic of choice. A great interviewee needs to become adept at using the questions as a springboard of sorts. With that in mind, George informed us of the ABC Method (Acknowledge Bridge Comment). The trick is to respond to a question, but then smoothly transition the into talking about one of your key messages. George stated that, while this is indeed a difficult ability to master, it’s wholly achievable with enough effort and practice.

With that, Becks was ready for her second interview attempt. This time, she handled George’s awkward question like a pro, seamlessly diverting attention to the topic she wanted to discuss, and nailing that opening gambit in the process.

All in all, it was a really useful enlightening session that allowed us to have a laugh while simultaneously gaining valuable media training expertise. Thanks George!

Adam & Saul

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