Sunday 4 December 2016

Never dull, never boring, the O'Donovans' natural humour is a lesson in handling media

Jack Murray

Published 17/08/2016 | 02:30

Paul and Gary O’Donovan celebrate winning silver in the Lightweight Men’s Double Sculls Final in Rio. Photo: Mike Egerton/PA Wire
Paul and Gary O’Donovan celebrate winning silver in the Lightweight Men’s Double Sculls Final in Rio. Photo: Mike Egerton/PA Wire

Delivering an engaging media interview is one of the most challenging and difficult things for a journalist to do.

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Why? Because they have no control over how an interviewee will perform. They have no idea whether they will be tired, nervous and angry or loquacious, engaging and funny.

Almost 20 years ago I entered journalism naively thinking that I was going to get to do fascinating and engaging interviews that would change things. Pretty soon I made a rather sobering discovery - most people are a disappointment and come to a media interview ill-prepared and with nothing interesting or engaging to say. It's as if they actively try to be dull.

After my brief time in journalism, I went to work for politicians. I realised, even though it wasn't anywhere in my job description, I was 'in charge of interesting'. It was up to me as the press officer to make sure the press releases caught the imagination of media.

In every speech, statement or press release you'd issue to the media they were interested in only one thing - the 'news' line. It didn't matter if it was a 20-minute speech on the future of the economy, the newshound's question would always be the same: "What's the line?"

I lost count of the amount of times a stressed-out politician would call, unsure of what to say, and I would come up with a colourful line that would sound nice on the airwaves.

I realised very quickly that being interesting was a choice. When you get a media opportunity you can decide to be dull and boring, or you can say something colourful and engaging that will excite the audience.

Considering this, it is really no wonder that Olympic rowers Gary and Paul O'Donovan captured the public imagination with their media performances in Rio. After they won the silver medal, Gary O'Donovan mused on their success in the media: "You've just been asking questions and we answered them." So why has their way of doing interviews had such resonance?

The world of high-performance sport can be an incredibly dull place for interviews, where it's all about 'the deliverables', 'personal bests' and 'training regimes'. In contrast to this, the O'Donovans seem like exotic birds.

Why is their way of talking to the media so engaging? When I prepare people for media interviews I always say that we are working to make sure they are the best version of themselves. The O'Donovans excel at being themselves and they speak from the heart. Watching them, I thought it was as if they were 'to the manner born' for the Olympic moment they found themselves in. They had prepared. They came to win. They were OK with the expectation and they were happy to talk about it.

The O'Donovans were also happy to take risks in their interviews and see what sort of a reaction they would get. This led to some great phrases, like "pull like a dog", which instantly went viral on Twitter and became the word for trying your hardest. Colourful, original soundbites will always get more attention. They stand out like the clink of a spoon on a glass.

The O'Donovans talk in thick west Cork accents - that's who they are. Their chat is sometimes so coded, it's almost like slang - but that doesn't dull their message. (In fact, it was so heavily accented and colloquial that YouTube failed to translate it, but it still went around the world. What does that tell you about being interesting?)

Bear in mind that some of the interviews last week happened just moments after the most intense physical exertion imaginable. In those moments you see right into the heart of what people are thinking. The O'Donovans were always relaxed, sometimes even a little giddy. It helps too that they are genuinely funny and have that deep, hard-wired sibling connection.

Anybody who wants to be successful in the media needs to remember that deciding to be interesting is a great place to start. Then ask yourself - what could I say that will:

- Stand out and capture attention?

- Be remembered as a clever soundbite?

- Communicate as something really heartfelt?

- Represent the real you - your voice, who you are, where you're from?

The O'Donovans tick those boxes.

Irish Independent

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