The Andrew Neil Interviews: How to spot signs of media training in the party leaders
A repeated phrase or gesture could be a sign a party leader has been media trained – but not necessarily very well.
Each of the main party leaders will face a grilling this week as they sit down for a TV interview with journalist Andrew Neil.
Ahead of the interviews, which will be aired on BBC 1 at 7pm, we spoke to Bridgid Nzekwu – head of media training at TNR and part of the Press Association. And she told us her tell-tale signs that might inform voters that the party leaders have been media-trained…whether that’s well or poorly.
Here’s what to keep an eye out for.
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)”, said Nzekwu. “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.”
Nzekwu said that smiling, especially when you have a positive message, is an excellent way for someone to connect with their audience. But she says it 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,” she explained.
“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.”
Controlled body language
Nzekwu says nearly every person she trains asks: “What should I do with my hands?” She says the aim is to look natural, which she adds is very difficult in the highly unnatural, highly charged environment of a big-stakes interview.
“Under normal circumstances, nerves, impatience or anger are highly visible in a person’s body language, so spokespeople are trained to control their movements,” she says.
“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.”
“One of my mantras in media training sessions is, ‘Take a breath’,” says Nzekwu. “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.”
Under stress, the body goes into fight or flight mode, producing extra adrenaline and cortisol and Nzekwu says speakers can experience a racing heartbeat and nervous ticks such as coughing, blinking excessively, twitching, even laughing.
She adds: “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.”
When it comes to public speaking of any kind, Nzekwu says a measured delivery is key. “It suggests calm authority and a credible message, whilst ensuring the audience can understand and absorb what’s being said,” she explains.
“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,” says Nzekwu. “Those who’ve had media training learn a skill called ‘bridging’ in which they acknowledge the question they don’t like or can’t answer, before going on to talk about the thing they really want to discuss.”
But according to Nzekwu, 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 handbrake 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,” she said.