We’re always asked at some point during our media training courses about what to wear when doing a TV interview. How you look during television interviews or presentations – and in particular the colours that you wear – has a major impact on the impression that your audience takes away. You might be speaking eloquently in a persuasive and engaging way and making some very important points but if your clothing is distracting then you might as well be reading a train timetable.
We often quote the work of a Princeton psychologist called Alexander Todorov in our media coaching sessions. Todorov wanted to know to what extent people judge someone’s competence to do their job based simply on their appearance rather than any other more substantial information. So he conducted an experiment in which he showed thousands of people pairs of portraits and asked those people to rate the competence of the people in these pictures. What the test subjects didn’t know was that those pictured were candidates for the US Congress and Senate.
When Professor Todorov correlated the reaction of the test subjects who had seen pictures of the candidates for a second or less with the actual election results, he discovered that in between 66 per cent and 73 per cent of cases the judgement of test subjects correlated with the final election results. So, you can go through the whole election process or you can show voters your picture for a second (or less in some cases) and nearly three quarters of the time the results are the same.
A major part of this visual impact relates to the colours that you wear on television or when you’re presenting to an audience. During our media training courses and afterwards, when we’re supporting clients who are appearing on TV or delivering their presentations, we help them to think about the colours that might be right for them.
What colours should you wear on television?
Let’s start with two colours that you really shouldn’t wear. Black and white don’t work well on television. A crisp white shirt might be good for a job interview and it’s OK for most presentations but on TV it glares and casts the rest of you in shadow so avoid white during a TV interview. Cream is a good substitute for white.
Black might be elegant and flattering in normal life but on television it often drains the life out of you. It can often look gloomy and even sinister. We had to advise a very accomplished spokeswoman not to wear a black suit and T-shirt when delivering a difficult message about two deaths that had taken place on her watch. “Oh, my god,” she said after we showed her the footage during a practice session. “I look like an undertaker.” She was right. Grey or navy blue work better than black.
Navy blue is actually a very good colour to wear on TV. It’s seen as safe and understated. It’s also regarded as the colour of trust – that’s why the police and airline cabin crew often wear it. (Or does the causation work the other way? Either way, navy blue is a safe bet).
What about wearing red during a TV interview?
Red has a particular significance for human beings. Women who wear red often appear more attractive to men, according to research by the University of Rochester, NY.
However, as the colour of blood, red stimulates distinct reactions in the brain. It also signifies emergencies, of course. It’s no coincidence that the signal to stop in traffic lights is red. If you’re slow on the uptake when green or amber is showing you might get someone beeping you from behind. Do this with red and you could get killed. However, red is also associated with anger and aggression. Some psychologists have even questioned whether London buses should be this colour. It’s certainly a strong hue.
We recently worked with a young woman from a big financial services company who was launching a new product range. We discussed her choice of a red jacket and shirt for her TV interviews.
“Look,” she said. “The financial services industry is full of men in grey suits and I want to stand out from them.” So she wore red – and she did indeed create a strong impression.
The fact that we helped her to speak normal, human language rather than financial services jargon and to use stories and examples also helped to ensure that her TV interviews were powerful, memorable and well received – as they still are, years after we trained her.
Should I wear a grey suit on TV?
So what about grey? Actually, there’s nothing wrong with wearing grey during a TV interview and we often recommend it during our media training courses. Again, it’s the colour of trust and respectability. However, we would suggest that both men and women add a warmer colour to balance the dullness. Also be wary of the heavy chalk stripes or busy herringbone patterns that grey suits and jackets sometimes feature.
Pale blue is a lovely, engaging colour that works well on TV, especially if you want to soften your look. Green can do the same but it can sometimes have the unwelcome effect of making the wearer look pale and washed out. Generally, pastel shades are good on TV because they’re flattering to most people’s skin and hair tones and they’re not over powering.
A pastel coloured shirt matched with a tie that has a strong block colour or a simple pattern (nothing busy and complex, please) is a good look for men. It’s simple, confident and won’t distract viewers from their performance.
Purple is an interesting colour. On the one hand it’s regarded as luxurious and even slightly theatrical but according to research among audiences for particular brands it’s also associated with “authority, sophistication and power.” It was after all the colour used by Roman emperors and magistrates and Peter Mandelson shrewdly chose it an as an alternative to Labour’s traditional red when he was reinventing the party and creating New Labour.
With flying colours – what to wear on TV
A woman in a purple jacket or dress or a man wearing a purple tie can look elegant and adopt a high status persona. In our media training courses we work with a lot of lawyers, accountants, retail consultants and other professionals whose firms have asked us to train them so that they can act as commentators on their sector. Purple is a good colour for them.
The colour of the clothing that you were on television or during a presentation for that matter can have a profound effect on the impression that your audience takes away. Obviously, you’ll be focussing on your key messages during your preparation but, as we point out in our media training sessions, getting the colour of your clothing right is a small detail that can make a big difference.
To help meet these concerns at the start of our media coaching sessions we’ll look at what makes a story and what motivates journalists. This means that, working with their PR teams, interviewees can ensure that they say the things that the journalist will be interested in thereby gaining more control of the interview and reducing the risk of said journalist pushing them into dangerous territory in the quest for a story. We help our participants to gain control of the interview.
Five good things to say to a journalist
So, here are five things you can say to a journalist to get their attention and increase the chance of your having more control of the interview and the final report.
“What really struck me about this is…”
It’s a good idea to flag up a key point to a journalist. It might be obvious to you that something is the most interesting or important aspect of what you’re talking about but don’t expect the journalist to know it too. This is especially true of general reporters or, as is often the case, an interviewer who has just been given the story to write with minimal research. (We’re not lazy, by the way, we’re just overworked as newsroom budgets have been slashed – just wanted to make that clear!)
“What people don’t always realise is that…”
Essentially the job of a journalist is to tell people things that they didn’t know that they might find interesting. So, if you can show that something is little known, that the audience might even be labouring under a misapprehension or that they’ll gain some competitive advantage by knowing this fact you’ll have the attention of the journalist that you’re speaking to. This also ticks that “unusual” box that the media loves so much.
“In my experience…”
One of the main reasons why we’re coming to talk to you is your experience. The more practical and recent it is the better for us, so emphasise this when you talk to journalists. We do a lot of media training for law firms, for instance, and so we always encourage them to pass on to journalists what they’re telling clients. Not only does this show that they’re working at the coalface of this business and that they’re very much aware of latest the developments and trends but it also provides tips and advice for our audience. Anything that ticks the “What’s In It For Me?” box is great for our audience is also great for us. As we say to the lawyers that we do media coaching for – you don’t have to give people full legal advice, just a few thoughts so that they’ll realise that you know what you’re talking about and pick up the phone to instruct you.
“One thing to watch out for is…”
Again, this could be about tips and advice but really it ticks the “trouble” box that journalists love. Bad news, risks, dangers are threats are meat and drink to the media. Depressing? Annoying? Perhaps, but the fact is that they grab people’s attention. They fire up the amygdala, the flight-or-fight instinct that is located deep in our animal brains. The other reason why journalists like this kind of phrase and what follows it is that giving warnings and highlighting threats also usually involves offering advice and tips – something that, as we’ve said above, is always good for media interviews, and something that we stress in our media training courses.
“Let me give you an example…”
There’s nothing, well, almost nothing, anyway, that journalists love more than an example, a story, an anecdote or a case study. As soon as you’re giving an example or telling a story, provided that it’s relevant to the audience, the interviewer will shut up and listen – and not start to look for trouble. Giving examples and saying, “for instance,” is something that we do all the time in conversations with family, friends and colleagues. But, for some reason, people often forget to use these basic building blocks of communication or don’t feel justified in doing so during a media interview. Examples both illustrate and prove your point. In fact, at the risk of contradicting ourselves you don’t even have to set up an example, just dive straight in and tell your story.
OK, so those are some of the right things to say during media interviews, but what should you avoid?
Five things you should not say to a journalist
“I can’t comment on that.”
Of course, it’s very possible that a journalist will ask you something that is outside your purview or that could get you into trouble and you’re right not to get drawn into it. But try and find a more relaxed, conversational phrase. You might say: “That’s not really my area of expertise…” or “I’ll let X speak for themselves,” or even “You wouldn’t expect me to go into that, would you?” We explain in our media coaching sessions that whatever you say, the point is that you then move back on to your key message. Talking of which…
“My key message here is…”
Yes, it’s good to have a key message – and you’d be amazed how many people go into media interviews with no idea of what points they want to get across. But you don’t have to be so transparent and crude about it as to use this form of words. Focus on your key message and flag it up, perhaps using one of the phrases above. Then repeat it and use some examples and stories to back it up.
“Let me be clear…”
One of the most frequent comments we hear in our media training workshops is “I don’t want to sound like a politician.” Now, even though we do media training for politicians around the world, we can understand the sentiment. The problem with this phrase is that the way it’s been used by certain politicians and other spokespeople. For them, it usually means the opposite – let me ignore your question and give my vague, fudged answer instead. So, do certainly be clear, just avoid using this phrase.
“What I’d like to say to your viewers/listeners is…”
This is another phrase that is based on the right idea but just makes it too clunkily obvious. It’s good to talk directly to the audience of a radio or TV programme but just do it by sounding natural and conversational and thinking about what they’d like to know. Don’t tell them that you’re going to do it. This is where the first and second person works well – as you’re literally talking to your audience – and that’s essential in any good media interview.
It’s always a big issue in media coaching – do you have to answer a journalist’s question? As part of our media coaching sessions we’ll usually do a role play press interview with the participants. As we tell them, we’ll do it in exactly the same way as we do during our day job as journalists, although we won’t publish it course. Instead, we’ll give detailed feedback on the story that we would have written well as the messages that came across and how they appeared to us as experienced, working journalists.
Very often we’ll ask a difficult or left field question towards the end of the interview since this is what could easily happen in real life. We work closely with Comms teams and PR companies and they’ll brief us on difficult issues. The interviewee will usually feel obliged to answer our query – or at least to have a go at it. This is almost always where they lose control of the interview and end up giving us a great story. Unfortunately, it’s very often not one that will suit them.
We did a media skills course recently with a large financial institution. Towards the end of the role play press interview our media trainer/ journalist asked one of the course participants, a board director, about their views on Brexit. Very helpfully and interestingly they suggested that Britain’s departure from the EU wouldn’t actually be a problem for the firm as it benefits from growing markets in the Far East. This was a great story that would have made headlines in the Financial Times and other publications. However, it wasn’t so good for the firm – and certainly not for the poor interviewee.
“But you asked me about Brexit,” they pointed out once we’d told them about the story that would have resulted from their interview. “Yes,” said our media trainer/journalist, “but you didn’t have to answer it.” Lesson learnt.
Media coaching tip – journalists don’t expect you to answer every question
The point is that we’d obviously expect the interviewee to answer a question about the agreed subject of the interview. But there’s no obligation to comment on something that is outside this remit. We often call this the “while I’ve got you here, minister” question. This is because senior politicians appearing on Radio Four’s Today and other programmes will often be asked to talk about something that is current and – vaguely – relevant to them. It might be an embarrassing comment made by a colleague, for instance, or something that the government is proposing.
Politicians are usually warned beforehand by their media teams about this risky, live issues and have lines to take ready. With business people this is not always the case. During an interview on Today to talk about new apprenticeships Sir James Dyson was asked about Brexit. Instead of sticking to the topic the engineer and industrialist waxed lyrical on the subject. Within a matter of hours his comments were on The Times online.
But, of course, not answering a question goes against the grain for many of us. We do a lot of media coach for lawyers, for instance. They’re trained to answer a client’s questions accurately and comprehensively – and so they should. We point out, though, that we’re not clients. If anything, journalists don’t want a detailed answer to a question. We just want the top line.
Similarly, we do media training for the luxury sector. If you work for a luxury hotel saying “yes” to a guest and being helpful is in your blood so, of course, you’re going to try to answer a question as fully as possible. As we point out to the luxury hotel staff that we train, we’re not guests (and with journalists’ salaries as they are we probably never will be) so there’s no need to help us out by giving us an answer to what we’ve just asked them.
Doesn’t it sound shifty if I don’t answer the journalist’s question?
But doesn’t it sound shifty and evasive if I don’t answer a journalist’s question, people often ask during our media coaching courses. The short answer is that it depends on the question and how you do it.
If you’re being asked a direct question about something that you’re responsible for and it’s part of the subject that we’ve agreed to speak about then yes, you must. This example of Richard Madeley trying to get Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson to answer a simple, direct, yes-or-no question is quite toe curling.
If a journalist asks a finance director, for instance, why profits are down by 20 per cent this year then that FD had better be ready with an answer. How he or she then moves the conversation on to something more useful is up to them. On the other hand, if he or she was asked about Brexit or about a competitor then no, there’s no need to answer the question.
What if I don’t want to answer a journalist’s question?
What, we’re often asked in our media coaching sessions, should you do then, if a journalist asks you a question that you don’t want to answer? Simple: you tell them in a friendly but assertive way that you’re not going to do so. Then, very importantly, you tell them why. This could be because it’s outside your remit. Just exampling that it’s a matter, for example, for the regulator or the government. It might simply be an issue that you don’t want to get drawn on such as Brexit or a competitor, as we’ve mentioned above. Again, just be honest and say so.
Most journalists will understand this. Very often we’re not even expecting you to answer the question. It’s just that our editor has told us to raise the issue or we assume that our audience will want us to mention it. On the other hand, we’re also aware of the possibility of getting a new story – as happened with James Dyson.
Must I answer a journalist’s question during a crisis?
Surely, then, during a serious incident or a crisis, you’ll have to answer the journalist’s questions. Actually, not always. As we explain in our media training courses, in a crisis you’ll be expected to provide factual information that you’re confident is correct. But you’ll also be asked questions that neither you, nor probably anyone else knows the answer to. In a crisis as the media scrambles to fill airtime and column inches speculation is often rife.
Get drawn into surmising what could have caused the incident or what might come out of it and, as we explain in our crisis media coaching workshops, you’ll lose control of your communication and create unwelcome headlines. As we wrote recently mishandling a crisis really can cost you dear.
A good way to make a crisis worse is get drawn into responding to journalists’ questions when you should just stay mum. So, here too, just be polite but firm and explain why you don’t want to answer certain questions.
We’ve had a lot of interest in a blog we wrote about five requests that you can ask of a journalist that you might not be aware of. As we advise during our media training courses. Take control of the interview and don’t be afraid to lay down terms to the journalist. This includes stating clearly the questions that you are and aren’t happy to answer. So when people ask us during our media coaching courses whether you always have to answer a journalist’s questions – we explain no, not if you know what you’re doing.
Nicky Morgan is boycotting certain BBC TV studios because they’re not flattering The Times reports today. It might sound vain and trivial but, as we regularly discover in our media training courses, this concern is not unusual. Hardly anyone likes to see themselves on camera.
People often ask when we do media skills training what they should do if they’re jumped on by a journalist. The worst case scenario might be a camera crew shining a light in your eyes and appearing on the doorstep of your home to ask you about a problem or even a crisis that you know nothing about.
“What does off the record mean?” is something that we’re frequently asked in our media training courses. I had this very same conversation last week with a group from a big law firm. I explained to them, as I always do, what it means to me.
We’ve seen a noticeable uptick in clients, old and new, coming to us for crisis communications training. Many have a crisis communication strategy in place, but they simply want to test it with the help of working journalists and update it.