It’s something that we hear regularly during our media training courses.
“I don’t want to sound like a politician,”
participants tell us. We can completely understand this, mainly since respect for our political leaders reaches new lows and more and more people switch off from listening to political interviews.
As someone who has worked on a wide variety of political and other campaigns around the world, I personally think that the model of the political interview is broken. Journalists take Jeremy Paxman’s approach which is,
“Why is this lying bastard lying to me?”
and you might want to add the word
to that. Meanwhile politicians seem desperate to avoid saying anything at all. Why would anybody want to watch or listen to this?
So how can you avoid sounding like a politician during the media interview? What should spokespeople and other interviewees do and say to sound authoritative, convincing but also human?
Here are some thoughts.
Answer, or explain why you are not going to answer and move on to your key message
First, this desire not to sound like a politician usually comes when we’re discussing with the participants on our media training courses how to handle difficult questions and escape those rabbit holes down which could disappear when they lose control of the interview and end up saying something that they shouldn’t say.
The challenge for politicians is that first, almost anything they say will be analysed, jumped on and used for criticism by their political opponents and the media. The second problem is that, well, they’re politicians – and so they are already dammed in the eyes of most of the audience. It’s worth remembering that the vast majority of people doing a media interview, even if the subject is risky, don’t face these challenges.
The key to handling a difficult question without sounding like the worst kind of politician is not to dodge it. Blatantly avoiding the question is not just annoying for the interviewee, it’s also insulting to the audience. After all, the interviewer is only there as a conduit between interviewee and audience.
So you must answer the question or explain why you’re not going to answer it. The chances are that you’ve probably got a pretty good reason for doing this. People who sound confident but also natural and human when they explain that they’re not going to talk about a competitor or simply say that they don’t want to get involved in politics actually sound more convincing than those who try to skirt around it.But the point is that whether you’ve answered the difficult question or explained politely but firmly with a good reason why you’re not going to answer it, you shouldn’t leave it there. Move on to your key messages but make sure that you’re telling your audience something that is relevant and interesting.
Sound human and use engaging language
The second thing that makes politicians sound so unconvincing and unappealing to listen to, is very often the language that they use. The fact is that they simply don’t speak in the way that ordinary people do. “I think the British people…” might sound Churchillian, they hope, but actually it just sounds pompous and has the effect of distancing them from the audience. Similarly, a politician might use phrases such as “accessing services”. In a House of Commons Select Committee hearing that might work well but in a local radio interview it just jars.
Therefore, sound human and engaging use the language of the pub or the coffee shop and not the committee room. As we say in our media coaching courses, it’s good to use language people will understand but it’s better to use language they use.
Politicians are mocked when they try to include stories of all human anecdotes on constituents and other people have spoken to. During our media training sessions, we’re very keen to get people to tell stories, give examples and provide anecdotes. Why? Because it proves and illustrate the points that they’re making.
Ensure your stories are natural and conversational
Most importantly, it’s what people do in everyday conversations and a media interview should sound like a natural conversation. The problem that politicians have when doing this, though, is that their stories sound stilted and unconvincing. You might say that this is because politicians aren’t like normal human beings – and there is probably some truth in this. The fact is that the more natural and conversational you can make your stories, the better. Just remember to emphasise the point that you’re making afterwards.
This leads us to a final point. Politicians very often come across as unconvincing during media interviews because they don’t sound like us normal human beings and their experience seems to be so different. You might argue that with nearly half the House of Commons having never worked in anything other than politics this is hardly a surprise but that’s another story.
Give simple, practical advice
The more you can root interviews in people’s every day experience the better. This includes that natural language and those everyday stories that we’ve mentioned but it also might involve giving simple practical advice to your audiences. A good radio interview, in particular, should sound to the audience as if they’re eavesdropping on a conversation. The more you can include information and advice which will be relevant and useful to them the better.
We do actually work with politicians to improve their media performance, just as we do with lawyers, architects and those in financial services, fashion and retail, to help them to improve their media performances. So, we certainly don’t want to damn all politicians. What we’re saying here is that if they could sound a little bit more human then they would come across as more engaging and convincing – and that might perhaps be good for democracy.
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