Media interview by design – Thomas Heatherwick on the Today programme this week
April 30, 2021

We provide media training and presentation training for architects and designers and so we were particularly interested in an interview that celebrated designer Thomas Heatherwick gave on the Today programme this week.  He’d been invited to talk about his radical new approach to car design.

It didn’t start well.  But that wasn’t Mr Heatherwick’s fault – it was the inevitable technical problem.  The use of phones, Zoom and Skype is increasingly popular among broadcasters because it’s quick and easy.  However, this technology is always liable to break down. That’s why we advise participants on our media coaching courses to try and get into the studio and do interviews face to face whenever possible.  We also give tips on what to do when Zoom freezes or the line goes down.

Anyway, the interview was bumped on after Thought for the Day and when it did happen Heatherwick was asked by presenter Justin Webb to describe the kind of car that he has developed.  This is a typical radio question since the best pictures are on the radio. We advise people – whatever they’re talking about – to give some simple, visual examples as soon as they can.  For the designers and architects that we train this is even more important.

“At the moment, as you know, almost every car producer has been inspired by Tesla and is producing their own version of the electric car,” Heatherwick explained.  This was a good opening answer because it ticked the “topical” box of the acronym that we use when talking in our media training courses about what makes a media story.

“The emphasis has been very much on electric cars not doing damage by polluting the air,” he went on.  “But we felt that this was not nearly enough – just not doing bad when we’ve got this environmental crisis all around us. There are so many cars around us – if just a proportion of them were not just polluting but taking the polluted air from the…buses and other cars using HEPA filter technology and vacuuming we could make a little contribution to improving the air quality that we know really matters.”

This was a good answer because it ticked the “unusual” box of our newsworthiness acronym.  Our only suggestion would be that Mr Heatherwick should have spelt out what a HEPA filter is to this general audience.  Using jargon and technical terms is fine if there’s no alternative (as in this case) and if you explain what you mean.  As we advise the architects and designers on our specialist media training courses, it’s a good idea to use analogies and comparisons when explaining a piece of technology.

Mr Heatherwick went on to introduce a technical term but then explained it simply and concisely.  “There’s a notion called regenerative design – designed it is trying not just to be bad, but in a way, so that means that it can regenerate the natural world in some way.”  This was great – our audience has now learnt about a new concept that they can drop into conversation.  These little buzzwords and nuggets of information are memorable and so they work very well in media interviews.

Justin Webb tried to interrupt but Mr Heatherwick politely but firmly continued with another point.   “We’ve been designing the headquarters for Google for example in California and London,” he told us.  We’re often asked whether it’s OK to try and sell your products or services during a media interview and we’ve discussed this in a previous blog.  The answer is that you can – but only if you make your comments newsworthy and directly relevant to the topic of the interview, which Mr Heatherwick did here.

“They are one of the early organisations to really realise that air quality can really extend lives,” he explained.  “For example, our buildings have immense filtration systems so the quality of air for the people working inside them is good.” He then went on to take the initiative when asked about self-driving cars.

“In the world we’ve got 1 billion cars and 90 per cent of the time they’re doing nothing – just sitting on the side of the road,” he told us, dropping in a killer stat.  “How do you activate that space? Many people’s sound system in their cars is better than it is in their homes and the seats are more comfortable, perhaps. If the seats could turn round and you had proper tables not pathetic little trays, you’ve suddenly got a space that somebody can use to do some work, have a meeting in, and it’s got French doors that can open.” Again, great picture painting – and a thought-provoking idea.

Overall, this was a great interview.  We had just two thoughts. The first is that it sounded as if Heatherwick took a moment or two to warm up – and that’s hardly surprising after the technical SNAFU.  However, it does demonstrate the value of something that we suggest in our media training courses for architects and designers (and for others) and that is to have a quick rehearsal before you go on.

The other point is that there were a number of elements here – the main ones being reduced CO2 and a new way of looking at the car.  Perhaps Heatherwick could have brought them together at the start of the interview in a single message and given his audience one headline thought that they should take away.  Again, this is something that we recommend during our media coaching sessions – some of which we’re now looking forward to conducting in our cars.

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