For the uninitiated, public speaking can be a daunting
But when faced with the media, many otherwise capable senior executives
break out into a cold sweat as images of a grilling by Jeremy Paxman or
Anne Robinson swim before their eyes.
A recent survey conducted by The Survey Shop for media training company
The Aziz Corporation reveals that 75 per cent of company directors are
more daunted by public speaking than by any other common business
But while the study shows that 82 per cent of company directors are very
or fairly worried when giving media interviews, over half recognise that
presentation and speaking skills are vital for business success.
Khalid Aziz, chairman of The Aziz Corporation believes that some senior
executives feel that public speaking skills are inherent and cannot be
’It may be that many directors are still labouring under the
misapprehension that great public speakers are born and not made,’ he
says. ’They understand the importance and benefits of effective public
speaking skills, yet are still afraid of the task. This suggests that
few have undertaken measures to address their fears and improve their
So what is it about meeting the media that keeps company directors awake
at night? Why is it such a daunting task?
Certainly many worry about appearing foolish and not representing their
organisation in the best possible light. But Beatrice Hollyer,
consultant and broadcast specialist at Medialink International feels
that people’s fears often go deeper.
’When I first started working with senior executives, I didn’t realise
the depth of people’s hostility to the media,’ she says. ’I assumed that
they wanted to get journalists on side, but actually they tended to be
very anxious to keep them at bay and wanting to baton down the hatches.’
This is not an unusual experience for media trainers, who often spend a
great deal of time persuading spokespeople that Jeremy Paxman-style
interviewing is the exception, not the rule.
There is little doubt that experienced spokespeople look on the likes of
Newsnight and the Today programme as the greatest potential nightmare,
simply because the audience is likely to be stacked with their
But for many unused to the media interview situation, the number one
worry is losing control. People are wary that journalists will misquote
them, or try and trip them up with surprise questions and topics beyond
their area of expertise.
However, with the right training and practice, these fears usually
’After five or six interviews, there comes a point where people realise
that they can control the process and feel comfortable and are then able
to seize the initiative in an interview,’ says Hollyer.
It is not only an issue of confidence - there is also the need to
identify a journalist’s agenda. ’People need to realise that most of the
time they are not there to answer questions, but tell a story,’ says
Hugo Brooke managing director of Media Interviews. He says it is the
spokesperson rather than the journalist who is the expert and adds:
’People have got to be prepared to take the conversation in the right
direction. The journalist won’t mind.’
Indeed, with circulation or ratings figures firmly in mind, most
journalists are on the interviewee’s side, willing them on to deliver
the goods. But as no journalist wants to waste time talking to an
ignorant or boring subject, the key for interviewees is preparation.
’A lot of top people think they don’t need to prepare,’ says Brooke.
’But you’ve got to find angles that are interesting and fresh.’ He
recommends that people rehearse the sound bites they plan to use in
advance. ’People do get paranoid, but if you have your answers clear in
your mind, it almost doesn’t matter what the questions are,’ he says.
’And if you are well-prepared but some of the questions you were
expecting don’t come up, then you will already have given enough
information and got your key messages across,’ he adds.
Jonathan Hemus, director of Countrywide Porter Novelli’s media training
division, Newsreal, recommends spokespeople prepare for an interview by
deciding on three key messages. He says that these should be signposted
with phrases including ’I feel really strongly that ...’ or ’The most
important aspect is ...’ and illustrated with suitable examples. He also
highlights the importance of ’doing your housekeeping first’. ’Have you
asked: what is the deadline? Will the interview be live or recorded? Who
else will be interviewed? When will the article be published or the
interview broadcast?’ he says.
According to most media trainers, this exploratory conversation with a
journalist or researcher is often more important than the interview
itself, helping spokespeople and their PROs to gather their forces
This is the time when PR practitioners, whether agency or in-house, can
really support their spokespeople.
’You can avoid potential disasters such as sending a spokesperson along
for what they think is a three-minute interview, which in reality turns
out to be a 20-minute phone-in with the general public,’ says James
Murray, head of PR at National Savings. His department quashes many
senior executives’ potential qualms by doing the homework up front and
ensuring that company spokespeople are not ambushed by surprise
Murray also has responsibility for judging which company spokesperson is
most suited to a particular subject, media, or format. ’For example if
it’s a mid-morning or drive-time radio show where a spokesperson needs
to engage directly, then we use somebody who is able to use a
conversational style rather than a corporate voice,’ he says.
And while media training is an ideal opportunity to uncover people’s
strengths across broadcast and print, it is vital that PR people match
spokespeople to the likely audience. ’Organisations need to choose
appropriate spokespeople and ensure that their style as well as the
messages match the media outlet,’ says Lucy Tilbury, managing director
of broadcast PR specialist Bulletin International.
Tour operator Airtours has recognised that the best spokespeople aren’t
necessarily the obvious ones. The company recently made Anita McErlean
its group director of communications (PR Week, 9 June). Before joining
Airtours in 1993 as sales director she had no communications experience
but Airtours soon realised that her strong communications skills made
her perfect for a spokesperson’s role.
It is also up to the PR team to ensure that spokespeople are not just
reacting, but also setting the news agenda by seeking out
After all, if handled correctly, the majority of interviews are a free
showcase. ’Nearly all of the interviews our clients undertake are an
opportunity that we have sold to a journalist on their behalf,’ says
Jackie Harris, account director and head of media training at corporate
and consumer relations specialist Noiseworks. ’And because we’ve asked
the journalist to come to us, spokespeople tend to relax.’
PR teams also have an important role to play now that they are likely to
be handling a number of dot.com clients whose directors may be smart and
eager, but media virgins. Dot.com specialist Mantra uses working
journalists to train their clients.
’Delivery is everything and media training is paramount as there is so
much competition for stories from new economy businesses,’ says director
But dealing successfully with the media can often involve playing down
the negative side of events. At the end of last year, CPN helped a
client who had caused an environmental threat to an area near one of its
’In this situation a charismatic leader may have been too gung-ho about
the whole thing,’ says Hemus. ’Instead we used the quality and
operations director who was genuinely able to show emotion and
demonstrate real concern over what had happened,’ he adds.
And the implications of using a spokesperson who is not the right fit
for the job, can extend far beyond a poor personal performance,
affecting corporate reputation and more. In a crisis situation, the
ability to take control and keep the media on side is vital.
For those unused to the role of spokesperson, live television seems to
hold the greatest fears, because of its immediacy and people’s doubts
about being publicly humiliated or appearing foolish. But according to
most media trainers, the live broadcast is often the safest form of
media interview, offering an opportunity for spokespeople to state their
case on a powerful platform with few filters.
’Live TV is the least risky, because the camera can’t lie,’ says
’Anything recorded is potentially dangerous because of the possibilities
of errors creeping in,’ adds Brooke. In addition, unlike press
interviews in particular, live TV offers little scope for journalistic
But the greatest fear for senior executives operating on the global
stage is not the interview itself, but a lack of in-depth understanding
of local media landscapes. Over the past 18 months, Simon Scott,
director of financial media at Edelman PR Worldwide in London, has set
up a media training module with this problem in mind. ’For instance CNBC
in London has a deliberate policy of ensuring presenters are focused on
European issues rather than the US,’ he explains. ’So it’s a case of
people saying ’tell me more about this programme,’ and helping them
understand where a programme fits into an overall pattern.’
Undoubtedly, speaking to the media does require someone with a sharp
mind, who can react quickly and switch between listening and statement
mode. Some senior executives make better public performers than others
and not everybody will shine across all media or interview formats.
But as Brooke says: ’There is an element of individual talent involved
and some definitely have a natural flair. But anyone can do it well, if
they take the time to learn.’
TOP SPEAKERS OF OUR TIME
- Dalai Lama - uses humour in the face of conflict; talks with passion;
understands and cares for the spiritual and the practical.
- Nelson Mandela - has a vision that has seen him through years of
Understands his people and connects with his audience wherever they
- Sir Crispin Tickell - explorer, ambassador and now chancellor at
Newcastle University. Witty and intelligent man who understands the
Makes complex sciences accessible and inspirational to everyone.
- David Shephard - Wildlife artist who converts his observations into
compelling stories of the destruction of animals and environments.
Leaves his audience wanting to get involved.
- Menzies Campbell - prepares speeches and interviews well. Appears
open, concerned and straightforward. Keeps on message and produces
excellent soundbites. Not swayed by headlines and says what he thinks is
- Mo Mowlam - a powerful speaker who delivers messages in a common sense
way, helped by sparkling sense of humour. Can seem slightly domineering
- but content of messages is solid and relevant to the audience.
- Lenny Henry - Brilliant at playing with audience’s emotional
Superb timing and excellent use of language. Works to raise awareness of
issues in Third World countries, motivating the audience to take
- Tony Woodhouse - TGWU spokesman on the car industry whose speeches to
workers before BMW’s sale of Rover and Ford’s closure of Dagenham were
inspirational. Uses blunt language and supports his message with good
body movement. Speaks with a passion that shows he cares.
- Bodil Eriksson - corporate communications director of Volvo Cars in
Sweden. Straightforward with a smile which shows she is speaking from
the heart. Messages are simple and delivered with flair and
This list was complied by Warwick Partington, managing director of Media
PREPARATION TECHNIQUES FROM THE EXPERTS
Even the most seasoned speakers often suffer from a serious case of the
jitters when confronted by a large or well-informed audience. So faced
with the prospect of a media interview or a press conference, what can
you do to ensure that you stay calm, take everything in your stride and
show your organisation in the best possible light?
’It is important that trainees are placed as spokespeople as quickly
after the training as possible, so they practice what has been learnt
while it is still fresh,’ says Lucy Tilbury, managing director of
Bulletin International. In addition, she advises keeping a ’media kit’
to hand, full of basics such as deodorant, spare clothing and
fact-checking phone numbers.
It is also vital that speakers rehearse and get a feel for the turns of
phrase they plan to use, so that in the face of mounting panic, the
right words still tumble out. This can be especially important for
interviewees conversing in something other than their mother tongue.
Simon Scott, director of financial media at Edelman PR Worldwide London,
tells the horror story of a German client going through his paces for an
interview to be conducted in English. ’He kept on using the word
’eliminate’, when talking about redundancy,’ he says. ’We had to explain
that this was not appropriate.’
To combat nerves for novice TV interviewees, Khalid Aziz, chairman of
The Aziz Corporation, recommends avoiding going into a studio if at all
possible. ’It’s much better to conduct an interview on your own
premises, especially if it’s your first time,’ he says.
But if you do find yourself in the green room contemplating 60 seconds
with Anne Robinson, Aziz warns against engaging in distracting chit-chat
with others, steadying nerves with alcohol or combating boredom with
vats of coffee. ’Stay in a calm situation and practice relaxation
techniques such as deep breathing,’ he says.
In a broadcast situation it is also important not to look or sound
nervous to the audience. Things to avoid include jiggling around in a
swivel chair, darting eyes and fiddling with uncomfortable clothing.
Yvonne Delahaye at Savoy Hill Training also stresses the physical side:
’The physical aspect of presenting is as important as the content and
structure. Learn some simple relaxation techniques, with correct
breathing, really helps to put you in control. Your heart rate slows
down and your mind becomes clearer and more focused, so the changes can
be really dramatic.’
’I always tell people to think of it as a conversation at a cosy dinner
party, where you don’t know everybody.’ says Beatrice Hollyer,
consultant at Medialink International. ’That means you hit the right
tone by being livelier and friendlier than usual, go to a bit of trouble
to explain things, and are always thinking of the other person and how
they perceive you,’ she concludes.