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Preparing for media interviews – the importance of rehearsals

Approx. reading time: 4 minutes

There was a time when I was growing up that I didn’t see much of my sister, Joanne. She’d joined Toddington Amateur Dramatic Society (TADS) and for long periods was busy rehearsing for her next role along with the rest of the cast. Or at least that’s what she told our mum and dad. Now I’m clearly not a very good brother because I don’t remember many of her performances. I think she may have played Liz in Billy Liar (or maybe I’m confusing her with Julie Christie). But what I do remember is neither Jo nor Julie ever missed a line and both had a magnificent stage presence.

Joanne Uridge playing Liz in Billy Liar.

Why? Because actors rehearse, rehearse and rehearse again so that when the curtain opens and they walk on stage they hit their marks and they hit their lines. Doesn’t matter whether they’re walking the boards before a modest audience at the village hall or in front of a sell out crowd in London’s West End.

So why would anybody stand in front of an audience ten, fifty, a hundred, a thousand times larger without rehearsing? An audience so big it wouldn’t fit in the world’s biggest auditorium. But they do. Every day of the week. In media interviews. And it’s hardly surprising that they fluff their lines.

In my media training workshops I explain that interviewees must think of themselves as performers. That although there is no obvious stage or proscenium arch (especially if they’re doing a down-the-line radio interview from home) they are, in effect, walking onto a stage with an audience of potentially millions. That frightens them. More than a bit. But it helps make the point that if actors rehearse for performances in far smaller actual theatres, then so should interviewees for their performances in the far, far larger virtual “theatres” of radio programmes and podcasts, television networks and online video channels such as News24 and YouTube.

When my sister was at home she spent hours pacing up and down muttering words under her breath. Learning lines is, of course, a big chunk of the actor’s craft. But actually learning lines verbatim, committing a script to memory, is one of the worst ways of rehearsing for a media interview. So what’s the best way to prepare for a media interview? Here’s my six step rehearsal guide.

  1. Distil your key messages from the subject matter. Stick to three or four and try to condense them down to bullet points. Underline the functional word (or words) in each bullet point . Divide a blank screen or sheet of paper into three columns and write these functional words (the essence of your key messages) in the left hand column.
  2. Add up to three carefully selected facts and figures per key message to column two. These facts and figures provide the evidence and speak to the rational part of the the audience – their minds, if you will.
  3. But we’re emotional creatures too. So to engage the audience’s hearts as well as their minds, think of a story or two (they don’t need to be very detailed) to help illustrate your key messages and jot these down in column three. At ACM Training we call this a planning matrix which I’ll happily concede is a rather lofty way of describing a piece of paper with a few scribbles on it. But believe me it can work wonders and turn a fuzzy, unfocussed and unstructured interview into a masterpiece.
  4. Open up your smartphone stopwatch app or countdown timer and outloud (yes, really) practice putting the words on the matrix together into coherent sentences and paragraphs of approximately 30 seconds each. Each time you do this choose different components so you don’t, in effect, end up learning a fixed script but you become well versed at what’s called extemporising lots of different versions.
  5. Once you’ve got the hang of this bit anticipate the questions you might be asked. If you’re likely to be put on the back foot during the interview try especially to predict the hardest questions. For example, will you resign? Or, who’s the blame?
  6. Then practice dealing with these questions and moving on to your key messages, facts, figures and stories. As before, try to bring your responses in around 30″ long. It’ll be harder because, short of ignoring the questions entirely (like some politicians), some of that time will inevitably be taken up dealing with the question leaving you less time to move on to what you want to talk about. Have a quick listen to this podcast on why a question and response instead of a question and answer approach is the best way of handling media interviews. When you feel comfortable delivering your key messages – illustrated and evidenced in a variety of ways – irrespective of the question and have got the feel for speaking to length then it’s showtime! Providing you don’t sound slippery or evasive and have struck the right tone. But those are other lessons for other posts.

Actors rehearse. So should interviewees. Remember you’re on a stage of sorts. And while you can’t see their faces the audience is potentially huge. So break a leg as they say in show-business.

Richard Uridge, media trainer

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Social media and local government – 10 tips for councillors

Approx. reading time: 3 minutes
  1. Prepare for a lot of shit to be thrown your way.
    Politics is a dirty business. Always has been. But the trolls lurking in the darker corners of the social web have made it a whole lot dirtier. And the quality of political discourse nationally has only made things worse.
  2. Don’t be too negative.
    Politics, of course, involves saying how badly your opponents are doing. But as a Labour councillor if you over do the Tory-bashing, or vice versa, people will tire of your moaning.
  3. Show don’t tell.
    We know you want to make Anytown a better place to live, work and play. That you’re passionate about the area. And that as a councillor/group/party/administration you have an enviable track-record for getting things done. You would say that wouldn’t you? After all you want our votes! But leave the self aggrandisement to your election blurb and show us instead of tell us. Which means posting pictures and videos of yourself with your sleeves rolled, getting involved in your community. Helping clear the litter. Shovelling snow. Stacking sandbags. Making tea. Forge a positive visual association in people’s minds between your face/name and good work. 
  4. Don’t push the politics.
    You probably enjoy the cut and thrust of the council chamber or the Commons but not everyone likes the adversarial nature of our political system. So ease back on the politics. A conversational tone is better on the social web.
  5. Avoid picking a fight online.
    It’s easy when provoked on Facebook or Twitter to hit back. What’s the old adage? Attack is the best form of defence. It isn’t on the social web. Or at least not very often. Even if you win. Because by hitting back you’re likely to draw more attention to the criticism (unless that’s what you want). Try to take any angry exchange of views offline. Suggest you follow one another so you can deal with the issue by DM (direct message) away from the public gaze. Or if the prospect of following your arch nemesis seems a step too far (although can always unfollow one another later) offer to email them instead. Anything instead of a public slanging match.
  6. Don’t post just for the sake of it.
    Overposting increases the background noise (I liken it to the shash of a mistuned, old school radio) and makes it even harder for you to cut through. Post too much and you risk becoming the online equivalent of the councillor, unloved even by their own party, who drones on and on and on and on…at council meetings. Or the little boy who cried wolf once too often, so when he had something really important to say nobody was listening.
  7. Go easy on slavishly sharing and reposting material from your party’s central social media accounts.
    If we want to hear from Boris or Jeremy or Jo or Nicola we can always follow them ourselves. Encourage us to follow you because of you not because you’re simply a cipher for Conservative Central Office or whatever. Local people still vote for local candidates and often across party lines. How many times have I heard “Ooh I’ve never voted Tory/Labour/Lib Dem/SNP/Plaid before in my life but councillor so and so gets my vote every time because they’re local and you see them at all the local events. He even lets us throw wet sponges at him and the vicar in the stocks at the village fete.” (I made that last bit up but you get my point).
  8. Be nice and be human.
    It’s easy to forget that politics can be consensual. Be generous and (even grudgingly) praise your opponents when they vote for something you believe in. Show us who you are behind the rosette. It’s the social web not the antisocial web.
  9. Listen and watch.
    The social web is a great place to tap into the community “vibe.” You’ll be alerted to issues that need dealing with more quickly this way than waiting for somebody to bring it to your attention at one of your surgeries. Be the councillor with your finger on the pulse.
  10. Walk away.
    And finally, back where we started, used strategically the ups of using the social web can far outweigh the downs. But if the online abuse gets too much, switch off, close your accounts (at least temporarily) and walk away. Nobody needs that kind of shit in their lives. Not even politicians!

Richard Uridge facilitates ACM Training’s social media and other communication workshops. We regularly have councillors attending our open, public workshops. Or why not book us to deliver this training in-house for your group or administration? That’s the way we work with hundreds of local authorities across the UK from Aberdeenshire to Devon and from Bangor to Boston. It could just get you re-elected!

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Prince Andrew and that Newsnight interview.

Approx. reading time: 4 minutes

Let me start by declaring an interest: I believe the monarchy should be abolished and that the UK won’t become a mature democracy unless and until it gets rid of the royals, although I appreciate the enormous sacrifice the queen has made in service of her country and would only make this long overdue constitutional change at the end of her reign.

So the republican part of me was pleased that prince Andrew made such a hash of his Newsnight interview with Emily Maitlis. But the media trainer in me was appalled that someone should perform so badly. Or as one royal watcher put it:

“I was expecting a train crash. That was a plane crashing into an oil tanker, causing a tsunami, triggering a nuclear explosion level bad.”

Charlie Proctor, Royal Central website editor.

The purpose of this post then is to help you avoid a similar nuclear explosion level bad interview should you find yourself in a bunker like the prince.

People with controversies swirling around them do interviews in an attempt to put the record straight and, in doing so, rescue their reputations. But if, as a result, records ends up wonkier and reputations more tattered, then saying nothing is probably the better option – the least said soonest mended approach as it were. It’s a tough call though, not least because you have to factor in not only what you say in response to the questions asked – the content – but how you say it – the tone. And you’ve got to get both right. Plenty of innocent interviewees have been found guilty in the court of public opinion not on factual but on tonal grounds. I should add at this point that although Andrew is being judged on both counts I’m going to limit my comments here to matters of tone because none of us (him and his alleged victim aside) has any way of telling his absolute guilt or innocence.

Being tonally correct means saying you’re sorry even though you may think you have nothing to apologise for. Being tonally correct means conceding some ground. And it means showing compassion.

Show some compassion

It might not have got him off the rap entirely, but imagine how much better it would’ve been had Andrew felt able to acknowledge right at the start of the interview that he appreciated his discomfort was nothing compared to the pain and suffering felt by the victims of sexual abuse. That he couldn’t begin to imagine how awful that would be. That by speaking he wasn’t in any way, shape or form trying to belittle or undermine those who’d experienced it.

And being truly compassionate extends beyond victims to perpetrators. So Andrew should next have nodded to the anguish that led his friend, Jeffrey Epstein, to take his own life and to the grief felt by the financier’s close friends and family.

Concede some ground

When you’re under attack defending every inch of ground seems instinctively like the right thing to do. It rarely is. In military metaphors and media interviews if the ground you’re on is dodgy then pull back to safer ground. To a position that is easier to defend. And concede it voluntarily. Don’t be forced to retreat. Because otherwise there’ll be casualties. A bloodied reputation. What Andrew should have said more plainly than he did, is something like this:

“I was a poor judge of character. With hindsight I was wrong to count on him as a friend. Again with hindsight, I was wrong to see him (as we often see our friends however badly chosen) through rose-tinted spectacles. And out of misguided loyalty I was wrong not to have ended that friendship much sooner.”

Note the number of wrongs in the preceding paragraph. I accept, of course, that three wrongs don’t make a proverbial right. But repeating a point at least that many times reinforces it and prepares the ground tonally for the next step…

Say sorry

Now because you’ve conceded you were wrong, wrong, wrong you can say you’re sorry, sorry, sorry reinforcing that point in a similar fashion. You’re sorry that while you personally saw nothing untoward, the hugely disturbing fact remains Epstein abused girls and young women. You’re sorry that you were such a poor judge of character (whilst adding that abusers go to great lengths to hide their behaviour from those around them). You’re sorry that you didn’t end the friendship sooner. Sorry that by association the royal family has been tarnished. Sorry, especially, that your own daughters have been affected. Sorry that you haven’t on this occasion upheld the extremely high standards demanded of royals.

Incidentally, you should never ask for pity – certainly not explicitly. Show pity for others and others, if they think you deserve it, will show pity for you. Pity has to be earned. And while we’re on the subject of pity, in crisis communications (and this certainly qualifies as that) pity is one of the three Ps. The other two are praise and promise. So Andrew might also have added his praise for the hard work and diligence of those investigating Epstein’s crimes and promised to do all he can to assist those inquiries. Which begs a follow up question (and did from Emily Maitlis): so you’d be happy to travel to the US and speak to the FBI if necessary? To which there is but one short response: “Yes, of course. I want to help and I have nothing to hide.”

Unless you do. In which case you’ve got to be a great liar. Hope there’s no smoking gun. Or exercise your right to remain silent. Which brings us right back to where we started and the decision to do the interview in the first place. We’re led to believe Andrew’s spin doctor resigned after just a few weeks in the role because his advice to the prince was to take the fifth as the Americans might say.

So what would my advice have been? If I thought the prince could manage the interview process as I’ve outlined above and proved he could do it during some realistic rehearsals (with me playing the role of Maitlas) then I’d have told him to ask mum. If he couldn’t, then I’d have told him to keep mum. As it is, he didn’t seek my help and, like I said, I’m a republican so there’ll be two heads on pikes outside Buckingham Palace: mine and his. My Aunty Dee always said I looked a bit like him and we’re about the same age. So if you’re passing I’ll be the one mouthing Two Princes by the Spin Doctors.

I ain’t got no future or a family tree
But I know what a prince and lover ought to be

The Spin Doctors – Two Princes

Richard Uridge facilitates ACM Training’s media and communications workshops.

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What #Boris should’ve said

Approx. reading time: 2 minutes

When even the usually pro-Johnson Daily Mail joins the now deafening calls for our wannabe Prime Minister to say something about that row, the MP and his advisors will know that saying nothing is no longer an option. Not that it ever was in my view. Questions, however intrusive, have to be dealt with. Because until they’re dealt with it’s nigh on impossible to move on.

But there’s a world of difference between dealing with questions and answering them. And it’s in this gap that if I was coaching the MP I’d seek to find some wriggle room to do six things:

  1. Say sorry.
  2. Say thank you.
  3. Offer some context.
  4. Concede some ground.
  5. Make a promise.
  6. Sound contrite (but without completely losing the BoJo mojo – whatever that is).

So here’s what Boris should’ve said:

“First of all thank you to our publicly-spirited neighbours for being concerned about our welfare and doing the right thing when they couldn’t raise us by ringing the doorbell. And secondly thank you to the police for responding so swiftly. Better safe than sorry is, very sensibly, their guiding principle. 

What Boris Johnson should’ve said but didn’t

“The police were quickly assured that this was nothing more than a full and frank but otherwise run-of-the-mill exchange of views between two colourful adults. 

And I would like to reassure you in turn that our only sin was to fail to realise that we were discussing matters – yes animatedly and at the end of a stressful week – a little louder than we’d realised and a little louder than is sensible with thin walls and open windows. 

Now I don’t mean to make light of matters but this was nothing more than one of those ding dongs that many, many couples have when they let off steam. To read anything more into this whole affair, to impugn my character and, more importantly, to impugn Carrie’s character is plain wrong. So too is questioning the motives of our neighbours. They did what is right and I commend them for it. To condemn them  is again plain wrong. 

I apologise for having drawn them and you all into this. In most circumstances this kind of lovers tiff would be forgotten with the kiss and make up. But I accept that running for PM is not most circumstances and you have a right – up to a point – to inquire into my private life. That’s why I’ve said what I’ve said today. I shall be saying no more on the matter if for no other reason than to give poor Carrie a break. She and I both agree that there are very many more important matters which we should be discussing and it would be a crying shame if those issues weren’t properly aired because the two of us had aired our difference of opinion so vocally. 

So forgive me if I move on.

I call this my deal with and move on approach. Compare this to the one he tried which might loosely be called the ignore and move on technique. It rarely works except where the questions you’re ignoring are trivial and the audience agrees they’re trivial and sides with you instead of the journalists asking such trivia.


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Top tips for dealing with difficult callers

Approx. reading time: 3 minutes

People are getting angrier. Or certainly less reasonable. That’s what our clients are telling us as we travel across Britain delivering our dealing with difficult people training. So why? In the local government sector (and others) it’s probably linked to a decade of austerity which has led to services being reduced or withdrawn altogether and service users getting frustrated as a result. It’s also down, I’d suggest, to the general coarsening of public discourse fuelled, if not sparked, by Brexit. People hear our so-called leaders slinging insults at one another across the floor of the House of Commons and elsewhere and they, quite understandably, follow suit. After all that’s how leadership works isn’t it? Leaders lead. The rest of us follow. Leading by bad example as it were. 

Social media hasn’t helped either. Facebook, Twitter et al have led us to believe (wrongly) that we can get pretty much instant gratification. Instant likes. Instant thumbs ups. Instant responses to our problems. But so many sectors don’t run at the same dizzying speed. Complain on Twitter about your local authority in just seconds, then sit back and watch your blood pressure rise as the complaint takes days, weeks or even months to resolve.

All of which means there are more difficult people to deal with numerically and there are more difficult people to deal with behaviourally. So pity the poor people at the other end of the line getting sworn at, threatened and generally mistreated.

And I should add that frustration doesn’t just lead to anger. Sometimes it leads to tears. Callers are crying out for help – literally. Both, in their different ways, are hugely challenging for call handlers who, if they’re not managed properly, can suffer what’s called vicarious traumatisation a result. Heck, it can even lead to mental health issues if not properly addressed. Sad, mad and bad callers lead potentially to sad, mad and bad call handlers!

At ACM Training we equip call handlers with a range of tools to deal with difficult people and challenging behaviour. And we help them deal with the impact it can have on them personally and professionally so they can avoid the attendant stress and potential burnout. Here’s a list of call handling tips we drew up with the help of delegates who attended a series of short workshops at a local authority in the North West of England.

  1. Don’t interrupt them in full flow – it’ll only make matters worse.
  2. Remember angry callers are a bit like fireworks – they’ll fizzle out eventually and that’s the time to interject.
  3. Fireworks can flare up again.
  4. Try to establish why they are angry – by listening carefully and asking the right questions
  5. Agree with them – it can defuse an awkward situation, even if you only agree with a narrow part of what they’re saying.
  6. Say sorry – it costs nothing and, phrased carefully, isn’t an admission of guilt or wrongdoing.
  7. Concede some ground or stand together on the common ground to avoid shouting across the gulf of your differences.
  8. Don’t state the obvious – it antagonises angry callers.
  9. Don’t promise the undeliverable in the hope that it’ll satisfy them – they’ll see through your ruse.
  10. Make the most of what you can offer.
  11. Listen. You’ve got two ears and one mouth – use them in about that proportion!
  12. Interject regularly with little noises (uh, oh, I see, yes etc) to let them know you’re still listening.
  13. Remember their anger may be perfectly reasonable in the circumstances.
  14. Try not to take it personally – it’s not you they’re angry with but the situation or even themselves.
  15. Keep your eye on the bigger picture – they may have or need vital information.
  16. Set ground rules as soon as you reasonably can to help reduce/manage expectation and heighten appreciation.
  17. Empathise by trying to picture yourself in their situation.
  18. Sweet reason – try explaining why you need what you need from them or why you can’t help.
  19. Perspective – help them see the bigger picture and that in the scheme of things their circumstances aren’t so bad after all (assuming they aren’t!).
  20. Don’t tell them to calm down – it’ll probably have the opposite effect.
  21. Instead get them to do something practical – in concentrating on the task in hand they’ll be diverted from their anger which often springs from a feeling of impotence and helplessness.
  22. Remain calm yourself (or at the very least try to sound calm). If you respond to anger with anger the call will quickly descend in a downward spiral. Speak deliberately and clearly (not too slow because it can be read as patronising) and you’ll find there’s a chance they’ll mirror your demeanour and calm down themselves.
  23. Abusive or threatening calls should not and are not tolerated in everyday call handling and it is perfectly acceptable to terminate such a call if the abuse continues after an initial warning. However, in a genuine emergency there may need to be more flexibility and tolerance.
  24. Avoid burn out by taking frequent breaks and have a chance to offload any personal stress onto colleagues and/or supervisors. Remember a problem shared really is a problem halved. 

This post first appeared on our sister blog Difficult People.

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Dealing with difficult people (and presidents)

Approx. reading time: 2 minutes

In May 1998 ACM Training’s sister company, ACP Television, filmed Bill Clinton arriving for the G8 Summit in Birmingham. The Lewinsky affair from a few years earlier was still dogging the US President. So much so that there was huge speculation surrounding the arrival of the First Lady separately aboard Air Force 2. So much so that the media were keen to secure pictures of Clinton outside the Swallow Hotel (use your imagination) where he stayed for the duration of the conference not far away at the ICC. And we thought he was a controversial figure!

So seeing Donald Trump touchdown at Stansted for his rather more controversial UK visit made us think what a difference 21 years makes. And gave us a great excuse to delve into the company archives. What we knew then but were too polite to say was that Boris arrived smelling heavily of drink (no, not that Boris, the Russian President Boris Yeltsin). What we also knew was that there was a mad scramble to find any two star fuel for Yeltsin’s Communist-era ZiL limousine and that the motorcycle outriders from West Midlands Police were convinced the car wouldn’t make it to the city centre giving them a massive security headache.

But what we didn’t know then was that our dealing with difficult people suite of courses would all these years later be our best-sellers. So for old times’ sake and in the spirit of entente cordiale we’re offering Trump (and his entourage) 10% off any of our difficult people sessions such as managing difficult teams, handling awkward conversations and tackling trade wars (actually we made up that last one). We’re convinced they’ll make an enormous contribution to world peace. And office peace for that matter. Which is why we’ve decided to extend the offer to non-Trump delegates like you. To secure your discount simply enter #TrumpUKVisit in the promotional code box when you make your next booking. But hurry – the offer ends seven days after Trump leaves UK territory.


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Formal or informal language? What toilet signs can tell us about writing for the web

Approx. reading time: 2 minutes

This is the tale of two loos. Both of them at venues we use at ACM Training for our open workshops. One of them – Ort House Conference Centre in Camden – at the more traditional end of the market. The other – Waterfront Meeting Rooms in Bristol – at the funkier end. Now I’ve nothing against traditional or funky per se. But it’s funny how the signage at the two venue follows suite.

“We will endeavour to fix the issue in a timely manner,” asserts the sign from the Building & Facilities Team (their capitals) at Ort House when, in truth, the team is probably just a bloke with a spanner who doesn’t speak like that in real life – the bloke, that is, not the spanner.

By comparison the Waterfront sign is much less formal and the writer has even thought about the audience by appealing directly to younger gents (I can’t vouch whether the same sign appears in the ladies) with the “or your parents’ home” line.

Now you could argue that a sign on a toilet wall doesn’t really matter because people’s impression of the venues is based on so much more – the friendliness of the reception staff, the cleanliness of the facilities, the airiness of the training rooms. And that’s certainly true with face-to-face businesses. But what about those businesses whose customers only transact with them online in a virtual sense? Or those where the initial contact is via a website or blog? Then words really matter because, like the reception staff in this example, they are for many people the first point of contact. And first impressions matter.

So if you’re writing for websites instead of toilet signs you need to think long and hard about the most appropriate use of language. For most organisations conversational but purposeful is best. That and plain English. Have a ponder next time you visit the loo.

By the way, I have endeavoured, on behalf of ORT House, to fix the linguistic issue in a timely manner so here, for what it’s worth, is my alternative…

If it’s broke we’ll fix it. You just need to let us know.

If your website is broke (linguistically that is) we’ll help you fix it.Or, better still, we can train you to fix it yourself. Either way you just need to let us know.


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“Right Royal chump leaves BBC” – how Danny Baker became Twitter’s latest twit.

Approx. reading time: 2 minutes
Danny Baker: still smiling as he’s doorstepped by reporters following his sacking by the BBC.
Image credit: PA

He’s not on the BBC’s list of top earners, so we can safely assume Danny Baker was paid less than £150,000 a year for his Saturday morning job at Radio 5 Live. But getting the sack for tweeting a picture of a smartly dressed chimp captioned “royal baby leaves hospital” was an expensive mistake all the same – both financially and reputationally.

Of course, he’s not the first to, dare I say, make such a chump of himself on the social web. And he definitely won’t be the last. So what is it about Twitter that leads so many people who should know better to say silly things?

“Facility and immediacy combined are a toxic mix.”

Richard Uridge, social media trainer, ACM Training

Facility, that is ease of use, is the first part of the problem. Speed is the second part. The two together make a toxic mix. The ubiquity of mobile phones with their always on apps leads to what I call instant quips: words and images that we realise, too late (post post if you will ), are really not that funny or, worse still, potentially offensive. If we had to go home or back to the office and login via a dial-up internet connection (remember them?) we’d have time for reflection.

There’s a third component in the Danny Baker case. Journalists and, in particular, those working in live broadcasting thrive on the buzz. Believe me I’ve been there. It’s like a drug. In fact it is a drug – just a naturally occurring one called dopamine. So tweeting leads to a natural high. And, just like junkies, the more you tweet the more you need to get the same level of high. Until one day you overdose.

So what’s the answer? Short of coming over all cold turkey and deleting your Twitter account(s), I recommend you follow my seven minute rule as a part of a social media policy. It works a bit like a longer version of the seven second delay on early radio broadcasts which meant that bloopers and profanities could be stopped before they made it to air. Wait seven minutes – you really won’t miss the party – and if the tweet still works* for you and, crucially, your target audience then by all means hit the tweet button. And if it doesn’t? Then use the next seven minutes to change it until it does.

*By works for you I mean is the tweet or social media post purposeful in that it helps move you even a small step towards your personal or organisational objectives? By works for your audience I mean is the tweet likely to be received in the way it was intended. If the answer to one or the other question or both is no then at best you’re simply adding to the white noise on the social web and at worst you’re going to land yourself a P45. Just ask Danny Baker.


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How #tweetyourthesis can help academics prepare for media interviews

Approx. reading time: 3 minutes

The #tweetyourthesis hashtag has been doing the social media rounds in higher education since it was coined by Susan Greenberg, a lecturer at Roehampton in 2012. Or that’s what my own very cursory and possibly unreliable Google-based research tells me. Whatever the hashtag’s origin, it quickly caught on as a way of letting off a bit of steam between postgrads to relieve the pain of knocking out (😭) a 50,000 word research paper. But after spending an enjoyable and productive afternoon media training scientists at the University of Birmingham (including a PhD student about to start writing up her thesis), it struck me that this harmless bit of fun is a brilliant way of helping prepare all academics for media interviews whether they’re talking about their actual theses or some other research.

Why? Because turning your thesis into a Tweet (even if you don’t publish it) can help you synthesise what your research is about from a layperson’s perspective and become a better communicator to external audiences as a result. After all, #sciencecommunication is vitally important but that’s another hashtag! Back to #tweetyourthesis …

It’s a highly reductive process. Turning 50,000 words or more into 280 characters or fewer is a challenge. But doing media is a challenge. Not least because it too is a highly reductive process with that 20 minute interview (at 3 words per second approximately 3,600 words) being edited down to a 20 second soundbite (of about 60 words). So better get used to it before the interview and, if you actually #tweetyourthesis , crowdsource advice from others who’ve been there, done that, got the Today programme tee shirt (it has a picture of John Humphries on the front and a Rottweiler on the back).

Here at ACM Training I use a planning matrix to help academics (and others for that matter) prepare for interviews. It sounds rather lofty and students of a certain age are often disappointed when I don’t conjure Keanu Reeves from my training tool box. But when all is said and done it’s simply a piece of paper or screen divided into three columns. Column one is where you jot down the three most important features of your research – let’s call them key messages. These shouldn’t necessarily be what’s most interesting to you but what’s most interesting from the audience’s perspective. Column two is where you choose up to three facts or figures to evidence those messages. And column three is for the narrative or stories that provide illustration. Think of column one aiding brevity, column two understanding or rationality, column three the emotionally engaging stuff and all three together the clarity and relevance. I then ask my trainees to practice extemporising a series of 20-30″ soundbites from their matrices using the stopwatch or countdown timer on their smartphones to keep them honest.

I like playing #tweetyourthesis too, although, of course, I wouldn’t dream of actually Tweeting your thesis (and I haven’t started mine yet). So here’s my effort at taking the editor’s proverbial red pen to the academics I met earlier this week. You know who you are. And, if I’ve done a half decent job, your colleagues should recognise you from what I’ve written. Feel free to copy, paste and Tweet what follows from your own social media accounts – using the #tweetyourthesis hashtag, naturally. Or, better still, come up with your own version and Tweet that instead.

A quantum clock so accurate if you set it to midnight at Big Bang it’d only be a second out nearly 14 billion years later. (That’s today). One that potentially could make navigation systems more accurate especially in remote areas hidden from the gaze of satellites. [266 characters]

Birmingham University quantum physicist

A contact lens-size sticking plaster with tiny grooves on its surface that encourages collagen (think human scaffolding) to heal without scarring, could save the sight of million and reduce the physiological and psychological impact of other scars. [248 characters]

Birmingham University biochemical engineer

Atoms harnessed to measure tiny changes in gravity to help us “see” below the surface. Like Newton’s apple but smaller and colder. Research that could be applied to roadworks and save us hours sitting in avoidable traffic jams and £ millions in lost productivity. [263 characters]

Birmingham University metrologist

It’s worth noting the #tweetyourthesis hashtag started when Tweets were limited to 140 characters. Now you’ve got 280. Easy innit?

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Blogging – the perfect excuse for working from home

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