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Adversarial or conversational – why media training should cover both styles of interview (and everything in between)

Approx. reading time: 2 minutes

For years now the aspiration for most media trainees from the very top levels of industry, commerce and, especially, politics has been to be prepared for a haranguing by Humphrys (John, long-standing rottweiler-in-chief of BBC Radio Four’s flagship Today programme). And for years media trainers have dutifully helped them meet that aspiration. It’s been the default position on both sides of the training room. But with Humphrys’ kennel mate Paxman no longer baring his teeth on Newsnight, a new, less adversarial kind of journalism has been taking its place. This more conversational approach might, on the face of it, be less challenging for interviewees. Yet it presents them with different kinds of challenges. Ones which require less obvious and softer presentational skills than before. So media trainers must adapt their approach too.

I was reminded of this when given the brief to train the chief executive and senior management team at a non-departmental government body. The media manager told me that, like many people at their level, they’d been media trained earlier in their careers. But not recently and certainly not in a way that prepared them for the kinds of interviews they were increasingly being asked to give. Interviews where the expectation from the media was that the interviewees would be more reflective, less inclined to simply deliver their key messages irrespective of the questions (slippery style as I call it) and more entertaining (whatever that means) to boot. They’d clearly failed to meet this expectation, the media manager went on, because a recent interview hadn’t been used. Spiked, as us journalists with a print background like to say. All of which, he concluded, was a pity because they had some really important points to make.

In essence, the problem here is one of perception. One person’s shiny key messages are another person’s ditchwater. A safe pair of hands from an organisational perspective can be terminally dull from a media perspective.

Let me put it this way: if, by comparison to other contributors, your key messages are the least interesting (to readers, viewers and listeners) then in order to survive the edit and, in future, be asked back, your contribution has to be the most engaging.

Now, of course, I’d be the first to admit this is a gross oversimplification. And I’m not suggesting that if what you’ve got to say is dull then you’d best deliver it from a unicycle while dressed as a clown and juggling three chainsaws. What I am saying, however, is that you have to work even harder to frame your key messages in the most appealing way possible and deliver them with all the presentational charm you can muster. It’s a tall order. But one that at ACM Training we can help you with!


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Social media for councillors

Approx. reading time: 2 minutes

Should councillors here in the UK take a leaf out of the Donald Trump playbook and be on Twitter? Set up their own Facebook page? Start a YouTube channel? Post pictures to Instagram? Or, like me, write blogs?

The answer to all these questions should be, in my view, a resounding yes. Call me old-fashioned, but democracy, whether it’s national or local, works best when people know what decisions are being made on their behalf. When I first started as a cub reporter on the Reading Chronicle in the early 1980s, local newspapers had healthy circulations and could be relied on to report local government. But now that kind of local journalism has been emasculated, councils – and wider civic society – has to find other ways of keeping people informed. And one of those ways should be via the social web.

That said, doing so is not without risk. A lot of councillors I speak to – especially women – are reluctant to promote themselves and their vital work via Twitter in particular, because of an understandable fear of trolls. And that’s not the only barrier; many elected members are, to put it bluntly, getting on a bit and can find the technological and editorial challenges intimidating. It’s a generational thing!

But I firmly believe the positives outweigh the negatives. And with getting on for 40 million UK users of Facebook, not having anything to do with social media is a crazy as the councillor who decided to have nothing more to do with his local paper (the one I wrote for as it happens) and who lost his seat at the next election.

This presentation was part of a longer social media training session for Guildford Borough Council. I share it freely (with their permission and with the addition of a commentary) in the hope that other councillors or would-be councillors will be encouraged to have a go.

I should add that in the spirit of openness Guildford Borough Council webcast many of their training sessions including the one that this presentation was a part of. I think it’s fair to say that watching it via the web  isn’t quite the same as being in the room. But if you fancy a flavour of proceedings you can see them here. And, as you’ll quickly gather, I’m the grey-haired geezer at the front wearing a black shirt.


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Time management for time wasters – minimising distractions

Approx. reading time: 4 minutes

Procrastination is the thief of time

The old proverb needs rewriting. It should read distraction is the thief of time. Because since the saying was penned by the poet, Edward Young, in the 18th century, distractions have grown to become the bigger criminal. In fact, I’d argue they’re now the biggest crook of all when it comes to time wasting. Way ahead of not keeping a to do list, multi-tasking and failing to prioritise.

Young wasn’t distracted by smart phones when he was writing Night Thoughts where the line first appeared. He felt no uncontrollable Pavlovian urge to scan news websites every time he heard a corny jingle. Wasn’t constantly checking his social media accounts for thumbs and hearts. Or snowed under drifts of non-urgent emails. His was a simpler life. Shorter I’ll grant you. But the price we pay for progress – for literally living longer – is that we waste more and more of that extra time on pointless, frivolous and unproductive tasks. Little wonder we’re becoming less and less efficient.

Some studies reckon we waste up to two hours a day at work by being distracted. I’d argue that in some organisations that’s a conservative estimate. Indeed, the Institute for Public Policy Research in it’s report Prosperity and Justice: a plan for the new economy, highlights the fact that productivity in the UK is 13% lower than in other G7 countries. But whatever’s being lost why waste the most precious commodity of all? So if you’re serious about getting back some of that invaluable time, to become more efficient, more productive, then learning how to manage distractions and interruptions is a really important part of time management. And as a consequence I can say, without a hint of irony, that it’s something delegates spend a fair bit of time on in my time management workshops at ACM Training.

So if you haven’t got the time to attend (and, of course, I think you should make the time) here are my top five tips for managing distractions:

  1. Recognise what’s truly distracting you in the first place by listing the source of the distraction every time you’re distracted over, say, a period of a week. The distractions are very likely to be digital – text, email and social media pop ups for example. But don’t forget to list the analogue too – a noisy office, and open door, a room with a view…
  2. Switch off, shut out or turn your back on those distractions that you can reasonably do so to. In digital terms that means going into your phone, tablet or computer settings (and preferably all three because of multi-screening) and switching off audio and visual notifications. Better still, turn off the phone entirely. In analogue terms it might mean closing your office door and putting up an old-fashioned do not disturb sign or rearranging the office furniture so that you’re not endlessly daydreaming over the view from the window.
  3. Limit those distractions that are genuinely unavoidable. For example, you may be on call and, therefore, unable to switch off your phone. You can always turn it face down to avoid visual alerts but still hear the ring (generally we’re more easily distracted by vision than by sound). Can you limit email receives to once an hour or even less frequently? The always on, always available attitude may make us feel important but it’s rarely necessary in most workplace settings.
  4. Take regular breaks. If you’re hungry or tired, getting deep vein thrombosis from sitting still for too long or out of breath from rushing about too much take it easy, if only for five minutes. Abraham Maslow was right – we simply can’t ignore our physiological needs and the harder we try to ignore them the more distracted by them we are. If you try concentrating on a really important task on an empty stomach (and, therefore, an energy-deprived brain) I can guarantee you’ll be distracted. So stop. And during your break by all means be distracted momentarily by all those things you’ve listed in point one. Think of it as your reward. I call it compartmentalising. You have a big compartment for work. You have a smaller one for distractions. Not one big noisy space where they all compete for your attention. Because the distractions win pretty much every time. They’ve been designed that way. Attractive distractions if I can coin another phrase.
  5. Schedule the most important stuff for times when you’re least likely to be distracted. That might be early mornings before everybody else has got to work (or got up if you work from home). Or it might be in the evening when everyone else has gone home (or to bed). I’m a big believer in handheld technology freeing us from the constraints – and distractions – of the desk or office. Sitting in the corner of a coffee shop where nobody disturbs you because nobody knows you. Pecking away at your tablet screen to finish that annual report. Or blog post. Now how about a slice of cake (see point 4) or, better still, a bag of nuts?

I should add that these points refer mainly to what could loosely be called external, physical distractions. But, of course, we can also be mightily distracted by the internal, mental and emotional stuff swirling around in our heads and hearts. I’ll make dealing with these the subject of a separate post in this occasional series, Time Management for Time Wasters. If I can find the time!

Sandy Keating

This poster on the London Underground reminded me there are “internal” distractions too!
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Isn’t writing for the web just like any other writing?

Approx. reading time: 2 minutes

Well yes and no. Yes because the web provides writers with just another medium for their words. No because web users read in a different way to readers of text in other media such as newspapers, books and magazines. They read in a much less linear fashion flitting across the screen like a butterfly looking for something to settle on. And when they do settle they tend not to hang around for long if there’s nothing of interest – not least because just a few clicks away there’s the whole of the World Wide Web to distract them. So as a web writer first you’ve got to grab your readers’ attention, then you’ve got to hold them long enough for your words to work their magic. And if that wasn’t hard enough you’ve got very little space to do it – especially if your words are displayed on a tablet or smartphone.

If I viewed the preceding paragraph on my iPhone in landscape mode, in a font large enough to read without straining my eyes (Calibri 11 if you’re a real anorak and want to check for yourself) I ’d get halfway through the seventh line before having to…

 

 

 

 

…scroll down. As a rule of thumb – an ancient expression that seems oddly modern in an age of handheld devices – you can squeeze 120 words on a Smartphone. Tablets, laptops and desktops can, of course, accommodate progressively more in one “screenful”. Read this on your iPad in landscape mode and you’d get about as far as the word anorak in the second paragraph – a word count of about 200. Turn the screen through 90 degrees and you can squeeze in an extra hundred or so words – 330 in total. A figure not to be scoffed at in a world where Twitter limits you to 280 characters but still relatively few compared to the olde worlde of paper and ink.

Take the book that’s been gathering dust under my bed for so long it’s now more dust than book. It’s called The Isles – A History by Norman Davies. It contains approximately 450 words per page – twice that between page turns given that you get to see two pages at a time. How do I know this? Because I am that anorak! What’s more I’ve just counted 2,750 words on a double page spread in the best-selling tabloid newspaper and 3,056 words on a similar two pager in a leading broadsheet.

I’m not saying people won’t scroll down. I’m just saying that these differences between screen and page demand much of us as writers. Certainly we shouldn’t be putting really important stuff so deep into a webpage that people have to scroll down to find it because they simply may not bother. To avoid this problem we have to “front-load” web pages – that is, put the most critical information at the top of the page where it’s clearly visible. In the old days of broadsheet newspapers it was called putting stuff “above the fold” where, on a news stand, the bit of the article on the top half of the front page could instantly be seen by potential buyers.

Authors have long been aware of the need to keep readers reading over the potentially awkward chapter breaks. That’s why they often set up some kind of conflict towards the end of one chapter but keep the resolution from us until the beginning of the next. Done well the book becomes unputdownable. The challenge then is to make our websites unclickawayfromable!


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Crisis communications planning – is it a waste of time?

Approx. reading time: 3 minutes

Heard of a chap called Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke the Elder? No, nor had I! But odds are you have heard of one of his quotes…

No plan survives contact with the enemy.

Actually that’s not quite what the Prussian Chief of Staff said (more of which later) but for now I want to ask if the same can be said of communications plans? Are they any more likely to survive contact with a crisis than battle plans with foes? If my recent experience working with a second tier responder to the Grenfell Tower disaster is anything to go by, the short answer is no.

Reviewing their response to the tragedy, I was astounded to be told that they hadn’t, in fact, activated their emergency plan. They’d simply been too busy in the immediate fallout of the fire to even think of it. And by the time they did, several days later, it hardly seemed worth bothering. To this day I’m not sure they’ve looked at the plan.

In effect there was no contact with the enemy, so who knows if it would have survived? Which is a pity because the plan may have worked – at least in part – and led to a better response* than the actual one. And even in failure it might have been instructive by making comms plans for future crises more robust.

What, then, can we learn from this peculiar affair?

Well the first lesson, surely, is that unless crisis comms plans are regularly reviewed and rehearsed, they’ll be forgotten or ignored at the very moment they were designed to help. Risk-averse industries like aviation and nuclear power are required, by law, to practice for emergencies so that if, or when, an actual emergency unfolds everybody is well versed in how to respond – both at an operational level and at a media, PR and communications level. At ACM Training we help a number of clients such as the nuclear decommissioning company, Magnox, achieve the realism necessary to make the rehearsals effective and the learning long lasting. For example, we provide what we call pseudo media news crews to act exactly as the media would in reality, asking awkward questions, sticking cameras and microphones where they’re really not welcome or expected. And now, with social media playing such a significant role in crisis comms, we have the ability to test an organisation’s online response to an event through our socialmediatestbed.com tool.

For the second learning point we need to go back to von Moltke and examine what he actually said:

The tactical result of an engagement forms the base for new strategic decisions because victory or defeat in a battle changes the situation to such a degree that no human acumen is able to see beyond the first battle. In this sense one should understand Napoleon’s saying: ‘I have never had a plan of operations.’ Therefore no plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force.

If we swap the word battle for crisis and think of victory and defeat in terms of positive and negative outcomes, what von Moltke is saying, in effect, is that no communications plan can extend with any certainty beyond the first contact with a major crisis. And I’m inclined to agree. In my experience no anticipated, planned and rehearsed version of events has ever been close to the actual version. In most cases the imagined event is a lot worse than the actual event (perhaps that’s because emergency planners have overwrought imaginations or are just plain pessimists). Rarely is the reality worse, although it was undoubtedly so with Grenfell. In all cases the reality is different. But does this mean that crisis communications planning is a waste of time?

Again, let’s turn to von Moltke for some beyond-the-grave advice. Despite what he said he wasn’t an advocate of going into battle without any plan at all. He was an advocate, however, of flexibility. And so it should be in crisis comms. Have a plan. But be prepared to adapt it as circumstances change.

Please don’t leave it in the cupboard.

* In fairness perhaps I should have said an even better response, because unlike, say, the council, my client’s response to the Grenfell Tower fire is considered to have been good including by those directly affected by the disaster.


 

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Chequers Mate – how to break the deadlock in negotiations

Approx. reading time: 2 minutes

Beyond Boris’s inelegant turd-polishing outburst exactly what went on behind the heavy doors and high windows of Chequers during the Cabinet’s Brexit awayday negotiations will be kept secret under the Thirty Year Rule. And by the time the minutes are released to the National Archive Brexit may have been such an unalloyed success/disaster (delete depending on your own disposition) that only the nerdiest constitutional historians pore over them. But we don’t have to wait until 2048 to find out because ACM Training’s mediation and negotiation techniques trainer, Sandy Keating, has imagined, in her inimitable Australian way, how the discussions might have been handled…

Even before the ministerial limousines started sweeping down the narrow Buckinghamshire lanes, the most eagle-eyed hacks would have noticed an Office Depot van turn into the Chequers’ driveway. In the back a stack of flipchart pads and a dozen or so boxes of fat felt pens. You really can’t negotiate without these tools of the trade. Oh, and Post It notes. Everybody loves Post It notes although, because this was a Conservative get together, the driver was told in no uncertain terms not to bring any of those pinko lefty ones. Or orange ones for that matter because the colour would remind them too much of Nick Clegg. In fact, the only exception to the fifty shades of blue rule was to be several rolls of crimson sticky tape to mark out those uncrossable red lines.

Joking aside, the language you use in negotiation is important. All this talk of red lines is incendiary. It’s perfectly acceptable to make clear you have a position that would be difficult or impossible to give way on. But you must articulate it in an even-tempered way. Cool heads and dispassionate language are, or at least should be, the order of the day. Because, of course, once tempers flare and people start taking things personally positions tend to become entrenched.

When this happens and people are deadlocked I suggest both (or more) parties work separarely in break out groups and list what they want – which is where those flipcharts and pens come in. Then I ask them, in discussion, to put that list in order of importance. The items at the top will necessarily be the things they’re not prepared to give up. But in order to keep those things maybe they are prepared – willing even – to give way on some of the items towards the bottom of the list.

It may seem very old fashioned in this age of tablets and smarphones but actually writing stuff down – making a mark on a piece of paper – is a penny drop moment for so many of the people I’ve trained to negotiate and mediate. When the sides come back together to compare and contrast notes it’s almost always easier to see (literally) the negotiation in terms of WIN-WIN-lose-lose rather than WIN-LOSE. What’s the difference? Well I’ve used upper and lower case letters to emphasise that in order for both sides to win big they both have to lose small – rather than one side winning big at the expense of the other losing big.

The challenge with the Brexit negotiations at a UK-EU level is that one side at least doesn’t seem to know what it wants. Perhaps there weren’t enough flips charts in the back of that van. Possibly they forgot to order enough BluTack. Or, more likely, the caretaker at Chequers wouldn’t let them stick it on the antique wallpaper. That’ll be it. We’re coming unstuck literally and metaphorically.

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FF sake – what musical notation can teach presenters and public speakers

Approx. reading time: 3 minutes

Mozart was a dab hand at the piano. Which is putting it mildly. A veritable child prodigy, by the age of five he was already performing for royalty. And by the time he died – at just 35 – he’d written 600 works including his Piano Concerto 21 shown above.

I mention all this because more than 200 years later Mozart’s music has something to teach us as presenters and public speakers. He knew how to captivate an audience with high notes and low notes. Fast sections and slower, more reflective sections. Louder bits and quieter bits. In short, he scored his compositions in such a way that made them captivating. And I’d argue that you should score your presentations to make them captivating.

Far too many of the presentations I’ve had the misfortune of sitting through wash over me. Not because the content is dull (although it may be) but because the delivery is dull and as a consequence the content, however important, fails to register.

“Blah, blah, blah…

Nobody uses these exact words, of course. But they do use words that when spoken by the same voice, at the same pace and the same tone end up sounding so samey they may as well be.

“…blah, blah, blah.

The net effect of which is to send the audience to sleep. So how can we turn our presentations from unintended lullabies into stirring sonatas?

TEMPO

Well let’s start with tempo. You’ll see the word “andante” appears above the bar at the beginning of the sheet music at the top of this post. This notation of Italian origin is an instruction that the movement or passage should be played at a moderately slow tempo. If the whole concerto was to be played at the same tempo it’d sound much less impressive. It’s the juxtaposition of different tempos that make each stand out and contribute to the overall effect. And so it is with presentations. What bits of your presentation are best delivered allegro – that is fast? And which sections might best be delivered adagio – slowly?

VOLUME

Back to that sheet music you’ll see the letter “p” appears under a couple of notes. This means that the note should be played piano or softly. Two ps together as in pp means the note should be played pianissimo or very softly. It seems counterintuitive but if you want your audience to take notice of a really important point, saying it more quietly than your usual presentational volume (p or pp in musical terms) forces them to listen more carefully and helps reinforce the point. Although not if you’re too quiet – ppp!

At the opposite end of the dynamic range are the effs – f, ff and fff. F stands for forte or loud. FF for fortissimo or very loud. And FFF for fortississimo meaning very, very loud. I’d avoid fff altogether as it can seem really rude and shouty unless done for special effect, in which case it’s probably best to forewarn the audience or, at the very least, explain immediately after the very, very loud passage why it was so. And even ff should be used sparingly as it’s tiresome to listen to permanently loud speakers.

The knack is to vary the volume in a pleasant sounding and naturalistic way just as we do automatically in conversation. Think of your presentation coming to a crescendo – another musical term that means increasing or, literally, growing. Build to a major point or a call to action.

REST

Look carefully at the sheet music above and you’ll see what looks like a fat or bold hyphen at the end. This is what’s called a rest (actually it’s a half rest but let’s not get too technical – this is presentation skills not piano grade 8). A rest mark tells a musician to pause for a period of time to let the previous note die away. To echo into the distance. To be savoured to the very last decibel. And so you should pause for effect in your presentations. Carrying on before the audience has properly understood and appreciated your previous point is to cheapen that point. A tip here. A short pause for the audience can seem like an eternity for us presenters – especially if we’re nervous in which case silence can really spook us. So in order not to under do the pauses count to five in your head in one thousand chunks before moving on.

“One thousand. Two thousand. Three thousand. Four thousand. Five thousand.”

In summary, the human voice is a musical instrument. So play it like one. And if you feel the audience may be getting bored listening to the same old instrument playing the same old song can you change the instrument (if not the song)? By that I mean can you change the presenter? Most presentations tend to have just one voice (you) but can you recruit co-presenters and double-head or even triple-head your next speech? The simple expedient of a change of voice can keep an audience attentive for longer.

Forgive me for a final foray into this musical metaphor. Make sure your presentations are well orchestrated. Be a maestro. Just like Mozart. Aim for a bravura performance.


This post was first published as a podcast (complete with extracts from Mozart’s Piano Concerto 21) in ACM Training’s Five Minute Masterclass series. You can listen to the original there or below.

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Choreographing your presentation – what presenters and public speakers can learn from dancers

Approx. reading time: 4 minutes

Imagine paying good money to see the Birmingham Royal Ballet perform Swan Lake at Sadler’s Wells, only for the dancers to be rooted to the spot throughout the performance. Static. Unmoving. You’d demand a refund.

In ballet, beauty springs from movement and choreographers think long and hard about how dancers use the full extent of the stage, where they position themselves in relation to one another and the audience and which steps to take –  a pas de deux maybe or a pas de chat.

And so it should be in presentations, with speakers giving similar consideration to the choreography of their performances. Now I’m not suggesting for one minute that this means pulling on a pink tutu and sashaying across the boardroom floor but simply injecting some more modest, naturalistic movement into your presentation in a way that compliments your words – energises them even – rather than detracts from them.

Don’t mess with my tutu

Too many presenters I’ve seen (or rather haven’t) stay hidden behind the lectern throughout. And those who do show us their legs often pace nervously up and down an imaginary track and I end up worrying more about the carpet than I do listening to what’s being said.

I get why presenters stay close to the lectern. It’s where their notes are and, looking out at the sea of faces that is the audience, they fret that if they swim too far from this presentational lifebelt they’ll end up drowning. Trouble is that, in a big auditorium in particular, the lectern is usually stage left or right which means you’re closer to one side of the audience than the other. And while the extra distance between you and those opposite may not be an obvious distraction, subconsciously at least, it may leave those farthest away feeling somehow left out.

A lectern house left (stage right) is a long way from the audience sitting diametrically opposite in the back rows.

Mind the gap

And so it is with the people in the cheap seats at the back, again, of the bigger venues. They can feel ignored if you don’t do something to literally or metaphorically close the gap between you and them. Literally closing the gap might mean coming down off the stage (with a radio microphone if the event is that big), walking along the aisle to the back of the auditorium and delivering a section of your talk from there. Metaphorical gap closers include spoken ones – “can you hear me alright back there?” – and unspoken ones such as making eye contact with people in all quadrants of the audience, not just those closest to you. A really good tip I was given years ago is to divide the audience into quarters (or sixths in bigger venues), pick a friendly face in each section (front left, front right, middle left, middle right, etc.) and make eye contact with them periodically. Because of something called parallax it appears as if you’re looking at everybody in each section rather than just one.

Come out come out wherever you are

Now in order to feel comfortable moving away from that lectern or desk and your notes means weaning yourself off those notes, so I’ll make that the subject of another post. But before that let’s explore the consequences of too much movement.

Carpets have feelings too

I’ve written elsewhere about nervousness and posted a 10 point plan for tackling it. Suffice to say that when our mind is racing our body often follows suit. So we pace up and down. And for the audience it can be a bit like watching a game of tennis where we’re the ball and their eyes swivel from left to right and back again ad nauseam which, in Latin incidentally, means literally ‘to sickness.’ Remember audiences (and carpets for that matter) have feelings so don’t overdo the movement. With practice it’ll become instinctive. Just as the movement does for those ballerinas.

Form and function

If too much movement can be distracting, it follows that the right amount can be attracting. What we should aspire to then is movement that is meaningful. Meaningful because it grabs the audience’s attention; gives people a chance to move around in their seats (and so prevents deep vein thrombosis); adds value to your words. By adding value I mean that your movement is actually making a point. Let me explain by giving a real life example.

A Third Sector presentation I recently helped choreograph was designed to get people to stop and think about the scourge of rough sleeping. The words went something like this…

“You’re walking down the street. It’s like a minefield. You’re navigating around other pedestrians who’re paying more attention to their mobile phones than the pavement ahead. Picking a route that avoids the beggars who are up. And tip toeing past the rough sleepers who’re down.”

Now these words could have been delivered statically from behind a lectern. But I’d argue they had twice the impact because they were delivered while the presenter was walking along an imaginary pavement, the actions mirroring the words.

Actions speak louder than words

If you want your audience to stop and think about the point you’ve just made, stop and think yourself. If you want your audience to take action, be active. If you’re presentation needs a moment of reflection, of quiet contemplation, then slow down and stop. If you’re excited, look excited. And, of course, sound excited. Which brings me on to a subject for a future post – musicology, or how to use your voice as a musical instrument and play all the right notes in your next presentation.

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What that Gavin Williamson vs Richard Madeley interview tells us about media training

Richard Madeley interviews Gavin Williamson on GMBApprox. reading time: 3 minutes

I could almost hear Jeremy Paxman and Michael Howard breathing a huge sigh of collective relief. For years their Newsnight clash – the one where Paxo asked the former Home Secretary n times (where n is a large number) if he’d intervened in the day-to-day running of the prison service – had, for media trainers, been the go-to example of road crash interviews. But now we’ve got a new worst case scenario – the recent, well-publicised spat between the Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson, and the stand-in Good Morning Britain presenter, Richard Madeley. If you haven’t seen it yet I’d thoroughly recommend a watch.

It’s certainly entertaining. In a lemon-chewingly embarrassing way. But don’t worry if you haven’t got time because, in essence, Madeley called the interview to an unexpectedly early end when Williamson used the politicians’ trick of ignoring the questions and saying what the heck he wanted to say. Which is a pity because the Secretary of State was supposed to be talking about deploying British troops to help protect wildlife against poachers in Malawi – a good news story if ever there was one – but didn’t get beyond the preamble. Heck, he’d even gone to the trouble of doing the interview by satellite from West Midlands Safari Park.

So does this mean that media trainers like me will have to change our approach? Not at all! At ACM Training we teach interviewees to deal with the question and move on. But we always impress upon them the importance of striking the right balance between the two. Move on too fast or fail to deal with the question altogether and you risk what happened to Williamson happening to you.

“Let it be a warning! Us journalists used to say you’d been Paxo’d but I guess now we’ll have to learn to say you’ve been Madeley’d!”

No time to read this post and prefer to listen – with the added bonus of audio clips from the excruciating interview?

For a Defence Secretary, I thought Williamson was surprisingly tactically un-astute. Adversarial media interviews are (in very limited respects) analogous with battles. In both, if you try to defend disputed territory you can get bogged down, when it might be better to concede some ground and pull back to a line you can hold.

So first let’s explore what went wrong in MoD vs GMB. Madeley’s attack was to accuse Williamson of using Trump-like language. Williamson’s defence was to simply ignore this line of questioning and try to move on to how terrible the attempted murders of the Skripals had been and how wonderfully the emergency services in Salisbury had responded. But the Defence Secretary wasn’t able to move on to these, nonetheless valid, points because Madeley wasn’t satisfied he’d dealt with the question – repeatedly asked – well enough.

Now let’s examine the alternative. If I was Gavin Williamson’s media advisor I’d have prepared him on the basis that the Trump question was (a) wholly predictable and (b) entirely legitimate for a journalist to ask on the public’s behalf. I’d have told him that legitimate questions can’t simply be ignored because to do so risks antagonising the journalist and her/his audience. And, as a consequence, I’d have suggested he spend a little more time dealing with the question and a little less time moving on. If he asked what all that meant practically speaking I’d have come up with a few concede lines.

Williamson: “It’s certainly not the kind of language you usually hear from ministers I’ll give you that. But sometimes you have to be plain and forthright to make sure your message gets through to the intended target.”

Madeley: “So you’re admitting it was Trump-like language?!”

Williamson: “I’m saying that it’s important to be absolutely clear that attacking members of the public on British soil is unacceptable and making that point in a plain and forthright way is occasionally better than couching these things in the usual diplomatic terms.”

Madeley: “Sounds like you’re admitting to being undiplomatic.”

Williamson: “I’m admitting to being plain and forthright and, yes, angry too, because two innocent members of the public had been attacked in a cruel and unusual way and countless others – those who went to their rescue – put at risk.”

Now, of course, I’ll concede there’s no guarantee that this approach would have worked but I’m convinced it would have given the Defence Secretary a better chance of moving onto Malawi. As it was he had no chance at all because the interview was called to a premature and unceremonious end.

Remember this: you can only move on if you deal adequately with the question asked. To deal adequately with doesn’t have to mean to answer (although it can). Think of interviews as question and response session,s rather than question and answer sessions. Tailor your response not only according to your own needs but also to those of the interviewer and audience. Williamson was never going to admit to using Trump-like language (and nor, given Trump’s track record, should he have). But without conceding a little he gave away a lot.


This is a partial transcript of Richard’s five minute masterclass on the lessons of Williamson v Madeley. Click here if you want to hear the whole recording and listen to our other five minute masterclasses.

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In defence of spam: why post-GDPR unsolicited email is still a legitimate and legal marketing tool

Approx. reading time: 5 minutesHere’s a confession that I bet not many company bosses are prepared to make publicly: we’re still sending unsolicited bulk emails.

Call it crazy and suicidal post-GDPR but believe me it’d be crazy and suicidal not to. Let’s face it, spam works. It works better than throwing money at Google and Facebook. It works better than enhancing one’s profile by blogging 🙂  And if it didn’t work it wouldn’t be a problem. So in my mind the question isn’t a practical one, it’s an ethical and legal one.

Like many such issues, a lot of it is down to interpretation. So who’s right? The professor of English who wrote to us “f*ck off and die you f*cking spamming c^nts.”  The professor of haematology who wrote “I don’t recall you getting my permission to send me marketing emails. That’s now illegal.” Or the professor of clinical epidemiology who wrote “I wish to recommend your training strongly to colleagues.”

This is a true story that I’m calling the Tale of Three Professors…

Professor One

I’ll say this for our first correspondent: he had an impressive grip of the Anglo Saxon vernacular. But, that aside, did he (and it usually is a he) really need to be quite so explicit in his request to be removed from our mailing list? It’s not like we tried to sell him Viagra. Or a night of unbridled passion. Maybe that was the problem. We’re a training company. Selling training, not little blue pills. Not so very different to the education his university is selling.

The first prof’s complaint (if that’s what you can call it) arrived before GDPR came into effect in May 2018. It was a golden age where we took the admittedly relaxed view that most people didn’t mind receiving the occasional unsolicited marketing email and even those, like him, who did were well worth the hassle. The gearing was something like one complaint to every 10,000 emails. Needless to say we removed his name from our prospect list (after pointing out that his institution might take a dim view of its servers being used for such colourful language) and haven’t heard from him since.

Professor Two

Our less bilious haematologist complained post-GDPR. So is, as he claims, sending a marketing email without the receiver’s consent illegal? Depends who you ask. It boils down to how you interpret something in GDPR called legitimate interest. The term is loosely defined – perhaps deliberately – as something that is in a business’s best interest to do. Chasing an unpaid invoice by emailing the head of accounts is clearly a legitimate interest – irrespective of whether or not the head of accounts has given you permission to send them that email. What is less clear is whether marketing and, in particular, sending an unsolicited email, constitutes a legitimate business interest which, in effect, trumps an individual’s right to privacy. We’d need a fourth professor – a student of law let’s say – to answer that one.

They’d need to consider whether there’s  a “relevant and appropriate” relationship between the data subject (the person you’re emailing) and the data controller (you or somebody in your business). Using the invoice example from before, clearly there would be such a relationship. But just because we’ve worked with one institution does that relationship extend to similar individuals in similar organisations? In other words could we rely on legitimate interest to justify sending an email to a member of staff in university B because we’d worked with a member of staff in university A?

Under GDPR our imaginary fourth professor would also need to bear in mind that legitimate interest has to be balanced against the receiver’s rights or freedoms. I’d argue that receiving one or two unsolicited emails does nothing to significantly infringe the receiver’s rights providing one offers clear and easy instructions how to stop receiving future offers and doesn’t continue to send unsolicited material after a stop request.

Professor Three

Our final correspondent is, in essence, exactly why we reach out to new customers. “Reach out” is, I’ll readily admit while I’m in confessional mode, a euphemism for send an unsolicited email to. But that’s exactly how we reached out to him. He’d not heard of ACM Training before. Did some research. Asked around. Took a punt. Came along one of our public training sessions. And so began a long and fruitful relationship with him and his institution. I’d argue (and I’m convinced he’d agree) that ACM Training has benefited financially and his university has benefited educationally from our training.

We need more of him, especially now. Open-minded individuals who don’t see the world in a binary way: all unsolicited email is spam; all businesses who send unsolicited email are bad; all unsolicited offers are dodgy; all spammers are scammers…

Business has had a tough time of it over the past few years and Government incompetence over the handling of Brexit is making it tougher still with many companies sitting on their money at least until there’s some clarity over the UK’s position in Europe. And GDPR has only made it even harder.

I’m not after sympathy. All I ask before you get shouty or sweary or legalistic is that consider the alternatives:

  1. So you don’t want what we’re offering or you have a rule never to buy anything from anybody who’s ever sent you an unsolicited email? That’s okay. We get that. It was always a long shot anyway.
  2. Spare a thought for the sender. Just like you, they’re trying to pay their bills, feed and clothe their families and have enough left at the end of the month for a few luxuries.
  3. Reaching out to potential new customers in all sorts of ways is a legitimate and necessary function of business. Sending emails is one of those ways. Without it employees and taxes don’t get paid. Companies go broke. The economy suffers. And ultimately roads don’t get fixed, hospitals don’t get built and universities don’t get research funding.
  4. Ask yourself if you’re (a) genuinely not interested in the product or service being offered or (b) potentially interested but not right now. If the answer’s (a) then go straight to point five. If the answer’s (b) then skip to point eight.
  5. Delete the offending email. It takes under a second. Even if you have to delete 50 that’s still a lot less time than writing to complain.
  6. Follow the remove procedure. Reputable companies will display it prominently and act upon it swiftly. Disreputable companies won’t but then writing to them won’t work either.
  7. Bear in mind that you may have several email aliases pointed to the same address and, if so, ask for those to be removed too.
  8. If after all that you still get unsolicited emails from the same source then by all means complain to the sender and, if that doesn’t work, to the ICO.
  9. Be open minded. Not all unsolicited emails are phishing for your bank details, offering little blue pills or a night of unbridled passion with the man/woman of your dreams (delete as appropriate). Some are selling goods and services that you might actually want or need or offer better value than your existing supplier. So at least have a look when you have a spare moment. And then, if you’re really not interested, go back to point five.
  10. There always has to be a point ten. Nobody has nine point lists. Five, yes. Twenty, yes. But nine? No.

Since posting this quite a few of my business friends have made an important additional point: that when it comes to e-marketing there’s a world of difference between B2B (business-to-business) and B2C (business-to-consumer). The rules, they say, were written largely with the consumer in mind and that the dimmest view will be taken of those companies that post GDPR continue to bombard individuals at their personal (my italics) email addresses. Many companies will, they believe, continue to send unsolicited email to corporate addresses.

So, once again, it comes down to interpretation. In this case what constitutes a personal email address. Is professor.pat.pending@anywhere.ac.uk personal? Or, because it was provided to him by the University of Anywhere by dint of his work there, a corporate one? We’ve taken the view that an email address that an individual has to set up – e.g. richarduridge@gmail.com – is personal and we try our very best not to send to these unsolicited. But if the address is issued by your organisation’s IT department and you’ve only got it while you’ve got the job then it’s corporate. Of course, the line between the two isn’t neat. So we’re not expecting the complaints to stop anytime soon!