How can you tell that a spokesperson has given a great media interview?
Well, if the journalist replies to one of their answers with “gosh”, it could be a clue they have done an excellent job.
That’s what happened at the end of an interview that grabbed our attention this week.
Phiala Mehring, a trustee of the National Flood Forum, appeared on the BBC’s Politics South programme as part of a feature on the impact of floods.
And the interview, which you can watch here at about 6mins, was packed with brilliant storytelling.
Discussing the impact flooding has on people, Phiala – who is also a PhD researcher at the University of Reading - shared a personal story before going on to talk about how other people are impacted.
She said: “We had a small conservatory, and it got to the point where I used to have to shut the curtains, shut the door to the lounge and try and go as far away to the other side of the house because the sound of rain on the roof would set me off into angst fear.
“A lot of people who live at risk of flooding will tell you they go out to check assets. Is the drain near their house gurgling? Is the ditch at the other end blocked? What’s the river doing?
“You end up with all these, what can be seen to an outsider as maladaptive behaviours. To an outsider, it seems bizarre. But it is not. It is because you have no control of the situation, and some of these things are the only things you can do in gaining any control back.”
And there was more storytelling later on. “When you talk to people, especially having been through 10 years of it yourself, it is so difficult not to get emotional,” she said.
“You hear the same stories and depths of emotions over and over again.
“People not going on holidays because they are terrified that if they leave their home alone, it will flood in their absence. Or they go on holiday and are constantly phoning back.
“I hear stories of people going to work, looking at the weather forecast and then immediately coming back from work and going home because they are frightened that they can’t leave their home alone.”
What makes this so great?
Well, we all tell stories to our family and friends. And they are crucial in media interviews.
As we stress during our media training courses, people love hearing about other people.
Stories engage journalists and the audience.
They build connections and make what is said impactful and memorable.
What I love about the stories used in this interview is the human factor and their simplicity.
You can picture those people refusing to go on holiday because of the flood risk at home. Or calling home every day from holiday to check their house has not flooded.
We can put ourselves in their shoes and sense how they feel and the impact of living like that.
And we can picture Phiala hiding from the rain at home after living with floods for a decade.
Had she spoken more generally about the impact of flooding, it would not have had the same impact.
The stories bring the impact of floods to life. They speak to our hearts. We can sense the emotion and turmoil that flood victims must feel.
One of the other great benefits of storytelling that we stress during our media training courses is that it helps spokespeople control media interviews.
If you are producing great content that the journalist can see will compel their audience, they are less likely to feel the need to ask tough questions to try and find a story.
As soon as you bring in a story, journalists tend to go quiet and listen.
Watching Phiala’s interview, I also liked her use of descriptive and media-friendly language. “Flooding is emotional” is something you could see being used in a headline or pull-out quote in a printed story about the interview.
And “once the blue flashing lights have gone and the politicians in their new Wellington boots have departed the scene,” is a relatable way of introducing the impact of flooding we don’t often see in the news.
Was there anything she could have done differently?
Our only criticism, and it is a small one, is that the background was distracting. This was a remote interview, presumably carried out by Zoom or Teams, and occasionally, I found myself getting distracted by the fungi guide on the wall behind Phiala.
It is worth saying that although most of normal life has returned following the pandemic lockdowns, remote interviews continue to play a significant part in the media landscape.
They allow journalists to get people quickly on air and speak to those who may not be able to make it into the studio.
During our media training courses, we recommend a clear, uncluttered background for remote interviews and to be wary of artwork and books being on show.
Introducing storytelling to your media interviews
You may not have a subject as emotive as the impact of flooding.
But you can still learn from interviews like this and introduce more storytelling to your media interviews.
Here are some storytelling tips from our media training courses:
Stories should have people at their heart. They tap into our natural curiosity about the lives of others and stimulate emotions.
Stories about policies, protocols and strategies do not have the same impact.
Spokespeople should work with their comms teams to ensure stories are told in a media-friendly way to maximise their impact.
The key is to ensure you tell stories with powerful, simple language, which stirs up emotions in the audience. And they should be simple to follow – you don’t need complicated plot twists.
Often the best stories, and ones that persuade people to give money, take action, support an idea or buy a product, are those that are personal to the spokesperson.
It may sound a little daunting for media spokespeople. But during our media training courses, we notice those who choose to bring their personal examples and anecdotes into an interview are the ones who we see grow in confidence the most.
As ever with media interviews, success often comes down to preparation.
Planning the stories you are going to use in a media interview should be an integral part of your media interview preparation.
And practice using them. Do they support the message in the way you think? Are they confusing? Could they become a distraction?
Don’t wait to be asked
Sometimes spokespeople have great stories to tell that illustrate their message.
But they wait to be asked to provide an example before using them.
Don’t miss the opportunity. Dive straight in with your stories and anecdotes. There is little journalists – and their audience – like more than a good story.
Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 35 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers.
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