"I could hear the music up to 11 o'clock, and the radio presenter said to the person he was interviewing from a support group: 'I'm sorry to hurry you, but how can people get in touch?' He started waffling so she jumped in: 'Do you have a phone number for people to call for help?' To which he replied: 'Sorry, I don't have it with me."
This horror story was sent to me by a former radio colleague, who chanced upon my last column for Third Sector. In the third in my series of articles, I'm going to set out the case for how to avoid the wobbles, and how to get your message across when you’re on air.
Tempting though it is to worry about how you look, or what your colleagues will think of the sound of your voice, it’s not about that. You have a vital contribution to make.
In 2006 I was sitting outside the BBC Breakfast news studio. The show gets a huge audience and I was about to go on to talk about how my son Stan's story was used as research for a storyline about Down's Syndrome in EastEnders. Here’s the interview. Just beforehand, I wondered if I'd make a fool of myself, despite my broadcast experience. At that moment, I thought: "There's something going on here that's far more important than whether I look OK on screen. I have the chance to raise awareness about Down's Syndrome". It calmed me down and I did well.
Another former colleague was very eloquent on Sky News last year, talking about his own particular personal cause. If you're about to to a TV interview, please watch this facebook film as a masterclass in how to get your message across if you're a small charity, or in Martin's case, one person with a cause. He tells me: "When a spokesperson has an emotional connection and a real desire to talk publicly about a subject, it really resonates, often in the most subtle of ways."
Preparation is key
Experience as a broadcaster is not necessary; but practice and preparation are. They're everything.
Let's start with radio. You can takes notes with you, but I like to end up with a list of four or five bullet points and then have everything else in my head. If it's a live radio speech interview, it's usually going to last between two and five minutes. Find out the likely length of the interview beforehand, so you can maximise your time on air. When are you going to mention that important website address or call to action?
You can answer the questions you are asked, but you can also be prepared to mention what you want to talk about. If it's pre-recorded, then try to talk as if it's live. Producers will edit it, but you don't know what bits they'll do that to, so treat it as if the listeners are tuned in.
Sometimes, radio reporters will pre-record a short interview for a news slot. If it's for the BBC it's likely to be a 20 second clip; if it's independent local radio, head for ten seconds. Pre-records on TV, to be placed into news packages, tend to have clips that last seven seconds. Not long, when you have something important to say, but those are the boundaries, unfortunately.
With TV, keep it in your head, but think about how you will link from one topic to another, and keep it personal with anecdotes about your cause.
No burping allowed
Arrive on time so you can go through what you want to say. Be calm rather than rushed. Drink water only; fizzy drinks can make you burp. Be prepared to be yourself: human, conversational and competent. If it’s TV don’t wear a bright tie or a massive necklace. Viewers may spend some time concentrating on that, rather than your message. Relaxed body language is obviously vital on TV, but I think it’s also key in radio, to establish a rapport with the presenter and to keep you at ease.
Did I say ‘practice’?
This column could just be replaced by the words: "Practice, practice, practice, practice, practice". Talk to your children’s teddy bears; ask your loved ones to listen to you; take a hard look at yourself in the mirror. It’s also OK to be nervous; a few nerves (just a few) are healthy and will keep you on your toes.
Be careful of being drawn into anything that may lead to a news line. In interviews I often encourage midwives to go on a course where they learn how to deal with a birth of a child with Down’s Syndrome; but I wouldn’t want to be drawn into criticising them, because the producers could take that and ‘top line’ it. I don’t want that to happen as they are there to help, not to be criticised.
Challenging but worthwhile
I’m aware that, as a former broadcast journalist, it’s easy for me come across as saying that media performances can be straightforward. They never are, and I know that this is foreign territory for many. Here are some wise words from a fellow trustee at Charity Comms, Peter Gilheany, who has also written for Third Sector: "Use the greater knowledge you have to your advantage; you are there to inform".
So give it a go: you may find that you do OK. You may even remember to read out your helpline number…