The May effect—how far can you coach politicians to be good on telly?

When I train people who have never or rarely appeared on tv or radio I tell them -cliche alert!- that one of the first rules of media training is ‘Be Yourself’.

The more ‘natural’ you come across, the more authentic you’ll sound and the better your performance is likely to be. Few things are worse that seeing or listening to an interview where the interviewee’s answers come across as robotic, over-formal and over-prepared beforehand.

Thinking of any politicians in particular here?

The next thing I usually tell them – always greeted with a sigh of relief- is that there’s one rule for us mere non-elected mortals and another for politicians. And that “we” should never attempt to try to copy our elected counterparts where a quite different set of rules and expectations apply due to the nature of their high-profile profession and the expectations of  the audience and the media industry.

Be natural?

Political friends and foes of Theresa May have been quick to criticise her media performances during the election period. Her rigid awkwardness in front of the camera is there for all to see and no amount of ‘strong and stable’ spin was able to mask this-if anything, this compounded the image problem.

To be fair, I’m only choosing her as a case study as she is the highest profile politician whose lack of ability to think on her feet when under media pressure during the election was SO obvious, but at least half a dozen others from all parties came under similar fire – including Dianne Abbott and Paul Nuttall.

Could they have been coached to perform better? Yes – but it should have started months if not years ago.

And it’s a bit like driving a car…we could all do with a refresher course in driving safely now and then but hey life’s too short and if it’s not your main job…

…and then you crash.

Moreover, you have to want to be coached and be prepared to work hard at the behaviours afterwards. So how readily would a PM who has been roundly criticised for her insular decision-making processes,admit that some of her media communication skills need considerable improvement?

More relevant, who among her inner circle is going to tell her?

Widen the circle of trust

Perhaps the claims that she IS a guarded, introverted personality most of the time are true and no amount of coaching is going to change that. In which case she could still have benefited from a trusted media coach (from OUTSIDE her inner circle) who could have HELPED her to communicate more effectively, helped her soften some of the harder edges and become a bit more human and relaxed while in the spotlight.

What a good media coach CAN do is get people to express themselves in a much more user-friendly manner particularly when under pressure. Obviously every individual is different but in May’s case, a media coach (who I repeat should NOT be part of her regular circle) would work on ways in which she can appear to be less ‘wound-up’, even though she might be burning inside. That’s probably working on the full range of communications skills – vocab, tone, body language,facial expressions,eye contact.

Putting a coachee through pressurised ‘mock interviews’ with a media professional (someone who’s actually done the real thing recently) can be a great help and in my experience are always fruitful. Even more important is the feedback. ‘Don’t fold your arms when you’re under pressure’,’Don’t be afraid of short silences’, ‘ Avoid that word or phrase’, and so on.

This may well have happened with the PM but it wasn’t too evident on our tv screens during the election so something must be amiss.

More than a modicum of humbleness is needed by the person being coached but it will reap rewards later.

Fields of wheat

When ITV’s Julie Etchingham asked the Prime Minister ‘What’s the naughtiest thing you ever did ?’ instead of coming up with a ‘jolly hockey sticks’  tale of running through the fields of wheat and annoying the farmers she could have tried irony.

Something like, ‘I’m a vicar’s daughter Julie – I am genetically incapable of naughtiness…’

Not side-splitting admittedly but it gives her time to pluck something decent from her memory and it makes her sound a bit more human.

Or even, ‘This is a pathetic example I know and my husband will be taking the mickey out of me for ages after this but I was such a goody-goody as a child the worst thing I did was run through fields of wheat with my friends which really annoyed the farmers’.

At least this makes her a bit more self-aware,relaxed with herself and importantly the audience will know that she knows she was a bit of a goody-goody and doesn’t take herself too seriously all the time.

Sure it’s easy to be wise after the event but there genuinely are ways in which media performance can be improved significantly but it needs to worked on and perhaps most important of all the coachee needs to take time out to LISTEN to the coach and do what’s necessary.

All this stuff is not easy but I reckon it would work more effectively than what we’ve witnessed so far.

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