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I had a bit of an awkward moment in the newsroom the other day, when I was talking to a woman who wanted to get a story on the BBC news.   She’d sent me a press release.  I’d read it three times before picking up the phone. 

“Do you want me to be softly softly, here?” I asked her.  “Or do you want some tough love?”   I could sense her smiling down the line.  “Tough love, please …” she replied. 

So I told her what I thought of her story (important), and press release (off beam.)   I’ll spare her blushes by not going into the details here.  But I have these conversations very often.  So it’s time to offer some tips. 

(You’ll note my emphasis is in getting your story on TV.  Newspapers and websites want different things from broadcasters.  But if your aim is to see your story, or your client’s story, on the evening TV news — and, as often follows, picked up by radio and video focussed news websites — then what follows may be of use.)

Three Ways Not To Get Your story on TV: 

  1. Make your Press Release really long.  TV journalists face dozens of emails a day making a case for a particular story.  Don’t expect them to read beyond the third paragraph if you haven’t got them curious in the first two. 
  2. Fill your Press Release with terminology.   TV journalists aren’t experts in your field.  You are.   If you name an organisation, or a project, or a government quango, don’t assume the journalist will have the faintest idea what you’re on about.  One way around this is to use the term, but explain in brackets what it is, or mark it with an asterisk and add some Notes For Editors* at the end. 
  3. Make us guess what the story is.   You’d be amazed at the number of times we’re invited to report on a new project that’s a huge deal to the people involved, but doesn’t address the one thing that gets us excited: why this should be a huge deal to our audience. 

Three Ways To Get Your Story on TV:

  1. Provide a Real Person to Interview  (This is where the press release I’d been chatting about on the phone came unstuck, and it’s perhaps the most common mistake of all.)  Of course you’ll want us to interview the Chief Executive or a key decision-maker about your project.  But in the dark banter of the newsroom, we call them ‘suits’.  What we also want is a ‘Real Person’ — a case-study.  Launching a scheme that’ll help people living in remote communities?  Tell us you’ve got one lined up for us who’s agreed to be filmed in her remote home talking about how your scheme has helped.   Organising a conference of business-women to mark International Woman’s Day?  Find us a business-woman who will invite us into her workplace (preferably, a visually stimulating one) to talk about the challenges she faces in the business world. 
  2. Think about what you can arrange for us to film.  We’re a picture based medium.   So if you’re a University with some new research to shout about, have you fixed up for us to film in the lab and downloaded those amazing CGI videos the researchers were working on?  If you’re promoting a new bus service, can we film on the bus? 
  3. Give us some Numbers.  You may think that goes against the thrust of the other messages — to keep it simple and human.  But hard data makes your story credible.   Statistics that demonstrate the problem you’re solving, or a timeline that shows the challenges you’ve faced, act as the evidence a journalist will want to justify airtime.  It proves your story is genuine.  But be sure to say where you got them from.  It’s your own internal research?  That’s fine, but tell us.  Government Department?  Give us the reference.  United Nations report?  Great, it’s got clout.

You may feel — steady on, John: you’re telling us to keep it short, and then telling us all these things we have to tell you.  There’s a knack to this.   It’s called … 

*Notes to Editors. 

This is a bullet point section at the bottom of any press release which gives journalists the background info we need to understand the story in the first place.  The references for the statistics.  An explanation of what your company or client does.  Any skeleton biography info on a person you’re asking us to interview.  By putting these details at the foot of the press release, you free up space in the main section to grab our attention.   

And how long should that main section be?  Aim for three to five paragraphs.   Max.  And if that sounds brutally short — remember, the Press Release is there to tempt us and reassure us.  

If it does that, we’re likely to pick up the phone.   And once we’re speaking on the phone … you’ve got our attention.  Which is, after all, what you aiming for in the first place … 


If you want your own company’s messages to have more impact with your staff, clients and customers, give me a call.  


One PR who knows all this is Jill Woolf at Chimera Communications.  Her Press Releases often open with a no-nonsense bullet pointed who/what/when/where/why.  It always makes me smile.


Amusing photo: copywrite Marketoonist.com

So — do you know your Withdrawal Agreement Bill from your European Union (Withdrawal) (No 2) Act?  Have you nailed the distinction between the Customs Union and the Single Market?  Did you ever, truthfully, understand the Backstop? 

I’m not sure many of us have the details off pat, and I include myself in that group.  When Brexit has cropped up in recent reporting duties, I’ve had to mug up on them quickly.  And I think there’s a lesson in this for all of us, whatever our line of work.  It’s good to admit when you don’t fully understand something. 

And I don’t mean simply to admit it to yourself.  I’ve noticed a growing number of excellent journalists, on all channels, admitting on air that things are becoming really, really complicated.  This is useful, because (as a member of the audience) it makes me feel less inadequate, and therefore more receptive to the explanations reporters are able to give for what the hell is going on at Westminster and Brussels these days. 

And have you noticed the methods they sometimes use?  Cracking imagery, and simple questions.  The BBC’s Political Editor, Laura Kuenssburg, recently described the potential scenario in Parliament this week as akin to a Christmas tree (the bill), when every member of the family squabbles endlessly about which decorations (the amendments) are going to go where.  As the calendar ticks towards the 25th.  Aha, I thought.  I get it now. 

Tom Bradby, the senior news presenter on ITN’s News at Ten, often starts his introductions with a chatty statement, rather than a bunch of facts:   Something like “It was the day when x was meant to happen, but it hasn’t quite happened like that, and there are red faces at Westminster today.”   The result?  If we, the audience, get bogged down in the detail that immediately follows, we’ll at least still be able to visualise something that moves our understanding on. 

Of course, as a manager, you don’t want to give the impression too often that you haven’t got a clue.  That’s not a good leadership look.  This morning I asked a business leader whether she thought it was okay to admit when you don’t know something.  “Yes” she said.  So long as you then make sure you tell your team you’re going to try to find out. 

Do you admit to your teams and staff when you don’t know the answer to something?  Or do you just bluff your way through?   If this Brexit Crescendo Week is teaching me anything, it’s that we can’t all know everything all the time.  But we do need to know what we need to find out.

 


If you’d like to develop your team’s agility and leadership — in a lively newsroom scenario that tests confidence, honesty, quick thinking and resilience — my Get It Done By Lunchtime workshop might be right for you (especially if you like training to be fun).  More details here … 

Brexit image courtesy of speakeasy-news.com

As a news reporter, I’ve covered many stories of emergency dashes to hospital.  Earlier this month, I was myself at the centre of one.

The details are startling, and I’ll keep them brief.  My partner and I were on a family holiday in a cabin on the coast of Western Canada.  All day, I’d felt as if I was coming down with a heavy cold, so I headed early to bed.  

My next memory was dreamlike, in a hospital room, a man in a white coat asking my partner if I’d prefer to be allowed to die, or would wish to be kept alive in a vegetative state.   My next memory: my mother gazing into my eyes, calling my name, calling me back.  Gaining consciousness now, I grasped that I had had two brain seizures.  In the ambulance things had seemed at times touch and go.  A lumbar puncture, CT and MRI scans followed. 

The consultants’ conclusion: I had been very lucky.  This was an attack of viral meningitis, and with rest, I would soon recover.  Ten days later, I was indeed back home — taking things easy and reflecting on my good fortune in being near a hospital when it happened, the skill of the consultants, and the kindness of nurses.  

It’s given me time to think about communications and empathy in business, too.  I wrote a couple of handwritten thank you letters to the senior management at the hospital involved, and the emergency team that saved me, enclosing a modest donation to help with their fundraising.  I’ve had two replies. 

The first thanked me in person, quoting phrases from my letter that had touched them, with a handwritten PS saying that the nursing staff would be delighted to read my thanks. 

The other, a few days later from the finance department, was simply a printed out screenshot of the bills I’d incurred, with a message scrawled in marker pen warning me that these bills needed to be paid because I wasn’t covered by Canadian health care.

I’ll pay them, of course.  Travel insurance has paid off.  And I’ll use the shock of that second letter to think even harder about empathy in business relationships.  Do I sometimes treat subjects of my news reports as some sort of news fodder?  Do you sometimes treat your clients’ problems as an intellectual challenge rather than a chance to help?  Surviving a news story at 53 has reminded me that when it comes to communicating, kindness counts. 


PS:  many friends and family have told me that they thought meningitis only effected young people.  It’s not the case.  You can find some very useful advice on what to look out for at the Meningitis Now website.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.  “You’re going to present tonight’s programme outside in the park!” the producer beamed at me as I arrived for work on what was forecast to be the hottest day on record.  

I beamed back — always keen on a new challenge — but my first private thought was: will there be autocue?  Safe in our studio, it’s the comfort blanket that means we don’t have to memorise our scripts, because they glide across the lens in front of us.   The answer today was a breezy ‘no’, meaning that we’d only have notes on cards as backup for this live, half hour, programme. 

It all went smoothly.  Natalie (my fellow presenter) and I dodged a downpour during rehearsal, glowed through a sultry programme, and one kind person even told me afterwards they’d never have guessed we’d done it all without a tele-prompter.  Driving home through the still blazing Sussex countryside that evening, I mulled over what I had learnt that day that I could share with you. 

  1. Public speaking is not a memory test.  Nobody will think less of you when you glance down at notes on cards.  What you want to avoid are full sentences in bulky paragraphs  — lose your place in a busy paragraph and it can be awkwardly time consuming while you find your way back. 
  2. slow – it – down.  You’ve glanced at your note to see the point you want to make next.  Now deliver that point, conversationally,  gently.  You can easily practice this at home.  No-one ever complained about a speaker who gave you time – to – take – in – what – was – being – said.  (And if you master this, you’ll be better than a TedX speaker I wondered at recently as he tore through his talk …)
  3. er – well – allow yourself to be you.  That will mean using the occasional ‘er’ and ‘well’, because, well, that’s what we all do.  Not everyone will agree with me on this, but after thirty years broadcasting on the BBC, I’ve concluded that public speaking involves speaking to the public, in the way the public speak.  

And finally — remember that everyone’s on your side.  Delivering a pitch, going for a job interview, taking to the stage at your brother’s wedding — you don’t need an autocue to turn you into you. 


If you’d like some one to one training on how to get a message across – on or off camera, with or without autocue – I can help!

I had a great reminder the other day of how important it is to avoid (forgive me for the annoying word) “silos” at work.  Or, put more bluntly, not to be pompous. 

I was in our news studio, rehearsing to go on air with our late evening bulletin.  The director and producer were in the control room along with the sound engineer, linked to me at the studio desk via my earpiece.  

Standing a few feet in front of me in the studio was the camera operator, Andy, lining up the three cameras.

The rehearsal seemed to have gone well, and then Andy said (about four minutes before we went on air) “Look, I know I’m not a journalist, but do you mind if I mention that, er, I didn’t quite understand that sentence in the introduction to opening story about those hospital statistics …”  

I read it again, and saw his point.  I had written it rather clumsily.  It was a bit ambiguous.  The team in the control room had overheard this.  Zoe, the director, said quietly through my earpiece that she’d wondered what it meant, too. 

So I rewrote it, grateful for the insights, and I think our viewers will have had a  much better understanding of the story as a result. 

What would be the equivalent situation at your workplace?  Which silos do you put up with — these people do this, those people do that, and woe betide anyone who expresses an opinion on each other?  It doesn’t apply in all industries, of course — I’m not suggesting that the Head of Hospital Finance has a shot at some delicate surgery in the operating theatre.   But if you’re in the communications business, I reckon anyone with a mouth and an ear is worth listening to, whether they’re a comms expert or not. 


If you’d like to develop your team’s confidence in speaking up and sharing ideas, my one hour Getting It Done By Lunchtime workshop might do the trick …

Here’s an idea that might make you wince, but might help you and your business get more done and make more money.  Once in a while, after some thought, let your standards slip a bit. 

I’ve observed it over the past thirty years in the TV Newsrooms I still work in at the BBC.  But in a good way. 

Twenty years ago, it was bit of a gamble to allow reporters on the road to film their own material.  Professional cameramen did that (and they were all men, as far as I could tell.)  At first the difference in quality was noticeable.  But then the quality of the video cameras improved, and it was harder to tell.   These days, I can’t tell myself. 

Ten years ago, interviewing a contributor for a news report by Skype, and using that clip on air, would make some producers gasp.  We do it all the time now.  We can’t get one of our crews to the scene of a breaking news story?  No problem, somebody’s bound to have filmed it on their phone and put it on Twitter or Facebook.  We contact them, get their permission, give them an on-screen credit.  Job done.  

Whisper it, but it saves us an awful lot of money, and means we get a lot more stories to a lot more viewers. 

I had one of these ‘let your standards slip’ moments a few months ago.  Until then, I’d always used my big Sony Z5 news camera to interview business leaders for my Cut the Crap Soundbite Club But now I often just use my phone.  (Yes, I’ve invested in an Osmo gimbal, a small bit of kit that keeps the lens still, and a decent microphone.  But the quality of the image is every bit as good as the Sony.)  Nobody’s complained yet. 

It made it easy-peasy to interview the COO of EasyJet, Chris Browne OBE, on a plane in Glasgow the other day.   (Her hilariously blunt take on avoiding a culture of corporate bollocks has had more than 21,000 views on Linked In — worth a peek — and if you’d like to join my list of potential contributors, get in touch!)   My clients in the aviation industry tell me they like my newsroom insights, because their industry, too, is evolving so fast. 

How do you evolve your business?  What suggestion to achieve agility would make your team gasp?  In ten years’ time, you might be glad you let your standards slip a bit. 


If you’d like me to reveal how news teams are so agile — maybe during a staff awayday workshop or as a Keynote Speaker? — do get in touch here .     Or, what the heck , just give me a call — 07850 188620 or 01273 606246.  If I’m not about to go live on air, I’m always happy to talk! 

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