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I thought that would get your attention. If you haven’t yet seen the 40 second clip of a hapless lawyer stranded on Zoom with his face transformed into that of a slightly distressed kitten, you’re in a dwindling minority across the globe.  You’ll need to have seen it to make sense of my Newsroom Secret this month, though, so here it is again: 

I reckon there are a couple of quick win lessons here for us all in the world of business.

If you work in Communications … 

This is a case-study in how many of us who communicate for a living sometimes forget to ask … what’s the one thing my audience want to know here?

The coverage on BBC Radio 4’s esteemed Today programme was a case in point.  I’m a true believer in the role that programme plays in our nation’s mornings.  I’ve appeared on it myself once or twice.  But now that I’m ex-BBC, I feel able to comment with raised eyebrow about some of the BBC’s output too.  

Their coverage the following morning was, quite rightly, great fun.  But I think it missed a huge opportunity.  

Can I have been the only listener gasping to know … how did it happen, and how can I make sure it doesn’t happen to me?   This interview left me none the wiser.

I had to google it to find out that if you click on the drop down bar next to the STOP VIDEO button at the foot of the screen on Zoom, you can then CHOOSE VIDEO FILTER.  Some computers will have off-the-peg filters available, some won’t.  There are a few factors involved, it seems.  And I know all this thanks to Geoffrey A Fowler, of The Washington Post — a journalist who didn’t forget that fundamental truth when reporting: ask yourself what your audience might be asking themselves.  Here’s his article. 

So next time you’re thinking about a product you sell, or a service you provide, or a message to your staff, remember to ask yourself: what’s the one thing that my customer/client/member of staff actually needs to know here? 

If you work in PR …

This is a case-study in turning a disaster into a triumph.  You may have been puzzled to see the clear instruction that recording or broadcasting of this image was illegal.  And yet here it is, broadcast across the globe. 

That’s because the judge himself decided to release the footage.   He saw the opportunity to show a public, which may be wary of the law and its complexities, that the law has a human side, too.  He wanted people to know that we’re all fallible.  

This delights me.  I spent many hours of my BBC career observing courtroom life, quietly shocked at the disdain with which some of its staff seemed to treat some of the media and, by extension, the public, on whose behalf we were all working.  

So next time you have your head in your hands because of some perceived disaster in your own organisation, ask yourself: is this also an opportunity? 

And finally … if you’re a business leader … 

You might imagine that the lawyer in this case, Rod Ponton, would have quietly switched his phone off once the footage was released, and curled up for a couple of weeks more tightly than a kitten in a basket.  But he didn’t.  Mr Ponton himself accepted Radio 4’s invitation to appear on the programme, and have a good laugh about it.  It was one of many appearances that day, he said. 

Rod Ponton was a serious professional not taking himself too seriously. 

Within 24 hours of this story breaking, I was playing it as part of my masterclass helping businesses to look more polished on Zoom.  My initial thought was to use it simply to raise a smile and break the ice.  But I now realise it’s much more powerful than that.  

Thank goodness for broadminded judges, and professionals with a sense of humour. They chose not to hide behind a filter, and they’ve helped us all as a result. 

Let’s start with the good news.  Virtual conferences can put you and your business in front of national and international audiences who you’d never imagine connecting with before.  And nobody faces jet-lag the next day, or stewed coffee in the foyer. 

But I suspect you knew that already, which is why you’re reading this.   

What you probably also know is that virtual conferences throw up a very different set of challenges from the face-to-face in a fancy-conference-centre kind.   Wifi can go be flakey.  Tech can go down.  But your audience will still be sitting there, waiting, patiently.

I’ve had the privilege of hosting several face-to-face conferences in the past few years, and a couple of virtual events in 2020.    One of the most remarkable was the six day — six day — virtual event held by the Professional Speaking Association in October.  Talk about a ‘moonshot’.  Thanks to inspiring leadership and a yes-we-can approach from the tech team, it punched through several pain barriers to leave everyone punching the air on the Saturday evening.  Yes, these things can be done, and they can deliver. 

So here’s what I’ve learnt this past virtual year, in the hope that it might help you too.

 

Er, something’s not right …

1  LOG ON EARLIER THAN YOU THINK YOU NEED TO

You’ll almost certainly need longer than you think to get connected.  At one recent conference, my password mysteriously started playing up 25 minutes before I was due ‘on air’, and I needed to reset it.  With time in hand, you’ll still be relaxed when you need to step out on stage.  But if it’s only twenty seconds since you’ve faced a grid of fuzzy photos and had to select the ones with traffic lights in them — simply to log on — you won’t be very relaxed at all.  As a BBC newsreader, I was expected in the studio 20 minutes before we went on air.  I’d suggest a similar discipline if you’re broadcasting online. 

2.  HAVE A BACK-CHANNEL TO THE TECH TEAM

Don’t assume you’ll get straight through to the team running the show from their own laptops.  Wi-fi can let you down.  Phones, though, generally don’t.  Have the phone number and name of the person you may need to contact, and be prepared to use it.  Tech teams I’ve worked with have set up WhatsApp groups to keep in touch.  But don’t rely on text.  In the heat of a last-minute tech hitch, texts and WhatsApps can so easily be missed.  A ringing phone cannot.  

 

Okay, I’ve got this …

3.  USE CHAT

Let’s say you’ve slipped elegantly into position ready to introduce the next speaker, but the next speaker has not yet slipped elegantly into position ready to deliver their talk.  (It’s happened to me twice.)   I recommend here reaching for the Radio Host Ripcord Approach: ask the audience.  Radio presenters are quite used to filling for time by asking questions, reading out texts, engaging with the listeners.  The Virtual Online solution?  Use chat.  When the guest I was meant to be introducing recently failed to show up because of technical problems from his home in Amsterdam, I had a bit of fun asking audience members to send me their thoughts on the conference so far via the Chat function.  We got a little debate going about online networking, and Top Takeaways.  It was all quite jolly.  

4.  PRINT SOMETHING OUT 

I learnt this from a brutal experience in a BBC TV studio once.  The autocue failed, so I reached for my emergency — printed out — list of web addresses the public could use to contact the newsroom, keep up to date with the latest news, etc.  But alas, I had forgotten to bring it into the studio with me!  So it was just me on my lonesome in a silent studio with a dead autocue.  The equivalent in the Virtual Conference world is to print off something you can usefully read out.  A list of what’s coming up later that day?  Some web addresses so that participants can find the handouts from the talks?  How to join in the Prize Auction that evening?  Anything at all that will give you something to talk about — that you can smilingly reach for.  You really don’t want to be scrambling around to find links on your laptop when the laptop is your lifeline to your audience. 

 

Well we got there!

 

5.  AND FINALLY … REMEMBER EVERYONE’S ON YOUR SIDE

Yes, you want to look and sound professional.  Yes, the audience are there to hear from the speaker and not from you.  But I think it’s okay to realise that audiences are generally fairly forgiving over tech hitches as we all get to grips with our new virtual world.  It’s okay to be a bit playful.  Explain what’s going on — explain that you’re making it up a bit as you go along.  On a news bulletin, the worst ‘look’ is the nonchalant pretence that implies the audience are too foolish to realise there’s a problem.  Be playful.  Have fun with it.  You may find they enjoy you as much as the speaker who — eventually — follows you. 

 


If you’re thinking of hosting an  virtual event, and would like a safe-pair-of-hands at the helm … who can draw upon thirty years’ experience of BBC broadcasting if things go wrong … give me a call.  Or if you have your host sorted, but would just like some free advice, give me a call anyway.  I’m always happy to help!

Here’s a mind-numbingly simple idea that could come in handy if you want to communicate better with your staff or colleagues. 

Maybe you’re paid a salary to do it.  Perhaps you’ve got a tricky meeting ahead and you’re writing up the agenda, or you need to get some key messages out in the Monthly Update email that never seems to get read.

The idea is this.  Get out your phone.  Take a close look at a news website’s homepage.  Any homepage you like.  Go on, take a really good look.  Get forensic. 

Take, for example, this page with which BBC News Online greeted its readers on the morning of 4 November.   Joe Biden hadn’t clinched his anticipated victory yet, Donald Trump claimed the victory was his, and news websites across the globe were bracing themselves for a very large number of hits from some very news hungry audiences. 

This front page — picked randomly on an exciting news day — reveals several tricks that could help you as you engage with your own audiences.  

The power of who/why/what/where/when/how

Three of the top stories use those little words that every journalist learns off by heart at journalism school.  If you use them too, you’ll immediately reassure your audience that you’re going to give them useful information. 

The power of the question

This intensifies the impact on the audience.  A reader sees a question?  They’re likely to want to know the answer.  They click.  They’re engaged. 

The power of the visual

Imagine that the box with the bar chart had read ‘US election results: facts and figures.’  Would you have clicked?  I’m not sure I would.  But ‘maps and charts’?  Hmm, that sounds a bit more fun. 

The power of the phrase

The vote’s not just tight.  It’s not just close.  It’s ‘gone to the wire.’  Not only has the journalist used four very short words, but they’ve used conversational language.  That might reassure a reader that this article will be written in their language.  I don’t think that’s patronising.  I think it’s helpful.

So.  Now that I’ve got you thinking like a journalist, take a look at the screenshot below, from a different webpage on the same day.   

But before you read on, have a good long look at it.  What tricks is the news editor using here?   I’ve spotted five, and listed them below.

Right.  Let’s go.   How many ‘newsroom secrets’ did you spot?  Here are mine.

The power of the word ‘story’.  There’s a reason that ‘storytelling’ is big in corporate communications these days.  Since our nursery days, who hasn’t loved a good story?  Stories touch us in ways that chunks of information don’t. 

The power of Detail.   Imagine that second story had been titled “White House party defies another protocol.”  Not quite so enticing, is it?  But there’s beer involved.  Mmmm.  That’s sensory.  And if you’re trying to engage, sensory is good. 

The power of Reassurance.  The editor applies this technique with the phrase ‘A really simple guide.’  It recognises that I’m not an expert.  I’m busy too.  I just want the simple version. 

The power of the quote.  Look carefully at the ten words beneath the picture of the tall bearded man in the facemask.  It’s nothing but a quotation.  But it’s tantalising.  It’s a tease.  Once again, I’m engaged. 

The power of conversational language.  “Well, that was wild …”  With this one phrase, the journalist teases, empathises and builds curiosity.   And by promising to only require three minutes of my time, I’m once again reassured that my attention span is being respected. 

How often do you think about your audience’s attention span? 

Do you divide your communications into bite-size items, with friendly headlines that create curiosity? 

Are you regularly asking yourself if an image or story might possibly have more impact than a bunch of data? 

Do you ever ask your audience anything at all? 

Don’t worry if you don’t.  Not many organisations do.  But next time you’re gearing up to communicate with your team, your clients or your customers, scroll through a couple of news homepages for a quick refresher.   It could save you a fortune in hiring a communications consultant. 


But if you would like to hire a communications consultant – who’s just left the BBC after 31 years communicating with audiences by reporting and presenting TV News – give me a call.   We can have a nice chat and it won’t cost you a penny.  And if we take it further and you use my services, I promise I won’t charge a fortune. 

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