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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! 

Here’s a really boring statement (but please don’t stop reading yet: it’s boring for a reason.)  “A healthcare trust in East Sussex has been fined for failing to discharge its duty to ensure people were not exposed to health and safety risks.”

It’s a boring statement because words like ‘healthcare trust’, ‘discharge’ and ‘health and safety’ are dull.  

But when I point out that the statement is about a 14 year old girl called Amy who died because a nurse didn’t have the right key to her room where she hanged herself with a scarf — that Amy was so mentally fragile that she would drink men’s aftershave — that the hospital was described by her mother as Victorian, with no pictures on the walls — suddenly this sad case becomes more compelling, doesn’t it?  We can smell the Lynx bottle.  We can see the glint of the key, and feel the texture of that scarf.  The gloomy corridors chill us.  We sit up, perhaps, and take note. 

These details emerged during an interview with Amy’s mother on BBC Radio 4’s Today this morning.  (You can listen to it here: seven compelling minutes.) 

It struck me as I listened that this interview was a case-study in the power of detail within story-telling.  ‘Story-telling’ can be a vague phrase, bandied around as something that will help businesses with their internal and external communications.  But for those stories to have impact, you need to highlight, not dismiss, those tiny details — the nouns and adjectives that people can see, touch and smell.  That door key, that silk scarf, that bottle of a young man’s aftershave. 

So if your challenge is to take the Chief Executive’s annual report and turn it into something staff will actually notice, maybe you could ask the Chief Executive to open it with a brief story about a member of staff, in a particular department, who did a specific thing, on a particular wet November afternoon … which led to that 20% increase in profits.  Or if you’re promoting a new product that’s rather tedious, tell its users about a customer with a name, from a certain town, who used it to meet a particular need — with a heartwarming result.  

Next time you’re trying to get a message across, ask yourself — which are the boring words, and which are the words that will make my audience feel, smell, taste — and take note? 

If you’d like help spotting stories in your business, and working out how to tell them as nimbly as a journalist, give me a call.

 

You’re busy, I’m busy.  So I keep these Newsroom Secrets to six snappy paragraphs.  I hope you find them useful in your workplace! 


Do you sometimes worry that you’re losing touch with the people you lead?  Here’s a great way to nip that in the bud.  Once in a while, do what they do.

I’ve just run a full day workshop for a big international airline.  Eight of the COO’s reports were in the room, enjoying my full Newsroom Bootcamp experience — crystallising messages and hitting deadlines as if they were about to go on air with a live TV News bulletin.  

Airlines fascinate me, so during the lunch break I got chatting with the Director of Flight Operations.  He’s in charge of the entire fleet of 2,800 pilots.  And do you know what he told me, in passing, over the coronation chicken sandwiches?  “Oh, I make sure I fly once a week.  I like to keep my hand in.”   I smiled at the irony.  To stay grounded, this very senior pilot takes to the skies. 

It got me thinking about leadership — whether at a multi-million pound airline, an eager new start-up, or a grand old news organisation.  I was reminded of a journalist in a BBC newsroom who just loved producing the early evening news.  He was soon promoted to run the newsroom itself, and then several newsrooms across an entire BBC region. He’s now one of the most senior figures in the Corporation (finding time to be my Best Man along the way.)  But guess what he used to make a point of doing as he climbed that ladder?  When a gap in the production rota needed filling, he’d roll his sleeves up and produce a news bulletin. 

Permit me a small boast here.  I’ve always tried to follow that example.  So whenever I’m on a news presenting shift, I make sure I sit at an edit desk to cut the pictures to match the words in the headlines I’ve written.  It’s a fiddly task that would otherwise be allocated to a more junior member of the team (who already has a thousand other things to do).  But it’s my small way of showing that nothing is beneath me.  It’s my way of staying grounded.

Flying once a week works for the Director of Flight Operations, because he just loves flying. Cutting headlines works for me, because it’s a daily reminder that TV News isn’t about my honeyed words, it’s about the pictures.  What could you do to keep yourself in your team’s eyeline?  Answering that question might just remind you what you loved about your industry in the first place. 


Keen to develop your team’s communication & agility skills by experiencing an hour or two in a TV Newsroom?  I can help. 

Great picture of cockpit view:  LoveAviation.co.uk

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