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I’m really glad I wasn’t on the weekend shift in the BBC newsroom on Saturday night.  Because in newsrooms across the world, journalists were being tested at the highest level in the skill that makes them stand out from many other professions — agility. 

The task facing any journalist covering that extraordinary Women’s US Open Final was daunting.  To calmly observe a mass of facts, changing by the moment.  To keep track of each one, whilst still seeing the big picture.  To have no idea how long it would all take, and how short would be the amount of time left to you to produce your report.  And to stay calm and clear headed while doing it all. 

(So as a tennis fan myself, you can see why it might have spoilt the fun a bit.)

Whatever the result of the match, the online news desk would require the biggest story in recent British sporting history to be written up within minutes.   

A TV report — edited, and of a fixed duration — would be required within the hour for the News Channel. 

The midnight radio news bulletins — an hour or so later — would need a set of items that reflected the facts, the excitement and the context. 

So how do journalists do it?

We have a set of phrases for it in newsrooms … ‘turning the story around’, in order to make sure it ‘makes its slot’.   Since developing my consultancy, I’ve discovered that the business world has another way of putting it:  ‘agility’. 

I’ve not often had to turn material around that quickly on such a huge international story — but I have had to turn plenty of other stories around on equally eye-watering deadlines for the lunchtime and early evening bulletins I’ve worked upon over my thirty years in newsrooms.

So here are three tips that I hope may help you do the same when you have a deluge of facts to process, under pressure, with your audience (staff? clients?  customers?  stakeholders?) requiring a clear result from you at the end of it. 

  1. KEEP THE CHALLENGE SIMPLE IN YOUR MIND.  Here’s the online video report that appeared, edited, with graphics and music, within two hours of Raducanu’s win.  The producer had set herself a task — the five best shots.   You’ve got a storm brewing at Head Office?  Focus on your one, or three, or five key messages by 3pm/5pm/7pm.  You choose your numbers, you choose your time-frame, but I suggest you make the decision quickly, and stick to it.  Nothing more.  Keep it simple.
  1. HAVE A RED PEN HANDY.  When processing a vast amount of changing information for a news report — listening to a judge concluding a trial, for example, when my job was to choose the most pithy phrases — I grabbed my red pen to circle anything in my notebook that emerged that was so important it simply had to be in the shortlist for inclusion.  It meant trusting my own judgment, but it’s what I was paid to do.   So when the event was over, and I had to sum it up for our viewers, I had vastly reduced the amount of options that lay before me.  That eases the pressure.  “A red pen” sounds old school, but it works for me every time.
  1. REMEMBER THAT IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE PERFECT.  Your audience will not know what you haven’t chosen (even if you may fret that you didn’t quite make the right choices at every twist and turn.)  But your audience will know if you’ve failed to deliver anything at all.  And that’s far worse. 

To put my approach to the test, take another look at that short online video compilation of Emma Raducanu’s Five Best Shots — that appeared (beautifully edited, with music and graphics) within two hours of her victory.

The producer stuck to the challenge she’d been set by her editor:  just … five … shots.  

She will have had her own method of judging each shot of the match as it went, and will have trusted that judgment.  

And she will have realised — boy, will she have realised! — that pretty much whatever decisions she made about the shots to include in her compilation, nobody would give her a hard time later about her decision-making … so long as a result appeared, ready for its eager audience, professionally delivered, and on time.  Which it did.

Writing this article, I set myself a deadline, and my time is almost up.  Yes, I do have a few other thoughts jotted down that haven’t made the cut, but everything on my notepad in red is included here — and I’ve got other things to get on with now. 

So I think I’ve followed my own advice:  I decided the framework for this blog post — I’ve judged that you won’t fret about the bits I’ve left out— and concluded that what I’ve written may help you keep calm next time you have a developing drama to stay on top of at work.

(Oh, and I’ve realised something else, too.  I do still love a deadline.  Maybe I do wish I’d been in the newsroom at the weekend, after all …) 


Want some help encouraging your teams to be more agile?  My newsroom themed workshops will give them an exhilarating couple of hours experiencing the adrenaline rush of newsroom life — delivered virtually or face-to-face — with real business takea-aways that stick.  Give me a call and I can talk you through how it works … 

“We’re all broadcasters now” is the catchline I came up with when we all moved to virtual working, but it’s in fact been true for some time, hasn’t it?  Every piece of research you read will tell you that it’s videos that catch the eye if you’re trying to get noticed on Linked In, far more than anything (written) like this.  

This gives all of us in business a quick-win opportunity.  

Let’s face it.  There are a lot of really poorly made films splattered across our social media.  And that means it’s easy, with just a little thought and effort, to make yourself stand out with a well made little film.  

So here are five things I’ve learnt in the twenty or so years I’ve been editing my own news reports for the BBC. 


1   Less is More

Anyone who’s joined me for one of my communications masterclasses will know that I bang on about this incessantly.  One key skill for a journalist is, of course, deciding what needs to be included in a news report.  But the other key skill is spotting what can be left out.

I suggest you aim for no more than 2 minutes to get your message across – 90 seconds if possible.  It’s the average length of a TV news report.  

If that short timeframe makes you wince, because there’s so much you want to say in your video, ask yourself: how quickly do I tune out when watching other people’s videos?   

 

2.   Turn your camera around

Here’s the really quick win.  Making your videos look more professional can be as simple as turning your phone on its side.

TVs are landscape (longer at the top).  Laptops are landscape.  Your tablet is landscape.  Yet so many of us still record videos portrait (shorter at the top.)   Filming videos in portrait communicates to your audience that you’re new to this — filming landscape suggests you know what you’re doing.   

Not sure the PM got the memo that videos aren’t portraits

 

3.  Turn the light on

As a reporter on a deadline, I was always in a rush to get my interviews done and dusted when working with a professional cameraman.  I was often frustrated when he’d pause, rub his chin and say “hmm, we need to throw up a light or two here.” 

But he was right, of course.  Lighting is crucial.  And you don’t need fancy lighting gear to do it.  Simply make sure you don’t have a big window behind you, turning you into a silhouette.  And make sure you do have a light source in front of you — a lamp, a window, or the loveliest light source of all, the sunshine. 

The gorilla tripod can also hold a light – this one from a company called Pixel. Both yours for less than £120

4.  Look around you

Your audience will notice what’s around you far sooner than they notice what you are actually saying.  There’s a reason camera-crews take time to frame their interviewees — they’re choosing a background that’s either relevant, or neutral. 

If you’re using Linked In to build your brand, ask yourself:  what message am I sending out by the background I’ve chosen for this message?  Does a scruffy office enhance your credibility?  Is that fancy piece of artwork impressive, or is it a distraction?   

If you want your audience to focus on what you’re actually saying, consider filming in front of a simply patterned wall, or outdoors in a park.   Or if you have your own branding banners, pop them discreetly at your side. 

 

5.  Invest in a tripod

So — your message is simple, your framing is good, the lighting’s perfect and your background is subtle.  What a shame to ruin it all with the most amateur look of all — the wobble.  

For the price of a few bottles of wine, you can pick up a portable tripod (sometimes known as a ‘gorilla’ tripod) which clutches your phone, placed on a table or shelf in front of you.  Spend a bit more, and you can have a lightweight tripod that stands on the floor.  

No fancy attachments require.  Wobble be gone. 

Taller tripod, with attachable camera grip – tripod by VEO, grip by ManFrotto. Yours for less than £120

 

Gorilla Tripod – and Rode mic with extension cable


I may be fighting a losing battle here.  The Prime Minister himself posted a video recently, which broke every single one of the rules I’ve just suggested.  

But maybe he was going for the shabby, on-the-run look.   If you’ve read this far, I suspect you’re not … and hope these tips have helped you realise how very little you need to do to look a lot, lot better on camera. 

 

If you’d like me to film and edit a short video for you, give me a call.  I can help you work out to say, and explain my production thoughts — giving you the confidence to make the next one by yourself. 

It’s been a heartbreaking week for the Royal Family, and a brutal one for the BBC.  I never thought I’d have to do some hard thinking about whether my slogan “30+ YEARS AT THE BBC” is such a pull after all.  

But in this article — longer than most that I write — I share my experience of a career at the BBC, and offer three thoughts that I hope will be helpful for any business leader who may feel the heat of a scandal exploding beneath them.


We all remember where we were when we heard that the Princess of Wales died, and I suspect many of us, too, remember where we were when That Interview with her aired less than two years earlier. 

I had just come off a very full day in the BBC North East newsroom, reporting (during the day) the new phenomenon of School League Tables on BBC Radio Newcastle, Cumbria and Cleveland and then, in the early evening, reporting live for Look North on BBC One.  School League Tables Day was the most important date in the calendar for a regional Education Correspondent like me at the time.

Like so many of the twenty million or so people who tuned in, as I sank into a well earned glass of red wine that wet November evening, I was in awe of the celebrity reporter who had somehow secured this scoop.  

We now all know he had secured it, in part, by deception. 

One result of this deception, finally acknowledged by the BBC more than a quarter of a century later, is that many people may now have lost faith in the broadcaster they fund with their license fee. 

Taking a break in Kensington Park with the BBC reporting team at the Princess of Wales’ funeral.

 

Another result, less widely noted perhaps in the mainstream media this week, is that BBC staff have been left shattered. 

So what does this sorry story tell us that might help C suite leaders in business today, as they strive to maintain trust and affection from their staff, as well as their customers and clients? 

 

1 — Spot where the real ‘talent’ lies 

Martin Bashir was what is known within the industry as ‘the talent.’ 

It’s a phrase that’s always revolted me, when applied to the highest paid ‘on air’ names and faces, because it’s seemed to me to be a slap in the face of the equally (if not more) talented teams of producers, editors, engineers and assistants who invariably do far more of the work, shoulder far more of the responsibility and are paid far, far, far less while doing much, much, much more than those that appear in front of the camera.

This scandal is perhaps a reminder to business leaders that your ‘talent’ may be more likely to disappoint you than staff further down your management structure.  Pander to ‘the talent’, and watch as the complacency sets in.  

I’ve seen this for myself in BBC training and hospitality suites. 

Twelve years ago, I spent a year on secondment as part of the BBC Academy, training new journalists at the BBC.  Part of my role was to arrange for top presenters to meet them for early evening drinks on the Tuesday of their training week, to share stories and answer questions.  

Many of these guests were charming, gracious storytellers, wanting to help and inspire.  But I was also struck by several who arrived ill prepared, indifferent and vain, with (it struck me) far fewer insights about journalism and reporting than I could have offered them myself, based on my relatively mainstream career in the BBC English Regions.

Having now left the BBC, I have been able to develop my own career as a Speaker (revealing ‘how news works’), and as an MC, at a wide range of events.  

I’ve detected in some fellow speakers the same trend that stems from complacency:  the higher paid the speaker, the more likely they may be to arrive gung-ho, to deliver a stump speech oblivious to the audience’s actual interests and the organiser’s brief.

One speaker, in the £10,000 + bracket, asked me (minutes before we went on stage), to remind her what the title of her speech actually was. 

If you’re a business leader, use the BBC Bashir moment to ask yourself: “where does the ‘talent’ really lie in my business?”  I’d suggest it isn’t always at the top. 

 

2 — Remember that your Staff will be shattered, too 

Across the world this week, it’s not just audiences who appear to have been left open mouthed at the revelation that a BBC reporter behaved in such an underhand way, and then covered it all up. 

BBC Staff have been left open-mouthed, too. 

You will form your own view on whether what I type here is true, but in 31 years in BBC newsrooms I cannot think of a single journalist I worked with who would have behaved in such a way.  Quite the reverse.  

 

BBC North East Newsroom, c. 1997. Books, big computers, and a fax machine.

An entire department, known as Editorial Policy, exists to hold hoops high for reporters and producers to jump through in their journalism.  Many reports I worked on took months to come to air as a result of this scrutiny.  Many are simply shelved because to broadcast them would risk being unfair or inaccurate.  

Each Wednesday during the training week I helped run at the BBC Academy was Editorial Policy Day — consisting of workshops delivered by these brilliant and scrupulously fair minds from the Editorial Policy unit.  They amounted to an internal editorial police force, feared but respected, wise, patient and challenging.

The Bashir debacle will have shattered morale amongst BBC journalists, because they know that he broke the very rules that they so scrupulously follow.  The Editorial Policy unit was in place to uphold them in 1995, and it is there now in 2021. 

If you’re a business leader, use the Bashir moment to ask yourself: how do I demonstrate to my staff that there isn’t one set of rules for some staff, and no set of rules whatsoever for others?

 

3 — If you fail, ‘own it’

Prince Harry, in what struck me as a gracious statement, thanked ‘those who have taken some form of accountability, and owned it.’ 

It’s not a phrase I’m drawn to, but BBC journalists have this week ‘owned’ the story.  Every bulletin has led with the latest twist and turn.  Navels have been examined, swords fallen upon, sackcloth torn, ashes scattered.  Editorial decisions have been taken at the highest level that anything less would compound the original offence. 

No such decision appears to have been taken by Senior Management until today, four days later. 

In what must be one of the most disgraceful decisions of the entire scandal, BBC management consistently turned down requests from journalists of all kind to comment as the story developed.  Yes, the Director General gave an honest interview as the scandal broke on Thursday, but from Friday until today (Monday) — as the Royal Family’s comments raised the story to an even higher level — the line was “nobody is available for interview.”  

This, from a broadcaster who expects governments and organisations to make people available when there are questions to be asked, is dumbfounding.

If you’re a business leader caught in a crisis, use the Bashir moment to remind yourself to tell it like it is.  It’s not enough to leave your staff to do it for you. 


Prince William ended his statement on Thursday evening with the following words: 

“These failings, identified by investigative journalists, not only let my mother down, and my family down; they let the public down too.”

In so doing, he acknowledged the role of journalists, and reminded us why what they do matters.  They serve a paying audience. 

You’ve read this far because you know how much business matters, too.  Businesses serve an audience: your consumers, your clients and your customers. 

It’s up to all of us not to let our audiences down. 

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