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'Let me be clear…'

Updated: Jun 11

Pollling station sign on wrought iron fence

Elections can be trying times for the keen creative conversationalist. 

Understanding first, being open, challenging well and meeting needs – all the communication skills and qualities that strengthen human connection seem to disappear as soon as the campaign kicks off; on the airwaves at least. And in their place comes the politician’s favourite catchphrase – ‘Let me be clear…’ Which, as we all know, often means the exact opposite. 

I’m frustrated – but not surprised. 

The needs mismatch

My awakening came thanks to some media training I had from a former tv journalist.

The key to a news interview, he explained, is to understand that what I, the interviewee, want and what the interviewer wants are rarely the same. 

I’m probably ready to explain anything (and everything) I know about the subject of the interview. The interviewer, however, is looking for a clip or quotation of limited length – maybe 30 seconds or less – to add depth or colour to a news item that might only be two or three minutes long. 

There’s a significant mismatch of needs, which is compounded by my lack of power – the interviewer (and/or their boss) has editorial control. They decide what is going to be used from what I say and it’s not their job to choose something that will paint me in the best possible light. If I make some kind of gaffe they’re free to use it in any way that fits their agenda – to entertain, or stoke controversy, or challenge my message or credibility. 

Hence the need for media training, to try to redress my position of weakness. 

Learn your ABC

The trick, explained my trainer, is to know exactly the points you want to (and can) make in 30 seconds, and repeat them in answer to every question the interviewer asks, using the magic ABC formula – Acknowledge, Bridge, Content. 

That is, Acknowledge the question – ‘That’s an interesting issue you’ve raised, Sophie...’.

Then Bridge – ‘...but what I think most people understand is that…’ – to your Content, your prepared points.

In this way, the interviewer can’t avoid the edited clip including what it is you want to say – assuming that the interview is used, of course. 

Skilful interviewees use techniques like this smoothly and seamlessly, to the increasing frustration of the interviewer, who has to find a way in the limited time available to breach the interviewee’s defences. 

Politician surrounded by news cameras

And most of the audience probably won’t notice what’s going on in the broadcast clip – unless the news outlet publishes the full interview on social media, as sometimes happens, to show the interviewee robotically repeating the same points in answer to each question.

It’s all unsatisfactory

Longer interviews pose different challenges – on both sides – especially if they’re live. But in any format the exchange can quickly descend into a battle of wits, with the interviewer and interviewee each trying to meet their respective needs. For the political interviewee the stakes are often high, so the battle can be fierce.  

The alternative ‘soft’ interview can be just as unsatisfactory, though. Here, the needs of interviewer and interviewee align, with the former lobbing up easy questions for the latter to bat away with the minimum of challenge. Carlson Tucker’s recent interview with Vladimir Putin comes to mind.

And where are the needs of the audience in all this?

Good question – although it assumes that ‘the audience’ is a single, like-minded mass, which it isn't. For example, is that line of questioning a genuine attempt by the interviewer to explore the interviewee’s position – or a cynical ploy to manufacture a hostile ‘Gotcha’ moment? Different members of the audience will see it differently.

Enter creative conversation

So perhaps a better question is to ask what each of us can do when we’re not part of the audience; when we’re not passive bystanders but have the opportunity to make a genuine connection with someone who holds a (possibly very) different view from us.

Are we going to be informed by the dynamics of the broadcast interview? Or can we use one or more of the 7 Habits to find out, not just exactly what the other person thinks, but why? And then, if we feel it necessary, can we challenge them in a way that keeps our exchange open, respectful and productive, so the connection remains even if we disagree?

After decades of watching and listening to dead-end interviews on radio, television and now online, I know which approach I prefer.

And I want to be absolutely clear on that.

3 comentarios

Miembro desconocido
10 jun

So how do we, the audience, get anything worthwhile from such an interview? Isn't the basic problem lack of trust? Trust that the interviewee will be honest and try to answer the question. Trust that the interviewer will try to give them a fair hearing. Nowadays though - probably because of pressure of a competitive market place - that trust has gone. The interviewer is trying to make the interview 'memorable', ideally by embarrassing the subject. In response, the interviewees have all nowadays been media trained to within an inch of their lives, as described, and the result is ritualistic, tedious - and helps no-one who is genuinely trying to understand the issue.

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Miembro desconocido
10 jun
Contestando a

I guess this is all bound up with making news and current affairs ‘product’, competing for market share. So we have to choose the product that meets as many of our specific needs as possible?

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Miembro desconocido
10 jun

Let me be very clear. That was an excellent piece!

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