Cormac Smith was known to many through his career in local and central government. He’d also been communications advisor for Ukraine government. So when Russia invaded the country he looked for a way to make his experience count… in TV studios.
In early December 2021 I was visiting friends and former colleagues in Kyiv. Between 2016 – 2018 I had served as special advisor to the country’s Foreign Minister. Over lunch one day, a number of those present including Ukrainian diplomats suggested I should be speaking about their country on the media back in the UK, because in their words, I understood them.
Storm clouds were already gathering, they knew what was coming, so I said I would see what I could do. Long story short, I returned to the UK, hit the phones and began pitching myself as an expert on the region.
Over the next 13 months to date I have carried out in the in the region of 150 TV and Radio interviews across nine countries. As a seasoned media trainer and public speaker, the following is a summary of the lessons learned or in some cases, simply confirmed.
1. Media relations can be tough
Despite a strong resume, buckets of determination and over 30 years’ experience of selling in stories and placing interviews it took me over a month after my return from Kyiv to get my first gig. But I had made a promise to my friends; what was I going to do, except keep buggering on as Churchill once said. Finally, around mid-January, with Putin’s further invasion still over a month away I got my first interview
2. Honest tough feedback is critical
I am fortunate to have a number of professional friends and colleagues, both in the UK and in Ukraine who can be relied on to give honest feedback. Getting this feedback and acting on it to make improvements, especially in the early days was very helpful.
3. Do your research
Find out as far as possible what the interviewer wants to talk about, then prepare meticulously. Nothing will lose credibility quicker than not knowing your subject. Having said that know when to say; I don’t know.
4. Key messages are critical
Having done your research decide what you want to get across. Expect the unexpected, always answer or at least address the question but learn how to bridge back to your key messages, and bridge back as often as necessary. This takes skill and practice if you are to keep interviewer and audience happy and not antagonise them.
5. It’s not just what you say, its how you say it
As little as 10% of what we communicate is verbal. Body language and tone of voice are critical if we are to grab attention, be trusted and gain traction. Assess posture, eye contact, hand movements and facial expressions. And analyse tone of voice and pace as well as strength of delivery. All of these things combine to make you either likeable and credible, or get them wrong – and you lose your audience.
6. Find the full stop
Despite coaching others for years to be concise and economical with words this was the biggest lesson I needed to learn early on. Prime time opportunities with the likes of Nick Ferrari on LBC will generally see you get between three and four minutes. Their clock is running and if you talk too much you will be cut off and fail to get your key messages across. It was when two trusted friends and colleagues, one a Brit and one a Ukrainian diplomat, told me on the same day that I had to learn to find the full stop, that the lesson finally sunk in.
7. Develop relationships with producers and interviewers
As an interviewee part of your job is to add value to producers and interviewers lives by being easy and pleasant to deal with and guaranteeing quality content every time. The other part of your job is to get your message across consistently, credibly and memorably. Be prepared to be strong and hold your ground from time to time, but don’t get confrontational.
I have been placing stories and setting up interviews for 30 years. I did my first interview on national television almost 24 years ago. I have also been coaching others to go on TV or radio, formally or informally, for 20 years. Nothing I had done compared to the intensity or importance of what I have done for the last year. Never assume you know it all or can turn up and wing it. Preparation is key and hubris comes before many a fall. On the other hand, humility and a little bit of fear will serve you well and keep you honest.
Cormac Smith is a freelance communications consultant who specialises in a range odf areas including public speaking and media training.