Avoid eye contact, use soundbites, admit nothing / 3

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The Interviewer kicks off by describing accountants as parasites. I can’t hear the answer, but whatever it is, Humble snorts with amusement.

Then The Interviewer switches tack, to a bullying diatribe about supermarket profits. Again, I can’t hear the response, but I don’t imagine that the core statement is getting much of an airing.

Afterwards, I ask The Interviewer why he was so robust. “The subject [chosen by the executive] was utterly boring, so I had to search for something more interesting.”

Is the interview a search for information, then, or entertainment? “It’s both a search for information and entertainment.”

Nothing to hide?

The Interviewer, a senior figure UK newscasting, takes a substantial fee for his part in the Media Master course. It seems to me that there is a conflict of interest. And not only to me. Phil Harding, the controller of editorial policy at the BBC, says: “We think it’s an important part of the job of the media to put forward questions on behalf of our audience, and to call to account those in authority. We don’t think it’s our job – or that of our staff – to train people to avoid answering questions.”

But The Interviewer doesn’t work for the BBC, and says he sees no conflict (though his desire for anonymity, starkly contrasted with the Tim Arnold’s frank cynicism, belies this): “This [training] does make our jobs easier,” he says.

“There is nothing worse than going out to do a live interview with someone, and [finding that] they’re shit [at performing]. News is such a mass-market, and these guys have to know how to use the media to their advantage. Politicians are trained – so why not company executives?”

So saying, he gets ready to destroy the next man from Howard Schultz.

Afterwards, we regroup to hear the tapes and Arnold’s analysis. Not everybody has done badly. Mike Jennings manages to get in a core statement in 20 seconds – and later a couple more. Arnold, generous with praise, is impressed.

A mistake most of the men make is to repeat allegations posed by The Interviewer.

“If you have been in sales, you’ll know that ‘referring back’ is a good idea” – that is, repeating the words used by your interlocutor. “In TV, the opposite applies.” When John Moulton of Alchemy was interviewed about the takeover of Rover, says Arnold, he answered a question with the words, “We are not asset strippers.” Lifted out of context, those words were broadcast at the top of the news bulletins, even before the opening credits.

“I would rather you stutter than repeat an allegation,” says Arnold.

“And don’t use the presenter’s name, because this gets in the way of the soundbite, making it harder to use in other contexts, and on other programmes.”

Apropos of nothing, Arnold describes the pregnant pause and lowered voice as “very cheap tricks”. Having absorbed so much of Arnold’s cynicism, the executives seem unsure whether to take this disparaging comment at face value. For clarification, one asks: “But are they tricks that we should employ?”

Again and again, the interviews close with a curtly dismissive comment that allows no response – known in the trade as a deathblow.

“The way to get round that,” says Arnold, “is to repeat the core statement. If the producers then lower the sound levels, that comes across very badly [for them] because they’re effectively cutting you off.”

Uncomfortable feeling

During lunch – consisting of sandwiches and soft drinks – Arnold introduces the question of body language, which did not matter in the radio interview but is vastly important on TV. Eyeballing Mulgrew fiercely, Arnold asks the group: “How can you look at someone – like this – without it starting to feel uncomfortable?”

Nobody says anything, so Mulgrew, instinctively, supplies the answer by smiling.

But that’s not always possible. “What if you are the chairman of Railtrack and there have been a lot of deaths? You can’t smile on TV. And you can’t look down, either, because that looks shifty.”

The solution is breathtaking.