How to resonate
Sometimes I am asked to speak about my career in the media at business events, conferences and dinners. Across more than 25 years there’s quite a lot to talk about.
At the end we get on to the Q&A and I am nearly always asked what I have learned from all those years on the road.
The answer is always the same. I learned how to resonate.
Of course there are so many skills to develop in a demanding career in the print and broadcast media. There are processes to practice, there is experience to gather and the kind of ambient knowledge for which there is no short cut but in the end only one thing counts. Have you engaged with your audience?
As young reporter on the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday one of the things I did best was connect with people. I was delighted to leave the parameters of the large regional newspaper where I trained because I found council meetings, tribunals and endless court cases hard to report. My then news editor (quite rightly) wanted accurate, detailed reports of local issues without too much colour or pathos.
Once on the Mail, I was happy to be in an arena where human interest stories were always top of the agenda.
In the five years I spent with Associated Newspapers I met so many different people from a sex-change pilot at Cambrian Airlines (male to female) to rape victims, multiple murderers (released on licence), celebrities and politicians that I learned how to connect with people.
When I pitched up at Sky News it was a different ball game. Or rather it wasn’t…I just thought it was. I spent so much time trying to broadcast that I forgot to be myself. It took a man called Peter Settelen (who coached Princess Diana) to make me realise this.
To be a good news presenter you have to be a good journalist, have a very quick mind and -especially in 24-hour news – resilience. Those are all what I would call straightforward skills. They are time-consuming to acquire but the process is linear. The hard bit is allowing your personality to shine within the confines of a news bulletin.
I tell my clients the same is true for them. They all have top level careers behind them – otherwise they would not be on TV but it is finding a way of projecting their character that is the hard part. That is why I always insert some elements of behavioural analysis into what I do. You don’t have to be an extrovert to perform well – but you do have to understand what type of person you are – and why that is valuable. Many of the best contributors on TV right now are introverts not extroverts who need to see understand their value in the studio.
It was a good two or three years before I settled down at Sky News and not long after I left the UK for Hong Kong where I became the Asia Correspondent for Fox News. Now I was really in at the deep end. US networks love personalities. They expect the highest standards of journalism but they also want their on-air people to resonate. It was hard letting go of some of my stuffier habits. Still, there was nothing like kneeling on the grass at midnight ad-libbing my script into the camera during the overthrow of the Indonesian President to cure me of that.
So you would have thought that when I arrived at ITV’s flagship Tonight programme that I would be able to leap through the lens and embrace the audience but no, there was still a way to go. My colleague Jonathan Maitland was the master of this kind of delivery and while I will never broadcast his way, I did develop my own style. I became the go-to presenter for all the stories on children’s health, women and drinking, knife crime, cosmetic surgery, nutrition and the food industry. In short, I could cover every subject I really cared about and, of course, it was easy to just be myself. I lived and breathed those stories until, in performance terms, there was very little difference between me and my interviewees.
I had learned how to retain years of journalistic experience with an ability to connect with those I spoke to and therefore the viewer.
So on more than 25 years of reporting and broadcasting here’s what I know works…
- Know yourself
- Know your audience
- Know your story
And understand that in any story, any event any challenge there is always what I call a simple, single truth; the one line that builds the bond with whatever audience you face.
My truth is that I am still learning…..but that is for another blog.