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Five Media Training Lessons from the Vice Presidential Debate

5th October 2016

As a Brit living in the US, there are a number of things that fascinated me about last night’s Vice Presidential debate between Sen Tim Kaine and Gov Mike Pence: The focus on international affairs, which was welcome, but at complete odds with the mainstream American media’s coverage of overseas issues (there basically isn’t any); the highly personal nature of these debate, over policy platforms; and the odd question about the role of the candidates’ faith, which is never mentioned in the UK (Alastair Campbell famously said “We don’t do God”) and seems particularly strange in a secular country, where Christian affiliations of all kinds are in decline, and actually in the minority.

But as a communications professional, I was more struck by the lessons for anyone preparing for a media interview.

While a company executive is unlikely to take part in a 90 minute head to head moderated by Elaine Quijano, the format of the debate, and some of the techniques employed by the candidates, provide valuable tips for anyone being thrust into the media spotlight.

  1. You can’t over-prepare. One could tell that both candidates were well prepared last night. There was not a single question or subject area that threw them, and yet it sounded natural. That only comes from preparation and practice. More than that, though, last night’s participants also knew their opposition. They knew their weak spots and did all they could to exploit them. The same applies to a radio or TV interview in which one is faced with a fellow interviewee with an opposing view: Anticipate their positions and know how to counter them. (Tip: Shaking your head, Pence-style, does not work on the radio.)
  2. Here’s my answer, now what was the question? While it is a trait in politicians that infuriates many people, the trick to getting in your key messages early – almost whatever question you are asked – is a valuable one. Both candidates did this last night, setting out their respective stalls in their opening statements, with only a vague reference to the question, which was about what qualities they would bring to the office. In any media interview, this is important. If you are the interviewee, you are the subject matter expert, and should take control early by laying out in your first answer what you want to talk about.  
  3. Beat the clock. One of the most frustrating things about last night’s debate was that just as the candidates were getting into a real discussion, the moderator moved on to the next topic. It was a problem with the format of the debate. But in a media interview, the same thing can use this to one’s advantage. The media interview is an artificial construct, governed by the clock. Knowing this, the accomplished interviewee can talk a subject out, to avoid more contentious questions. But this technique should be approached with caution: The danger is being asked the trickiest question at the end, with just 10 seconds to respond!
  4. Body language matters. Both candidates did well on this front last night. There was none of the grimacing, eye-rolling or looking at wrist watches that we have seen in other debates. The lesson here is obviously one for TV interviews: Assume the camera is on you at all times, because it’s all about the edit.
  5. Repetition matters. Repetition matters! Hearing something once is never enough. Hearing something twice is not enough. Conventional wisdom is that a message has to be repeated seven times before it sticks. So having landed on your key message or messages (ideally one, but certainly no more than three), one shouldn’t be afraid to repeat it. We saw it last night from both candidates – “insult-driven campaign”, “how can Governor Pence defend this?” There’s a reason effective spokespeople repeat things: Because it works.

Both Gov Pence and Senator Kaine are accomplished politicians and debaters. But look beyond that and you will also recognize that they are expert media interviewees, and that irrespective of their political positions, there are valuable lessons there for anyone wanting to use the mass media to communicate.  

Jon Meakin is Grayling's Global Business Development Director.

Grayling Team

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