Ask a silly question
Last week I spent a morning doing “Media Training”, a marvellous crash course that the university occasionally lays on for its staff. The idea is to make you a more “effective communicator” on radio and television.
About half the morning was theory (what to wear, how to prepare, when and how to smile etc). The other half was practical, and took the form of some recorded interviews, which you then went over -- and picked to pieces -- with instructors and fellow victims. It was humiliating, but extraordinarily helpful. “Where’s your killer point?”, the instructor asked after we’d listened to me discussing the benefits of Latin. A fair cop, I thought. There wasn’t one.
I don’t imagine that I shall be following all the rules we were given. Honestly, I can’t see me in the recommended pastel colours and trim jackets, even if they are flattering in front of the camera. But, at the very least, it’s nice to know what the rules are that you’re breaking.
Overall, the main point seemed to be that you would do a better media interview once you had learned how to “set the agenda”. Roughly translated this means “how not to answer the question”.
Academics, it seems, are very bad at not answering the question. A big part of our day job involves explaining to students why “irrelevance will be penalized” (as is blazoned across many Cambridge exam papers) and trying to convince the younger generation that academic success usually goes to those who answer the question that is set – not the question they would like to have been asked.
The result is that your average don will obediently wrestle with even the stupidest questions posed by the most ill-informed interviewers, while the minutes for moving onto more interesting territory tick speedily away. I’ve often enough gone down the primrose path of “So what kind of dog breeds did the Romans have then . . . ?” (search me -- nasty ones, I think), when we should have been discussing the intriguing power of ancient mythical monsters.
It was good to learn some tactics for dealing with this. And ever since I’ve been practicing in my head phrases like “That’s an interesting question, but I think the really important point is . . .” or “Yes, but we first need to think about . . .”.
But our group did begin to have some qualms about the future of radio discussion if every participant came along with their own agenda already set and ready to plug it at all costs. It would turn a programme like “Nightwaves” (never mind “In Our Time”) from frank and friendly discussion into a series of monologues. And anyway, when you’re a radio listener, rather than performer, don’t you just hate the guys who won’t answer the question?
Whether I’ve actually got any better at “effective communication”, I’ll have to wait and see. I did give some of my new found skills a trial run yesterday, when I was interviewed for an enterprising BBC 4 programme on the image of the Romans on Television. This is set to coincide with a summer repeat of the 1976 BBC series of “I Claudius” – and, classicists note, with any luck it will include an unmissable clip of Mortimer Wheeler in 1960 pondering on the similarities of the British and Roman empires, while puffing on his pipe on some temple steps.
I fear, once more, that I broke several of the rules. Where was the jacket? And alcohol (a predictable no-no) had been consumed in sufficient quantities at a party the night before that the killer points didn’t come easy. But perhaps I have managed to correct that distracting little slant of the head. I can hardly wait to watch.