When silence speaks louder than words – 3 things to learn from Liz Truss’s car crash interviews

30 September 2022  |  News
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Liz Truss

Prime Minister Liz Truss

Words didn’t come so easily this week to Prime Minister Liz Truss, who underwent a ‘brutal’ morning of grilling from BBC local radio journalists.

Truss faced questions on issues including rising mortgages, the energy crisis, and local consent for fracking, following the Government’s mini budget announcement. The interviews were peppered with long silences and unsteady interview responses from the PM.

Tweets from BBC 1’s ‘Have I got News for You,’ and the producer of Global Radio’s ‘The News Agents’ podcast, referenced Truss’ ‘horrific’ car crash interviews.

The fallout from interviews like these can make a serious dent in a public reputation, so getting media interviews right first time is crucial. Preparation and anticipation are key to success – so here’s what we can learn from Truss’s experience.

Never underestimate local media

Truss had steered clear of national interviews since the fiscal plan announcement, and maybe she thought she would get an easier ride with the BBC regional interviews.

But that wasn’t to be: a local journalist has a detailed knowledge of their region’s issues, knows their audience very well, and is passionate about them.

John Acres, breakfast presenter at BBC Radio Stoke, asked the Prime Minister direct, strong questions, leading her to take a couple of highly audible long, uneven and deep breaths before answering.

This stalling, followed by the rising tone of her voice in reply, suggested a lack of confidence in her response.

Acres led the conversation, often making statements rather than asking questions. Truss allowed him to interrupt her, rather than driving points home consistently, and Acres used the space left by her silence to draw a definite, unhappy conclusion about the impact of her announcement on the mortgage market.

Whether they’re local or national, it’s important not to underestimate the journalist you’re facing in a media interview, and to recognise when they are likely to be hostile.

Don’t wait for the journalist to ask the question you want to hear. They won’t.

Instead, have a strong key message ready and deliver it. If possible, use a meaningful case study to highlight and strengthen your point early on.

Anticipate interview questions

Graham Liver from BBC Radio Lancashire asked Truss why she could not tell the audience there would not be a return to fracking in Lancashire, and if she knew where the site was.

The long delays before the Prime Minister's answer and stumbling suggested she hadn’t done her homework: she seemed unsure of her information and messages and was not confident in her vocal pacing. The journalist directed the line of questioning to further lead the conversation.

To ease media pressure, a robust and expert briefing is essential pre-reading for any spokesperson. It should outline the types of tricky questions that might occur, the audience demographic, and any main messages the interviewee needs to deliver.

Be clear and don’t delay

Truss was widely criticised not just for what she said, but for how long it took her to say it.

On radio especially, a pause can feel like an eternity, and ums, jargon or filler words will never communicate confidence. This all has a negative impact on the audience you’re hoping to impress.

To avoid similar long pauses and prevarication, it’s important to prepare well and practice important interviews ahead of time. As a spokesperson, you must be able to communicate as the expert on your topic, and you can develop this ability more readily through role-play and getting professional feedback on your responses.

The added benefit to radio is that you can bring in notes. Have a list to hand of your key messages, and suggested responses to some of the likely hot-button issues to help you respond quickly and confidently.

It’s the interviewee’s job to tell a story well. Being clear, ready and prepared will make sure you are master of the narrative.

So, never underestimate the journalist, try and anticipate interview questions, and do your best to be clear and not delay your answers. This will help you in every media interview you face.

Written by Theresa Stone, Training & Development Manager, Jersey Road PR.

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