Jeremy Nicholas is the match day announcer at West Ham and does a lot of radio & TV work. He's just published an excellent book called MEDIA MASTERS: INSIDER SECRETS FROM THE BIG NAMES OF BROADCAST, PRINT & SOCIAL MEDIA. For some inexplicable reason there's an interview with me in the book, alongside interviews with Terry Wogan, Phill Jupitus, Parky, Michael Aspel, George Galloway and Hugh Pym and many others.
Iain is regularly invited to appear on TV and radio because he’s that rare creature, a man who can talk about politics without sending everyone to sleep.So who better to ask about politicians and the media. Who’s good at it, and who’s dreadful?
“Ann Widdecombe and Michael Portillo are good. Tony Blair was the master of it. Few politicians, only maybe Bill Clinton, were as good as Blair. Margaret Thatcher became good at it. She was a good example of a politician who had to learn it. There are some people who are just naturals in the media and others who have to be coached. She knew she was weak and did something about it. Most politicians are egotistical by nature, so they think they are good at it. I would say eighty percent of them are not good at it. Some are more receptive to coaching than others. Particularly for women it is the voice. Women can sound shriller than men. It’s just the way they are built. She was taught to breathe differently and talk more slowly. It’s the trick of learning something which may not be natural to begin with, but becomes natural.”
What can politicians do to improve the way they come across on TV and radio?
“Politicians are used to standing on their feet speaking to an audience. It’s different when you are in front of a camera and there’s no audience. It’s especially difficult if you are doing a ‘down the line’ interview from a remote studio and there’s no journalist in front of you. You are getting the questions in an earpiece from the news centre at Sky or BBC. It’s easy to look shifty on camera like that. Often you’re not quite sure when they are coming to you. Your eyes are flicking from the monitor to the camera. It’s easy to look shifty. What do you do if your earpiece drops out? Nobody teaches you that and you can look a real idiot.”
(Actually I do teach politicians how to do ‘down the line’ interviews. So does my co-author. But this is no time for adverts.)
Iain also writes a blog called West Ham Till I Die, which is how I first met him. Like another of our MediaMasters, Phill Jupitus, he shares my love of West Ham United FC. You’ll notice all three of us have a humorous outlook on life. If you follow football, you’ll know this is a fundamental requirement for Hammers fans. Iain always tries to be entertaining when he’s invited onto TV.
“Even on a serious news programme, people do not want somebody just going on and trotting out some boring analysis. I can do a bit of quirkiness and eccentricity. I don’t pretend to be the font of all knowledge on every single issue. I think it’s good to be animated on TV. Move your head, move your hands, don’t just sit there. You can convey a lot of your message with your hands and it brings the whole thing to life.”
Iain thinks a sense of humour comes in handy during tricky interviews.
“Often if David Cameron is asked a tough question by John Humphrys or Jeremy Paxman he dismisses it with a laugh. The questions can get quite personal, but he doesn’t get upset, he just giggles. Nick Clegg on the other hand, will do the same interview and he’ll start getting tetchy at the tough questions. At home, the listener or viewer will see him start to lose his temper. Whereas Cameron doesn’t let himself get riled.”
While ranking Tony Blair’s media skills highly, Iain is not as complimentary about his successor as Prime Minister.
“Gordon Brown has catchphrases he uses over and over again. Whatever the question he’s asked he’ll come out with the same five catchphrases. Someone should tell him people are getting bored. They know what the answers are going to be. He doesn’t seem to have the ability to think on his feet in the way that Blair did. He doesn’t come across well in interviews like Blair. There was a time shortly after Brown became Prime Minister when someone had clearly told him he needed to smile. He came out with this hideous grin that looked so unnatural. He’d suddenly switch it on for no reason, at an entirely inappropriate moment.”
I asked Iain if he could give some tips to TV novices. What sort of things should telly virgins bear in mind?
“If you have never done TV before, you automatically assume that you should look into the camera. It’s something you have to get over very quickly. You want to know who is doing the interview. Is it live? How long is it going to last? Are they going to use clips from the interview, or are they going to use the whole thing? In whatever medium you are talking in nowadays, you haven’t got room to make more than two points. If you say more than that, they’re not going to use them. So you’ve really got to make up your mind before you go on, what you are going to say. It’s particularly important if you are a guest on the Today Programme or 5Live breakfast. You might be a guest along with someone else and the whole thing only lasts a couple of minutes. You’ve only got a minute, so you have to think what you want someone listening to that interview to take away from it. You have to make that point, regardless of what questions you are asked.”
He also recommends checking up on the person who’s going to be interviewing you.
“If you are going on with Paxman you know what you are going to get. If you are being interviewed by a local presenter, who you don’t know, then try and get a tape of them, so you know what to expect. A lot of people who go on TV for the first time automatically assume that the interviewer is there to trip them up. They’re not. They’re there to help the viewer learn more about the subject. They are a facilitator.”
Despite TV grabbing all the headlines, many people still feel a great affinity with radio. It may seem cheap and cheerful in comparison, but never underestimate its impact. Iain loves it.
“I much prefer appearing on the radio, because you generally have more time to say what you are going to say. It’s a more natural environment. If you do an interview for television you may speak for five minutes, but you know they are only going to use thirty seconds. So you have to try and speak in short sentences. If you waffle on they are not going to use your clip. You are always under time pressure in interviews these days, which is a shame. Often I’ll be listening to a lively discussion on radio and the presenter says, ‘well I’m afraid we have to leave it there’. I think, ‘why do we?’ Why not carry on if it’s interesting? I think the internet is going to be the place where you can go to listen to those sort of longer interviews.”
Iain’s another of our MediaMasters who’s not sure which area of the media is ultimately the one for him. His blogs are a huge success in reader numbers, but no-one has yet found a way to make blogs pay. He’d still like to be an MP but relishes the media work at the same time. He’s also currently touring a show called ‘An Evening with Ann Widdecombe’. It sounds like a nightmare I once had, but it’s actually an entertaining theatre show where Iain shares the stage with the former Home Office minister.
Buy the book HERE.
This chapter published with the author’s permission from the book MediaMasters by Alan Stevens and Jeremy Nicholas.