Sunday, 26 June 2011

Fireman Sam

Over the last few months I have been watching a lot of Fireman Sam. It's not out of choice it's because my son who's 2 and a half watches little else. He loves Fireman Sam with a love that appears to out-weigh the love he has for his parents. The problem is that as you sit with your child engaging with them and talking about what's happening on the television you start to question things.

Fireman Sam (if you're not familiar) is set in the coastal town of Pontypandy somewhere in south Wales. The town itself has around 150 houses (that's a ball park figure culled from many images of fire engines driving through). It has a supermarket, a fish and chip shop, and a fire station... and yet we only ever see 15 residents, and a sheep. 15. That's all. It seems that the Welsh Assembly haven't had their attention drawn to the town where 4 of the 15 residents are in the Fire Department, or, that the other 145 households are too scared to venture out of their houses due to the antics of the 11 pyromaniac residents.

Every week there is another fire emergency started (generally) by Norman Price, a ginger haired psychopath who endangers life and limb and eventually gets a stern talking to. He deserves to be placed into a youth offender's institution. These emergencies happen invariably on the watch of Sam Jones, the titular Fireman Sam. Sam has a firm chin, a nice line in payoff gags and a simple way of dealing with life; if in doubt point a hose at it.

The recent debacle of "The Great Fire Of Pontypandy" is a great example of the worry I have for the residents of the town. Sam and his cohorts allowed a forest fire to threaten the town, causing a mass evacuation. The only people to turn up at the quay side to be taken safely out to sea were the usual 15 people (apart from Tom Thomas the random Australian helicopter pilot). Where were the others? Were they locked in their houses by the blood thirsty ringleaders left to burn in some sort of pre teen massacre?

So what is the point of all of this? Am I really that bored that I have to analyse children's programmes? No, doing something like this can really help us when we come up against the media. You may well have written a splendid press release that tells a story of light and love, possibly involving a benign fire safety obsessed welsh man and when you walk into the interview, you realise that they have really been thinking about it far too much.

How do you counter a journalist who has over thought it? Be honest, be clear and be kind. The popping of the over blown intellectual bubble that they have produced could shock both of you.

Just remember, sometimes the answer is... it's just a cartoon.

Monday, 20 June 2011


"A day like today is not a day for soundbites, we can leave those at home," Tony Blair 1998

Sorry Tony, but every day is a day for soundbites. Every day! The importance of the soundbite can't be underrated even if talking about them just seems a bit 1997, a bit Labour Landslide. It's a shame really because as soon as the word soundbite is mentioned people turn off or stop reading jolly helpful blogs...

Still here? Good.

Think of the soundbite this way; during the day we are exposed to far more headlines than the articles that we read, there's the web, printed news papers, scrolling bars on the news channels all of them are tiny bits of news poetry distilling the most meaning from the least number of words. If the headline is right then the eye is drawn into what the story is. It is, however, really very difficult to find the best soundbite for a press release that's being blanket sent to all of the print journos in the world. So what do you do? Do you jiggle with it for every publication and present them with a nice niche line? No. No you don't. You know full well that your average PR person has hundreds of other things that they have to do during the day, so why don't you take advantage of the cross pollination that news organisations perpetuate? Everybody steals off each other. If a press release is versioned for one mass market outlet, The Daily Mail for example, then you have a short hand for what the other outlets can version for themselves. Hit 'em with something that they can copy and paste into their house styles. If you want to know more have a look at this splendid site all about the world of Churnalism.

They are decrying the lack of what they see as "proper journalism". From your commercial point of view take advantage of the situation and get the publicity.

So what about the broadcast media? There your aim should be the "news clip".

If you are interviewed on a local radio Breakfast Show then you'd be lucky to get a few thousand listeners. The radio station may say that they have 100,000 listeners but that's across the week for the whole station. A good breakfast show could only peak at 6000 listeners at any given time. If you're not on at the peak you may get 2000 if you're unlucky. So what can you do about it? You give good quote, you get out the big guns and have a lovely soundbite that can be run across the news bulletins for the whole day. If there are 20,000 listeners for the day then you may get all of them. Now that's worth your while aiming for the news clip isn't it?

What makes a good news clip? If it's a slow day virtually anything, from "local business man says cheese is lovely" to "local business man says cheese is horrible" but you need to aim a bit higher than that. You can't always hope for the slow news day. You want a new figure, to go against the perceived wisdom, to challenge a truth, to have some very good news, or some very bad news, and you need to do all of that in about 15 seconds, with the ability to write some bits round it. Simple eh? That's why Tony Blair had a team of writers all looking for what the soundbite was going to be.

Just being aware of some of the ways organisations get their headlines and how important a soundbite can be could be the little bit of extra focus that you need.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011


If you really want to give "good interview" then you need to be aware of your flaws, for me it's verbosity; why use one word when a florid collection of thirty will do?

My colleagues in the radio industry still talk (in hushed tones) about my fascinating, beautifully crafted and intricate link that went on for five and a half minutes. That's right, five and a half minutes, without hesitation and still with a coherent train of thought. It was, however, five and a half minutes when I could have done it in less than one. My boss pointed out the behemoth and since then I have always been aware that I can just go on a bit when the wind is behind me and it's something that I now watch very carefully.

Francis Maud MP Cabinet Office Minister has a problem with smug, and someone ought to tell him. I don't just want to pick on The Rt. Hon. Mr Maude, there are many others from all works of life that suffer from 'the smugs' it's just that this morning on BBC Breakfast he showed himself to be patient zero.

If you want to avoid the same fate as Francis Maud here are some tips...

1 - Do not steam roller over the end of questions. You may be eager to put your view to the nation but stepping on the end of the question gives the two pronged impression of being so clever that you don't need the rest of the question, and that it doesn't matter what you're being asked because you're just going to say what you want any way. (And in this case you make Sian Williams look cross and no one wants that)

2 - The kind voice, oooh the kind voice, if you're wondering what I mean then have a look at this (this is the news clip not the Sian Williams live but the effect is the same) it's that tone that's a cross between the Doctor explaining that you're going to have your leg off, and the Headmaster who's terribly disappointed in you but doesn't want to be discouraging. Tone of voice is a hugely difficult thing to manage, and there seems to be a trend, probably since Thatcher to adopt a 'the Government really does know best' tone when talking about difficult issues. So how do you get around this? Being aware of it is a very good start...

3 - Careful with the eyebrow action. It's interesting to see that there are a number of research papers looking at eyebrows and the amount that they are raised, and they point to eyebrows being raised as a form of facial emphasis. In this case it's the sections starting '...cross party consensus...', '...proposals made by Lord Hutton a former Labour Secretary of State...' and then on '...asking their members to give up a days pay...'. The result of these dramatic eyebrow raises is to communicate a passing of the blame for the decisions and the subsequent hardship to someone else.

The problem is that when you're being smug, pompous, bolshie, cross, baity, snide, sarcastic, all the things that you should avoid in interviews, especially filmed interviews, you need someone looking at the tape to tell you what you're doing, and after that someone to work with you to stop doing it.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Good Morning!

Here is an imagined scene that takes place in a radio studio near you.

Presenter - Good Morning it's 8 o'clock, I'm Smug Pratley, coming up the campaign to stop saying good morning all the time, first the news with Rich Reading-Voice.

News reader - Good Morning, lots of things have happened of great importance... (fade to 'and finally') with the sport here's Nerdy Statlington.

Sports reporter - Good Morning, it's been a great morning of sport... (fade to 'racing tips')

(jingle plays)

Presenter - Good Morning, it's 5 past 8, I'm Smug Pratley and you're with 'Pratley in the Morning' on the way lots of things that have happened in the local area that we've found out about, but first a campaign has been launched to stop wasting time saying good morning to everyone on the radio, the head of the campaign says that we waste a massive 12 hours a week listening to people on the radio saying Good Morning to each other; that statistic incidentally is made up.

So what does our local MP Lord Nicking of Snatch think of this? Good Morning Lord Nicking.

Guest - Good Morning to you Smug and Good Morning to all your listeners.

Presenter - Good Morning, so what do you think you'd do if I just started asking you a question, keeping the flow and rhythm of the programme going, without saying Good Morning?

Guest - Well Smug, I'd automatically say Good Morning to you, then I'd pause for a fraction of a second too long, fooling you into thinking that I'm waiting for a response. When I hear you take a breath to do that, I'd then carry on regardless. This would make you angry and therefore less inclined to be nice to me during the rest of the interview, but I'd feel delighted with my feeling of self satisfaction.

Presenter - well, that's fascinating... (fade to hand over to slightly manic morning presenter)

So what should you take from this?

Firstly, Breakfast presenters say 'Good Morning' far too much.

Secondly, if the person about to interview you doesn't greet you on air just get on with answering the question. They have probably already said Good Morning to you off air and if they haven't don't let it worry you; It's a stylistic thing, it makes the presenter sound more in control and the programme sound slicker, that's all it is. When you start the answer with 'Good Morning' you annoy the presenter (who's trying very hard to be fast paced) and an annoyed presenter has many, many ways to make you look bad... trust me on this.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011


Language is defined by its usage; Gay rarely means light hearted and fun, Genius now means everything from second rate rapper to nerd who helps you in the Apple store and Obviously means, well, whatever you want it to mean.

Poor, poor, poor, obviously; what did it do to deserve this?

You only have to look at the abuse this simple and easily definable word* gets in the mouths of politicians to understand the depth of the problem...

Mr Cameron was asked about the period before the general election when he treated Mr Clegg as a joke. The Prime Minister said with a gleam of wicked amusement: "We've obviously had to get used to each other's jokes over the last year."

Andrew Gimson Daily Telegraph 12/05/11

Here i's thrown in for emphasis, without it the almost joke would be even smaller. So in this context it has no meaning.

The PM then threw in a mildly amusing remark about how Mr Miliband, just like Michael Foot, was being 'undermined by someone called Healey'...The House laughed. By the standards of Commons oratory, it was not a bad crack, even though it was obviously pre-fabricated.

Quentin Letts Daily Mail 12/05/11

Err, Ok, same thing here only in this case it adds a splendid frisson of smugness too.
Danny Alexander, the Treasury chief secretary, (commenting on the PM’s 'Calm down dear' gag) "Obviously, if something has caused offence, obviously that was not right. I hope it has not caused offence, because it was a joke".

I honestly didn't do this on purpose these quotes are randomly pulled off Google. The problem is that no one really knows what they're doing when it comes to things being obvious. Poor old Danny Alexander sounds like a petulant child when this quote is written down. Let's take this quote and take the 'O' word out of it.

"If something has caused offence, that was not right. I hope it has not caused offence, because it was a joke".

It's startling just how more sincere and pleasant it reads.

The most common crimes against this otherwise blameless word are emphasis, condescension, and self flagellation. We've covered the emphasis section, how about condescension. Take this completely made up response to an angry journalists question about NHS cuts.

"Obviously we are all having a tough time financially that's why we're closing all our hospitals and putting our patients in the capable hands of Keith the Aroma therapist"

Or in other words "How dare you question your betters, you jumped up little pencil pusher. We will do what we feel is for the best and you can just lump it"

It may be that the fictional government official is worried that he's going to be held accountable for a terrible horlicks but the first word out of his mouth immediately annoys the consumer and the interviewer and removes any sympathy for the messenger. 

Self flagellation is forgivable but again smug. Try it tonight. Stand in your house and start an argument. A good vicious argument, something along the lines of "goodness you're putting on weight dear" have a really good row and go to bed very, very, very angry. In the morning just see if this works, say in a loud firm voice "obviously I'm sorry, and I obviously didn't mean it" you may want to start ducking as you say it head wounds aren't worth proving a semantic point.

If you're being interviewed, if you're being quoted, if you have a point to make in a presentation avoid being obvious. It's obvious that you don't need it, and if you need to say it's obvious then it isn’t and if it isn't then you didn't in the first place... obvious eh?

*Easily perceived or understood; quite apparent. I did tell you.

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