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7 media interview lessons from the Rugby World Cup

Tonight, Twickenham will play host to the eighth Rugby World Cup as England take on Fiji in front of 82,000 fans.

Over the next six weeks, twenty teams from around the world will do battle for the famous Webb Ellis Trophy, with defending champions New Zealand the favourites from the outset.

We often use sporting analogies in our media training and presentation skills courses in Glasgow and Edinburgh and around the UK.

We find these analogies help people to break down what can be a daunting performance – the dreaded media interview.

Just like a game of rugby, there’s a technique to making sure you win.

Australia, South Africa, England, Ireland and others will certainly be applying these techniques on the pitch over the next six weeks as they attempt to steal New Zealand’s crown.

So how does it apply to media interviews?

1) Make the big hit

Anyone who has played or watched international rugby knows the value of a big hit early on.

Just watch this tackle from English prop Phil Vickery on French flanker Olivier Magne:

An early hit sets down a marker for the opposition.

They know you mean business – and they remember that hit for the next 80 minutes.

In your media interviews, consider in advance:

If I had only one thing to say in this interview, what would it be?

Once you know that, write that down on some paper before your interview – and be absolutely determined to get it across.

Now all you need to do is answer the question you are asked – and move on to your point.

I heard a Radio 2 interview recently that demonstrated this point beautifully.

The new Chief Executive of Sainsbury’s, Mike Coupe, was giving his first broadcast interview in his new role.

media interview training scotland Sainsbury's Local.

One of the first questions he was asked by host Jeremy Vine speculated on the difficulty of taking over a supermarket in trouble:

“Be honest – you must feel a bit like Louis van Gaal taking over from Alex Ferguson at Manchester United?”

His answer was textbook:

“Not at all. Sainsbury’s is a fantastic brand and I’m really proud of being given the opportunity to lead a business like Sainsbury’s. Clearly there are challenges in the marketplace, you can’t deny that – but there are equally fantastic opportunities for us. We’ve got a great convenience business, a great online business, a great non-food business…we’ve just bought a bank”.

He decided in advance that he was going to talk about the bank that Sainsbury’s had just bought.

His Direct Answer – “not at all” – allowed him to move on to make his big hit.

You’ll see plenty of these hits over the next six weeks.

Make sure you make your own early on next time you speak to the media.

media interview training scotland Webb Ellis trophy range rover.

2) Dictate the play

Making a big hit early on allows you to dictate the play.

Mike Coupe, in the face of negative questioning, went on to talk about the fact that Sainsbury’s is cheaper than ASDA, as well as the fact that Sainsbury’s Basics brand is the cheapest supermarket brand in the UK.

By making some big hits, he was able to control the agenda of the play.

Watch England No. 10 George Ford when England take on Fiji tonight.

Providing the forwards in front of him make the big hits and secure the rugby ball, he’ll dictate every single aspect of the play.

His main job is to read the game in front of him and decide whether to pass, kick or go himself.

As this video demonstrates, he’s adept at all three:

It’s little surprise he’s nicknamed ‘The General’.

After you’ve discovered your number one point that you’re determined to make, rank your other points in descending order.

This allows you to go into your interview with a ‘shopping list’ of points you want to make.

If it’s a radio interview, take this shopping list into the studio with you and simply select whether you wish to talk about milk, butter, eggs or cheese.

If it’s a TV interview, memorise your key points and select from the list once you’ve given your Direct Answer.

Like George Ford, you’re simply assessing what’s in front of you before making your decision, allowing you to control the agenda of your interview.

3) Break the tackle

Occassionally, the interviewer will interrupt you.

It’s a tactic employed by broadcast journalists either to unsettle you or, more likely, to focus your mind into giving a positive interesting sound-bite.

Socially, we tend to dislike interruptions. We stop and let the interrupter speak.

If this happened on the rugby pitch, you’d end up with 30 players standing around saying:

“No, you first – I insist”

Watching New Zealand’s Jonah Lomu break tackles for fun on his 1995 World Cup debut was a joy to behold:

He simply refused to be tackled, culminating in one of the finest ever RWC performances in New Zealand’s victory over England in the semi-finals.

He scored four tries – and left some dark memories within the England Camp:

Remember Jonah Lomu the next time you’re interrupted in a media interview.

If interrupted, raise your voice slightly and keep going until you’ve made your point.

Remember – the broadcaster has to consider the radio or television ‘output’ – what people hear and see at home.

If both of you are talking for 3-4 seconds in a cacophony of noise, then the interviewer must back down.

So keep going – shrug off the tackle and score your try.

Just like Jonah.

4) Score your points – and stop

There’s a great scene in Forrest Gump when Forrest, played by Tom Hanks, scores a touchdown when representing his college at American Football.

However, rather than stopping and returning to his half, he keeps on running, a journey that eventually takes him across the entire breadth of the USA.

media interview training scotland Forrest Gump rugby world cup.

Many people take this approach in their media interviews.

They make their point and keep going, leading them into areas they’d rather stay out of.

BBC Radio 5 Live did an interview with the organisers of three events during the August Bank Holiday in England.

The spokesperson for the first event, the National Gallup, encouraged anyone and everyone to find a friend, find a costume and run 100metres inside it – whether a horse, a buffalo or a unicorn – to win some great prizes.

The second, the organiser of the World Gravy Wrestling tournament, urged people to come to Lancashire and swim in, wrestle in or throw gravy at each other in what promised to be a day of great fun.

The third spokesperson was from the National Chilli Eating Competition in Brighton.

His words:

“Well we encourage everyone to come down and watch people try Scotch bonnets, Peruvian Purples and Rings of Fire. The hotter the better.

After a brief pause, he continued:

“The only thing is that it’s starting to rain and look rather like the Gravy Wrestling tournament, in fact it’s really coming down now and I certainly wouldn’t want people to be disappointed, so maybe best to stay away”.

How’s that for a sales pitch?

If you keep on talking, most likely you’ll end up talking rubbish – or running the breadth of America.

Watch the likes of Stuart Hogg of Scotland instead.

He’ll pick up the ball, brush past defenders, score a try and then stop, before retreating to the half-way line.

Do the same with your interviews.

Once you’ve made your point, stop and wait for the next question.

5) Shake hands

All 500 or so players in this year’s World Cup will be doing something after the game that’s hugely important – shaking hands.

Despite tearing chunks out of each other during the eighty minutes, shaking hands shows your opposition – and your audience – that you can hold your head high in both victory and defeat.

media interview training scotland handshake at rugby world cup.

Make sure you do the same in your radio and TV interviews.

Always say “thank you” at the end of the interview.

Regardless of what’s happened during the interview, this tells your audience that you were happy to be there.

I once watched an interview with a leading charity spokesperson on BBC Breakfast News, in which she did very well for the three minutes she was on screen.

She promoted the charity well, pointed out a fundraising page on the website and defended difficult questions around the funding of full-time posts.

She even thanked Bill Turnbull at the end of the interview.

As the presenters turned back to the camera to introduce the next news item, she inexplicably threw her head into her hands and violently shook her head.

She thought she was out of shot.

All the good work she had done was undermined by that human reaction.

So make sure you end with a firm “thank you” and hold your position until you’re sure you’re out of shot.

You’ll show your audience at home you were happy to be there – just like the rugby stars we’re all looking forward to seeing over the next few weeks.

6) Analyse your performance

When Joe Schmidt took charge of Ireland in April 2013, the national team was in despair.

A disappointing Autumn Internationals series was followed by fifth place in the Six Nations Championship.

Schmidt decided to look at every single aspect of the Irish performance, being a big proponent of marginal gains theory.

He turned Irish rugby into a science.

media interview training scotland Ireland at rugby world cup.

First he experimented with new players.

Then these new players in new positions.

Finally, he looked at the way his team communicated and the leadership structure headed by Irish captain Paul O’Connell.

He even took his Ireland team to the Millennium stadium ahead of their match with Wales earlier this year, asking for the roof to be closed to allow his players to get used to the air flow around the stadium.

They lost that match – and Schmidt vowed to change his approach for the next visit to Cardiff.

The Golden Rules of Communication we share at our Glasgow Studios apply beyond media training and presentation skills training.

Regardless of the format, make sure you record your next piece of verbal communication.

Watch it back.

Ask yourself if you were happy with what came across – and what you would change for next time.

By doing so, you turn self-criticism into self-analysis.

And like Joe Schmidt, that kind of approach will take you far.

He won the Six Nations Championship in both 2014 and 2015 and goes into this year’s World Cup determined to win that too.

7) Predict success

We worked a lot with Glasgow Warriors last season before their Pro12 title victory.

media interview training scotland rugby players having laugh pink elephant media trainers.

The key to their communication was simple: predict success.

All too often in Scotland, we talk ourselves down – and predict failure.

When we run presentation skills sessions, we often hear these comments before people take to the podium:

“I’m terrible at this”

“This is going to be awful”

“I’m going to forget my words here – I just know it”.

Without realising it, you’re telling your body to prepare for this being terrible and awful – and to expect to forget your words.

Instead, use the Glasgow Warriors approach.

They told their fans and the media that their goal was to win the Pro12 – and they’ve achieved that.

They now plan to be the best side in Europe.

Only time will tell if and when that becomes a reality, but one thing is sure: by predicting success, you tell your body to expect it, and you make it more likely to happen.

Every single New Zealand player will go onto the pitch in every game in this World Cup believing they are going to win.

In six weeks’ time, we’ll all know if they were right.

Andrew McFarlan is director of media training and presentation skills firm Pink Elephant Communications in Glasgow.

You can view his full profile here.

Photo credit: Ewan-M / Foter / CC BY-SA; M+MD / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND; CC BY-SA; Moyan_Brenn / Foter / CC BY; Antonio Cinotti  / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND; Scottish Government images / Foter / CC BY-NC

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