The Blog

How good is our Prime Minister?

Perhaps there are better things do on a wet Sunday morning in January than watch politicians perform on TV.

But given that Andrew Marr has a distinctive and often incisive interviewing style, it’s likely that some sparring with Prime Minister David Cameron will see one of them land some punches.

prime minister david cameron media interview training scotland Andrew Marr.

My interest lies in observing TV interview technique, given I’ve spent the last 26 years of my life teaching it.

So I put any political sentiment to the side when watching the top performers in the ring.

Instead, I sit with a pen and piece of paper and note if they’re observing the five big principles we share with clients at Pink Elephant Communications.

They are:

  1. Bin jargon – and talk in pictures instead
  2. Flush out the Watering Down Words (try, hope, do our best) and speak with Commitment
  3. Drop the Pink Elephant (the unnecessary negative that paints the wrong picture) and speak in Positives instead
  4. Give a Direct Answer to a Direct Question
  5. Demonstrate resilience to make your point

Of course there many other aspects of an interview, but we’ll come to them.

So how did Mr Cameron do on the big principles?


On jargon, he scored well.

His main topic was the EU Referendum – he kept it simple and stuck to the main messages.

Watering down words

prime minister david cameron media interview training scotland blue bottle watering down words

His words did carry commitment – but a crucial watering down word slipped out when defending the UK’s lack of public condemnation of Saudi Arabia and its alleged connections to radicals.

“You can have a foreign policy based on issuing press releases,”

Mr Cameron told us,

“or a foreign policy which is trying to keep our people safe.”

It’s understandable to using trying when terrorist acts are out of a government’s hands.

But the words committed or determined send a much clearer signal when discussing such grave issues.

Direct answers

prime minister david cameron media interview training scotland Jeremy Paxman

What about direct questions and direct answers?

Many of us will remember Jeremy Paxman’s 1997 grilling of Shadow Home Secretary Michael Howard, in which he refused to answer the question 12 times.

Well the Prime Minister ducked and weaved somewhat on whether he had instructed the civil service to draw up a plan for leaving the EU, should the referendum vote go against him.

His evasiveness suggested that any such plans were yet to be formulated…and if that’s the case, he should have said so.

But when asked by Andrew Marr:

“Will you still stay in office if you lose the vote?”,

his answer was clear:

“Yes – absolutely”.

So there we have another left hook by Marr, stoutly defended by the PM…and the bout goes on without blood being drawn.

Tone and body language

prime minister david cameron media interview training scotland body language.

The most impressive aspect of David Cameron’s TV interview technique comes in the 93% of the message contained in body language (55%) and tone (38%).

His eye contact is excellent.

The hand gestures are natural, rather than the phoney ones employed by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

His tone of voice is appropriate.

He moves naturally from his enthusiasm on policy to empathising with those with a different view.


prime minister david cameron media interview training scotland Louis van Gaal petulance.

But perhaps the most impressive part of Cameron’s tone is his refusal to show irritation at interruptions and jibes.

Tony Blair was forever getting frustrated with the BBC’s Jeremy Paxman and the irritation was broadcast to the audience.

But the Prime Minister was seldom interrupted and largely kept on going to the end of the sentence to finish the point.

One such sentence ended:

“…two years in which I’ve created two million new jobs.”

That point will only be heard if he keeps on going when being interrupted…much in the way a footballer or rugby player needs to ride the tackle and carry on to score.

Some high profile football mangers lose the plot in the face of less criticism than our politicians receive.

The huffy behaviour of Manchester United’s Louis van Gaal and the petulant performances of former Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho are two recent examples of how to alienate the media and the fans at the same time.

Pink elephants

prime minister david cameron media interview training scotland cabinet table.

So how did Mr Cameron score on Pink Elephants – the rule that most remember from our media training and presentation skills courses?

Two glaring ones slipped through the net.

The first was what we call a ‘bait’ Pink Elephant…a negative that is produced only by baiting from the reporter.

When asked about the civil service role in the EU referendum, his evasive answer was met by Andrew Marr’s barb:

“So it’s all smoke and mirrors then?”

The correct response would have been a firm but polite: “No”, followed by an explanation of what the truth of the matter was, as he saw it.

His reply?

“”It’s not smoke and mirrors…”

What is the audience now thinking of?

Smoke and mirrors.

prime minister david cameron media interview training scotland nanny wanted poster on tree.

The second Pink Elephant came at the tail end of the interview, when Marr had made a comment about the advice issued last week on a ‘safe’ drinking limit of 14 units of alcohol a week.

“This is an act of the nanny state – and I’d always imagined Nanny as being a Tory”.

Cameron replied , quick as a flash:

“Well this Tory’s not a nanny”

But, unfortunately for him, he’d allowed Marr to extract a second ‘bait’ Pink Elephant.

Hardly a knock-out punch…more a self-inflicted punch on the nose by the PM.

The overall picture

prime minister david cameron media interview training scotland at lecturn.

Overall, the Prime Minister – like Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon – scores very highly on media interview technique.

If you want to improve on yours, score any TV interview against our Golden Rules.

Or better still, subscribe to one of our media training or presentation skills courses to put your own interview skills to the test.

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

You can view his full profile here.

Photo credit: The Prime Minister’s Office via / CC BY-NC-ND; Photo credit: fortinbras via / CC BY-NC-SA; theglobalpanorama via / CC BY-SA; dullhunk via / CC BY; Chris Boland:

15th January 2016 Featured in: Blog, Commentary By:

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