The departure of Naomi Osaka from the French Open over the past week has brought the job of speaking to the media sharply into the spotlight. The world number two tennis player revealed that the stress of playing at a professional level and being a spokesperson was damaging for her mental health and that she would not speak to the media as a result.
Initially, some media quarters were less than sympathetic, pointing out she had a responsibility to sponsors and fans alike to speak. It was only when she decided to withdraw from the competition that they began to consider instead the pressure that young players are under across sport to do everything that is required be a world champion as well as a slick spokesperson.
For business spokespeople, there may not always be a requirement to train for 12 hours a day and be interrogated about your personal strengths and weaknesses, but there is often still nervousness about being in front of journalists.
We know interviews matter when it comes to getting people to listen to what a business has to say. Humans bring stories alive – facts of course can be boring but told in the right way with an interesting anecdote and people might actually listen.
But many people find speaking to others on record – whether that’s to the media or a group of people in a presentation – nerve-wracking. Will your words be misinterpreted? Will you be asked an awkward question or one you don’t know the answer to?
For others, one of the biggest challenges is seeing and hearing themselves. Largely we are each our harshest critics. In the past year, we have spent far too long looking at our own faces on Teams and Zoom calls. We have too many opportunities to notice that one eyebrow is higher than the other or perhaps our nose seems bigger than the ones on Instagram. It is also often tricky to listen to what our voices sound like to other people. When spokespeople listen to themselves on playback it is often one the biggest surprises in media training. It can sound different – higher or lower octave than they are used to.
Fortunately, the media landscape is changing. Good journalists know that being difficult or aggressive rarely gets the right output from a spokesperson – they are more likely to clam up and the result is a lack of information and good quotes for their story. There has been a general shift in the style of interviews to a softer one over recent years (more Graham Norton and less Michael Parkinson). Political interviews are an entirely different matter of course, with ministers being rightly held to account and viewers coming to expect the entertainment of a joust over their morning coffee.
But even with a friendly journalist, spokespeople can find it nerve-wracking. From 10 years of delivering media training and from my experiences of interviewing spokespeople as a national magazine journalist, I’ve found that women often experience more doubt in their ability than men. They have no reason to as they often strike just the right tone of warmth and authority, coming across as interested and engaging. They demonstrate that a good spokesperson is also a good listener.
At H+K, we offer a supportive environment for spokespeople at all levels to find ways to create the right messaging and deliver it in a way that is comfortable and natural for them. Being authentic feels better to the spokesperson and it sounds better to the audience.
There are clever phrases to be used in order to get you out of holes or bring you back on message when your answer has drifted (very useful in everyday life too!). And unlike Osaka, you only need to do the interviews you really want to. But most of all interviews really can be moments to enjoy. It’s an interaction with a new, often interesting person (a delight after the last few antisocial months) and a chance to get others to be as enthused about what your business is doing as you are
But more than anything else, being a successful spokesperson is down to preparation, practice and the confidence to just be yourself.
If you have any questions about training, I’d love to chat – just get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.