The news that David Shearer is to ‘get media training’ from Ian Fraser in order to make him more visible to the electorate has tended to reinforce the notion that ‘getting media training’ is rather like getting a new suit from Hallenstein’s.
All you have to do is put the new suit on and you’ll immediately not merely look better but be a whole new person.
Unfortunately media training doesn’t fit this prêt-à-porter model. It’s a bespoke art. Everyone’s needs are different, no two people’s measurements are exactly the same, and there are some people who will never look good in anything.
I’ll abandon this analogy before I invite derision, but it serves to make the point that you can’t just ‘get media training’ in the same way that you might ‘get trained’ to drive a car, a skill in which most people are capable of being competent at least and which even indifferent drivers can teach you. Here, by the way, the Maggie Barry Principle applies – if you’ve never been a professional interviewer and haven’t had wide experience of all branches of the media, you’ve not really qualified to talk about media-training, let alone engage in it.
Hard to pin down
It’s rare for the diagnosis of what is ailing an interviewee to be obvious.
With the exception of ‘umming and erring’, saying ‘you know’, ‘like’ , ‘I guess’, ‘absolutely’, ‘going forward’, ‘OK, so’ at least once in every paragraph, what prevents someone from coming across well on radio or television is often extremely subtle and quite difficult to pin down.
Some people are crippled by nerves; some – often graduates of poor PR schooling – robotically recite the ‘key messages’ they have been taught to deliver; some have unnatural speech patterns, randomly emphasising words or delivering their information in self-contained packages; some cannot retain eye contact with the person opposite; some are monosyllabic, others verbose; some fail to realise that punctuation is as necessary to clarity in speech as it is in the written word; some confuse pace with speed, sprinting through their consequently tedious answers; some take offence too easily, others are doormats; some are too careless with the truth, others too pedantic; some will never concede, others apologise too often and too abjectly – mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa; some come across in stereophonic sound and 3D, others are wallpaper; some lack confidence, others are brash; some are naturals, others will never get it. While it’s essential to be protective of the feelings of the latter, it’s a kindness to put them out of their misery and tell them the truth. Generally speaking, they’re relieved.
Pychologist, teacher, bullshit detector
So the media trainer needs to be diagnostician, psychologist, counsellor, teacher. He must be a good reader of people, have a bullshit detector for a brain and understand the power of praise. One thing becomes very apparent in this business: genuinely confident people are few and far between. If we contributed at all to Helen Clark rising phoenix-like from the ashes in 1996 – and she has been generous enough to say that we did – it was less as the result of ‘media training’, than of rebuilding her confidence which was at its lowest ebb.
Job cut out
So what of David Shearer? Ian’s media credentials are impeccable, but I think he will have his job cut out.
The one thing the media trainer cannot do is change the fundamental personality of his client.
It’s as if there were a performance gene that some people, regardless of their intelligence, education, socio economic standing, experience, moral character or any other integer, were born with, while others lack it entirely.
Being born with the performance gene tells you nothing about whether a man or woman will make a great Prime Minister – consider David Lange – but in the modern race for the glittering political prize having it is a distinct advantage.
I’m not convinced that Shearer has the performance gene nor that it can be conjured from thin air by even the most adept media training. Shearer may well be our next Prime Minister and quite possibly a very good one, but the achievement will be the result of serendipitous events rather than that force of personality which we sometimes call charisma.
Media trainer and commentator Dr Brian Edwards blogs at Brian Edwards Media.