How to attend a press conference: wear red, watch the body language
is an editor of the BBC Academy blog
Not quite the rough and tumble of more routine political ‘pressers’ where journalists’ tactics, positioning, alliances, knowledge - even what they wear - can influence the course of a conference. I asked a few seasoned press conference interrogators for tips on how to make the most of a presser:
Mark Mardell, BBC North America editor
Go in with optimism in your heart, and cynicism in your head. Most of these things are stage-managed to death and the people who get called to put their question represent the major news organisations.
They get called for their network, not because they are nice or clever. Working for the BBC, or another big company, it could be you. If so, it can be a good idea to work out a game plan with trusted competitor colleagues - hunting as a pack can be ugly but sometimes it works.
To a tiny degree, and depending on the level of the presser, you can make a difference. So don’t be shy. Sit as near to the front row as you can get. Make eye contact with the person calling the shots - the one giving the presser.
Work out a series of questions - someone else will always ask the one you are most proud of having thought up. Keep them short and challenging - don’t ramble on with a multi-question thesis that is easy to give any reply to. Don’t be afraid to ask a follow-up, even if you get ignored or put down.
Decide on the balance between theatre and journalism. Ask a perky, clever question on camera and the bosses will love you, and the audience get the message that you are a player. But sometimes it is more appropriate to elicit a good answer than to be a show-off. Showing off isn’t always a bad thing in this business - it’s theatre in the service of engaging the audience (and furthering your career) - but remember that you are not the story, only the narrator.
Of course, be prepared. But really know the stuff - half-digested detailed information is more dangerous to comprehension than stumbling in with a blank notebook and lots of ignorant questions.
Don’t be so busy and nervous waiting for your turn that you forget to listen and watch. The story is often in the nuance of words used and repeated.
Body language is important and gives you something to say, and point out, over dullish pictures. A man (or woman) in a suit is a man (or woman) in a suit, but a fidgety, irritable man (or woman) in a suit, or a cocky bouncy one, is halfway to a story.
Lindsey Hilsum, international editor, Channel 4 News
If you want to get the first question in, wear bright red and sit in the middle of the front row. You will catch the eye of the moderator or the person giving the press conference. This has worked well for me - sadly, now I have given away my secret, it may stop working.
Always ask an open question, but do not burble. Sometimes you need to ask in a roundabout way to get a discursive answer, but you must not waste everyone else’s time. No-one cares what you think; they care about the person on the podium.
‘Fake’ press conferences, such as those given by US presidents and secretaries of state or British prime ministers and cabinet members, where only designated reporters get to ask questions - ABC, CBS, NBC for the Americans, the BBC, Sky and ITV News for the British - are rarely worth attending, I find.
However, I was once consigned to the side of a George Bush presser in the White House. I had no chance of getting a question in, but it gave me a perfect view of his left foot which he wiggled and tapped constantly, such was his nervousness. He paused and dithered for an inordinate length of time before answers, which was not shown on US TV. On Channel 4 News we just ran the pauses and didn’t bother with the answers. They told you more.
Lindsey’s colleague, Channel 4 News foreign affairs correspondent Jonathan Rugman, says:
- Get your camera there early to avoid (frequent) fights for space
- Identify and befriend the person likely to choose the questioners in advance
- Agree to divide subject areas with your colleagues if it means that everything you want to ask will get asked
- If there is more than one TV camera from your organisation, arrange for one of them to film your question
- Do not be afraid to carry on with a supplementary/follow-up question if you really feel your question has been dodged.