Miliband on Marr: trying too hard?
is a former BBC journalist and course director of Media Training Associates
Why does any politician agree to do a TV interview? Sometimes because they feel they have to; mostly because they feel it will provide a platform to persuade viewers to vote for them. Yet in the heat of the moment that frequently gets forgotten and it often seems to be more about point-scoring and finger-jabbing.
When Labour leader Ed Miliband appeared on the Andrew Marr Show on Sunday morning, a set-piece party conference event, he did many things right.
He got his messages across - plenty of them, although they sounded a bit over-scripted at times. His spin doctors will have been pleased. But viewers may have wondered why he often appeared to be talking at them, rather than to them. Getting too aggressive when interrupted, speaking faster and faster to get all your points in, is not necessarily the way to make people warm to you.
Inexperienced interviewees usually go the other way: they are too polite to disagree, and let the interviewer lead them up the garden path. They often fail to say what they really want to say, unless exactly the right question happens to be asked.
So as a media trainer I frequently find myself telling my clients to be 'politely assertive' - in other words, not to be afraid of disagreeing with the interviewer, but in a 'friendly but firm' manner. After all, many broadcast journalists, Andrew Marr included, see it as their role to play 'devil's advocate'.
But Ed was interrupting Andrew's questions almost as often as Andrew was interrupting his answers. I lost count of the number of times we heard 'that's not true', 'let me just correct you', ‘let me finish this point', and so on. The manner was irritable, even hectoring, with a side order of finger-jabbing. If we the audience weren't being told off, then Andrew certainly was.
When I am preparing people for media appearances, I sometimes talk about what you might call the 'BLT Factor'. In the same way you could argue that a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich contains all the main food groups and is therefore a satisfying meal in itself, the perfect political interview - from the subject's point of view - would leave the audience feeling satisfied not just that they’d learnt something but that they now know and like the interviewee more than they did.
This is where the Labour leader still needs work - particularly given that most of his audience may believe he stitched up his elder brother. His stiff, bolt-upright sitting position, his awkward clasping of the hands at times, were the mark of someone who is trying just a little bit too hard to be on his best behaviour and do well.
In a longer form interview like this, of more than 20 minutes, it is better to vary the tone and pace a bit, to get in some light and shade. Otherwise it is all a bit too intense - fascinating for the political groupie but hard work for the average viewer. I wonder if, an hour or two later, many of the audience remembered more than one or two of the messages Mr Miliband was trying to convey.
On future occasions he should perhaps not try quite so hard. It would be better to loosen up a bit, be less confrontational, and slow down, so that the points appear less forced (“let me just say this!”). If only he could try to enjoy himself a bit more, then we the audience might as well.
Tom Maddocks is course director of Media Training Associates.
Nick Clegg’s recent interview on the Today programme was the subject of a post by presenter coach Glenn Kinsey.