Media Tips from Thatcher Interviews

By Roz Morris, Managing Director, TV News London

It’s all there. All the current advice on making an effective professional impact in all your media interviews can be seen and heard in Mrs Thatcher’s TV and radio interviews first as Conservative Leader of the Opposition and then  as UK Prime Minister.   

She was well aware not just of how to make her interview content memorable but also how to deliver her messages and look the part.  First the look.  If you don’t look right on TV, we the great viewing public don’t listen to you.  You must pay attention to looking credible. And of course you have to look and sound confident, well-informed and authoritative as well in order to have a fighting chance of getting anyone to remember anything you say.

Voice

Like the Queen, Mrs Thatcher started off her career in public life, when she became an MP in 1959, with the high voice tones of the 1950’s housewife.  For those who don’t remember when women had to have little voices (In the 1950’s the accepted modes of communication included mannerisms like that current unbelievably horrendous French yoghurt advert with the simpering woman who giggles and puts her hands over her sweet little face- astonishing that this stuff is still around in the 21st century!) you can listen to Her Majesty or to Mrs Thatcher’s early recordings.  You will hear the high light tones of women in a man’s world

Margaret Thatcher was criticised for changing her voice – but then she was criticised for everything she did.  In fact lower voices work well on radio and TV and the light old-fashioned ‘feminine’ voice doesn’t. 

Clothes

Mr Thatcher developed her own signature professional image with her tailored suits – always with skirts and not trousers. Suits gave her a look of authority.  Jackets always frame an interviewee and make both men and women immediately look more credible on TV.  The only time this doesn’t work is if you are interviewed as  say an architect/surveyor/businessperson on a building site when wearing a high viz Jacket and a hard hat will be visually appropriate.  Common sense applies – a care worker or a worker at a nursery can wear a cardigan and it will look appropriate.  But it’s not right if you’re running the country or a company or another organisation.

Bad Teeth

The TV screen is small and makes bad teeth look big.  Mrs Thatcher had hers fixed.

Hair

On the small screen, if you look even the slightest bit untidy or scruffy, people will instantly judge you as less effective. We all mentally tidy people up when they appear on the TV with any hair, or clothes out of place. TV is a ruthless medium and, as I have always pointed out to people seeking my advice on how to do your best in TV interviews, hairspray is your friend. This means men as well as women if you have hair that can blow around in the wind.

Mrs Thatcher knew that If your hair is untidy in any way, it will distract the audience and they will not be listening to you.   I cannot recall ever seeing an interview where Mrs Thatcher’s hair blew around.  Her faithful police bodyguard, DCI Barry Strevens revealed recently to the Mail on Sunday that  this was built into her busy daily schedule. “When a new police superintendent arrived in the early eighties, I remember him saying to me: ‘Who’s this Carmen Roller that the PM sees every morning at 8am?’”

Lest you think Mrs Thatcher was overdoing the grooming and hair styling, by contrast, Shirley Williams, first a Labour and then a Lib Dem MP, and now a Baroness, was frequently criticised for her untidy hair.  Looking untidy on TV works for only  a very few people outside the world of sport or entertainment and celeb culture.  For people in politics, business or other professional roles it just doesn’t work.  Let’s start this ultra short list with Bob Geldof - and even he wears a suit nowadays.

Content

Never be afraid of a cliché to make your position clear, or in Mrs Thatcher’s case creating your own- “The Lady’s not for turning “ etc..  She was also willing to use examples of her ‘housewife’ knowledge to get across her ideas simply and clearly.

My advice is always simple -  prepare what you want to say, know how you want to phrase this, and then make sure  you do actually say it in your media interviews.  Sounds so easy - but the interviewer will usually get in your way and make this much harder than you think.

Making statements outlining your organisation’s position  will answer most of the questions you get and I have been struck in recent days on re-hearing some snatches of Mrs Thatcher’s radio interviews, how she had really mastered the art of making a statement and addressing the question on her own terms.  

Everyone has to assert their own agenda for their media interviews and use the opportunity to engage the public on their side, and yes I know, Mrs T did go over the top on this in her late years at the top. She could speak for minutes without drawing breath, leaving no way in for the interviewer,  and she really tried to bulldoze her way through some of her interviews.  Not to be recommended.  I  also don’t recommend regular use of one of her later techniques  i.e. posing your own questions and then answering them without letting the interviewer get a word in.  

Mrs Thatcher  did have a tendency in her later interviews to say something like “And I suppose the next thing you’re going to ask me is ..... ....... and my answer to that is...” There are more subtle ways of making sure you get your  messages across.   

Energy/Passion/Integrity

Mrs Thatcher put all of the above into her interviews.  Listening and viewing recently the archive material  brought out for us by the broadcasters, you can hear the commitment in her voice and see it in her manner.  Energy and passion for your messages are always important assets in getting the public to listen to you and to buy in to what you say.  And that applies when you are a spokesperson as much as a Prime Minister.

Political Interviews

Political interviews are the most confrontational of all news interviews, so, if you don’t sound convincing how can you hope to convince the public?  Politicians always have the odds stacked against them.  They can be very effective at radio and TV interviews - both Margaret  Thatcher and Tony Blair are examples of this - but they have the handicap that they can never convince a chunk of the audience who for political reasons are prejudiced against them whatever they say  and will always say they are rubbish communicators.  What they can do is rally their own supporters with clear messages and win over some of the uncommitted.

Mrs Thatcher won three elections in a row – so she must have done some of that.  And we can all learn some very useful lessons from her commitment to handling media interviews professionally - whatever our political views.



Published 16 April 2013