What’s Sauce for the Goose….

Ah hubris! In my last post I discussed confidence, and tricks that anxious students and interviewees might care to practice so that, whatever their internal tremors, they can come across as cool and confident.  I am sure that read as if I had mastered all these skills. However, bizarrely, I found myself in exactly the same position as any nervous beginner speaker just a couple of days later, and had occasion to rehearse my own advice. The situation – a day of media training at the Royal Society which exposed all my own failings writ large on film as I attempted to master the skills required to cope with challenging/hostile live interviews. Helpfully, the Royal Society was giving me the opportunity to practice, not in front of the cat as I suggested previously, but in front of several members of their Press Office and a video camera. It was an exhausting and disturbing experience, but at least it reassures me the advice I was offering with such superiority a week ago was in fact sensible.  (And in case you’re wondering this is very different from giving a lecture or seminar, so the skill set required is not at all the same.)

I have become the Royal Society’s Education Committee Chair and next month a report is being published which is anticipated may raise interest amongst the media. Hence the Royal Society felt the need to convert me from a rank amateur to someone who looks as if I know what I’m doing if I end up on some Breakfast TV channel. Look back at what I said:

The very act of articulating sentences shows up where they are confused

– definitely; yes I found that out pretty fast (I had had very short notice to master my brief)   and…..

when they simply can’t pronounce a crucial word

- in my case it was remembering the meaning of acronyms that completely threw me and left me looking helpless on camera. Also

some questions will be obvious, but others will come from left-field

– well left-field is definitely what interviewers set out to do and my mock-interviews contained some of those questions. Of course, I needed to be taught the politician’s skill of not answering such questions but to come back with something along the lines of ‘well that’s a very interesting question, but what the report actually discusses is…’ and get safely back onto my prepared script.

I had altogether 4 mock interviews in different formats – there is a different style required for a full live interview compared with a pre-recorded one where basically all that is being looked for is a soundbite. The latter is in some senses easier because you can stop dead in your tracks and say, sorry I fluffed that and start again as you can’t on live TV, but it is no more natural. In order to get an appropriate stand-alone soundbite it is important to repeat the question  – since the interviewer will not be heard – and this feels very artificial. This is not like a conversation between friends. Nevertheless, with some drilling it can feel a slightly more intuitive thing to do.

After 4 mock interviews, two each in the different formats, all of which were dissected minutely, I was totally shattered. I was also somewhat more confident, with the consequence that my body movements got more relaxed: I looked less like I was being prepared for execution but more like I was slightly tipsy – there must be a happy medium somewhere in between. There is something deeply disconcerting about having the video frozen at the very moment when your mouth is agape and your eyes rolling – funny how they always managed to stop it at just such a moment. But, before I was allowed to make my escape there was just one more thing to do – a podcast for the Royal Society’s website which will appear, I fear, on the day of the press release. So from novice to (relative) expert in a few easy steps and several exhausting hours. But, at least I now know that I am capable of giving good advice to myself (and to the readers of my previous post) – and have appreciated that in the next few weeks I must master my brief, my acronyms and my statistics so I can come across with a calm exterior, hopefully without blushing and that any nausea will be entirely invisible. In this case everyone may yet have a chance to spot just how well – or otherwise – I do.

Nervous students note, professors aren’t without their own weak spots and it’s never too late to improve one’s skillbase.

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7 Responses to What’s Sauce for the Goose….

  1. Steve Caplan says:


    While this comment more generally addresses the issue of public speaking (and not necessarily the fascinating and specific training you recently underwent) I am coming to the realization that public speaking is much like learning a language, or learning chess: the earlier one learns it, the better. Yes, some obviously have a talent for it, and others will never be great–but a basic level of proficiency, I believe, will come from very early training.

    As an example, I can cite the speech contests done in my children’s school. At the age of 9, they have to write, with help from parents and the teacher, a 3-5 minute speech and deliver it in front of the school, parents, etc. in a formal competition with judges. I have witnessed this for 4-5 years in a row now, and have seen that children who started out having a rough time were quite comfortable and at the very least proficient after a few years of doing this.

    Some of the more gifted children could easily outdo most beginning Ph.D. students and postdoctoral fellows that I’ve seen…

  2. Jim Smith says:

    I agree about media training. One of the scariest things I have ever done, but it does help enormously. I found myself speaking to various people about GM food a few years ago, and the best I can say for myself is that I improved as it went on. Unfortunately the first thing I did, and the worst, was the PM programme on Radio 4 and the last and best was a live piece to three or four Australian sheep farmers.

    • I think it is interesting how very different it is from speaking publicly in other circumstances – although possibly if one wasn’t already used to that it would be even worse! Steve is probably right that starting at an early age does confer confidence at least in the ability to project one’s voice and string a coherent sentence together. But my impression is (and I’ll know better once I’ve done it for real) the pressure is on because, for instance, one has so little opportunity to correct a slip which in a seminar really doesn’t matter in the same way. So potentially a minor gaffe will be remembered in a major way. I hope it doesn’t turn out that way!

  3. cromercrox says:

    Great post. I suppose that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. And there is always the consolation that big-hitting interviewers (on Today, or Newsnight) will be gentler with you than with, say, a cabinet minister.

  4. I’m rather counting on that! The Today programme is clearly simpler than any TV channel since I only have content to worry about and not appearance/body language simultaneously. However, this was only media-training 101 – the Paxman style course comes later, I’m told.

  5. cromercrox says:

    I was once interviewed by Paxman on Newsnight. I was being a ‘pundit’ for a story about a recently discovered fossil hominid we’d published in your favourite weekly professional science journal beginning with N. This was meant to be a lighter item, the ‘And Finally’ after a very heavy piece about the Common Agricultural Policy. Paxman was sweetness itself … on the screen.

    Before the programme, I had to go to the make-up artist, and when she was finished with me, Paxman came in. While he was in the chair he made an attempt at light conversation (I didn’t dare say anything).

    “So,” he said, “you’re the palaeontology editor of Nature, are you?”

    “Yes,” I replied.

    He turned to face me and then said with some asperity “Is that a full-time job?”

  6. Interesting that he saved his bluntness for off the screen. What was your reply – is yours?