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Politicians who dodge questions: Too much media training or lack of common sense?

This past weekend I was invited to give my views on the media performance of Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, on Dutch national radio’s Sunday programme Vier Zeven. Did I think Rutte had been media-trained? Did it show? What did I think of his performance? Mark Rutte is a very good communicator, I said, because he is direct,  he nearly always answers or at least acknowledges the questions he is posed. He is smart and funny and comes across as authentic.  Whether or not he has received media training – a question that bounced around in the Dutch media this week – is not relevant. What’s relevant is that by being direct, he shows he listens and he engages. He is confident and appears to have nothing to hide.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte comes across well in the media

Many politicians start answering a question by evading it entirely. The wiley ones do it so subtly we don’t notice. They might say: “This is an important question, which is why our party is calling for…” and then go on to never actually answer the question. One of the most famous examples of this is BBC Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman’s  interview with Michael Howard, the UK Home Secretary. Paxman asks the same question 12 times.  To this day, while opinions abound, no-one can explain why this prominent politican, aiming for leadership of the UK Conservative Party, got so bizarely stuck in this groove. In so many ways he is a master of media interview techniques. It’s as if he’s been overly trained and therefore brainwashed, to the extent that he loses his natural common sense. Similar examples abound in the UK media. Here is Paxman again on the topic of Boris Johnson’s supposed detractors (who cannot be named – see from 32 seconds on!).

The last Dutch Prime Minister, Jan-Peter Balkenende, was not as skilled a communicator as Rutte. In the run-up to the elections last year, Balkenende attempted to dodge a question he could easily have answered (which three parties do you think should lead this country?) When the question was asked the third time, he told his female interviewer: You look so cute! A comment that outraged much of the female population. Jokes and flippant remarks can so easily backfire.  Balkenende, in this interview, is at least consistent in repeating his main points about the need for reform and in a way that helps his main points stick. He is also very concise. Let’s give him that. For another error commonly made by politicians is to repeat verbatim and endlessly their carefully worded key messages regardless of the question. An astonishing example of this concerns the current leader of the UK Labour Party, Ed Milliband. Milliband is asked four questions about the UK strikes. He barely acknowledges the question and calmly utters almost an identically worded message, four times!  Is this a leader or a parrot, one wonders?  The reason why communicators are urged to repeat their messages more than once is to ensure that the meaning gets across and is retained. The best way to achieve this is to give an example that illustrates your point. The example might be a metaphor or a simile, for example. David Pogue illustrated this beautifully in The New York Times this week, in his review of the new iPad. Pogue’s main point is that the new iPad’s Its technical improvements keep it at the forefront of desirability — just ahead of the snapping jaws of its Android competition — but don’t take it in any new directions. He backs up this assertion with very precise facts and figures and includes, as a sub point, the fact that the US mobile standard 4G consumes a lot of battery power. He illustrates this with a playful and picturesque metaphor: `4G is a notorious battery hog. It scarfs down electricity like a football team at a hot dog eating contest.” Add colour, paint pictures. That’s what we practitioners of persuasive communications mean when we advise communicators to repeat their message.  And rehearse well. Don’t learn your lines off by heart, otherwise you won’t appear natural and convincing.

– Emma Robson

Click here to listen to the Radio 1 interview (in Dutch).