From my latest Solicitors Journal column “Family Business”, 22/03/2011.
Marilyn Stowe offers her hard-won survival guide for going on air
What is it about radio and television that leaves so many solicitors stricken by fear? I have seen some of the most poised and charismatic of our peers mumble, bumble and tug uncomfortably at their collars whenever a camera lens is trained upon them. I have heard the bravest and bolshiest of lawyers reduced to stammering wrecks by the gentlest of questions.
There are, I think, a number of reasons why cameras and microphones produce such striking effects. Until 1990, solicitors were forbidden from publicising their practices and activities in the media. Our ranks may include some of the sharpest minds, but perhaps we have been playing “catch up” when it comes to media skills.
Moreover, solicitors who appear in the media are acutely aware that they are representing not just their firms, but also the profession. If you make a mistake live on air, you risk ridicule and, in a worst case scenario, bringing the profession into disrepute.
I remember the first time I was invited to appear on the radio, shortly after the Solicitors’ Practice Rules were changed. I went on BBC Radio Leeds to review the newspapers. I was absolutely petrified! The small studio, giant mikes and array of flashing lights all added to my nerves.
Twenty years later, much has changed. Stowe Family Law now has offices in three different parts of the country. The firm’s reputation has also grown. As a result our solicitors receive requests and invitations from journalists and producers, often for expert analysis when family law is in the news, but also for interviews and discussions. We have made radio and TV appearances ranging from local stations to the BBC World Service, ITV News and The Today Programme.
So what have I learned in that time? Firstly, do as much preparation as time allows. Read as much as you can. Draw up a list of three or four key messages: these could be your views, or facts that you wish to highlight. Different programmes have different requirements. Lifestyle programmes focus upon feelings and real-life stories, but news programmes want hard facts: what are the figures? What is the likely outcome? If you know your subject and your take on it, you are less likely to panic when put on the spot.
To the uninitiated, rolling news can seem the most daunting because of its fast-moving nature, but experience has taught me differently. In fact magazine-style programmes have the most rigorous interviewers, who have the time and space in which to dig deep. My top tip? If you are going to appear on Woman’s Hour, you can never be too prepared.
Expect the unexpected. If you believe that anything can happen, you won’t melt when it does. A few months ago I appeared on BBC Radio Four’s PM programme, to discuss remarks made by Lord Justice Wall. What listeners didn’t know is that due to technical challenges, I wasn’t sitting in a radio car – but on a chair in my front garden, miked up and attended by a member of the production team! It went smoothly, but was rather surreal.
Broadcast etiquette is straightforward. Ensure that you can hear the interviewer clearly. Before the interview begins, make sure that you have noted his or her name correctly. (That said, there is one radio DJ who always addresses me as “Maliryn”…) Don’t rush in with your answers: if you talk over others, you come across as rude and boring. Speak once the previous speaker has finished.
Remember that few of your listeners or viewers will be legally trained. I hear solicitors on the radio talking in never-ending sentences, spouting legal jargon that means nothing to the average person. Make your points clearly and concisely, in language that everyone can understand.
In our world of 24-hour rolling news, I have noticed increasing numbers of solicitors taking to the airwaves. I’m not sure that I regard myself as an “old hand” – even now, I get an adrenaline rush whenever I appear live on air – but I hope that my experiences may be of use to others.