Ever wished you could ad-lib yourself out of tricky situations more effectively? CNN's Max Foster is in Westminster, London and reveals the tricks he's learned whilst covering breaking news from that and other live locations
I write this from the shadows of the British Houses of Parliament on a patch of grass we know as Abingdon Green. This is where the broadcasters pitch up to cover big political events against the familiar backdrop of Big Ben (though that's technically the bell inside clock-tower, not the tower itself if I am going to be pedantic about it.)
I've spent days at a time here hosting breaking news coverage on big votes, state occasions and, sadly, terror attacks. Viewers tune in to find out what's going on and I tell them what I can but I'm often waiting on the information myself.
I was coaching a group of Swedish TV anchors recently and they asked me how I handle breaking news and I had to think carefully about that because the techniques I use have become second nature to me now. I remember starting out in the business though and living in fear of being called in to the studio to answer questions on a subject I wasn't an expert in. When I took the plunge I realised I knew more than I thought and ultimately it was a conversation and we have those all the time.
So, here's my advice on going in to a presentation cold:
1. Stick to what you know.
This sounds obvious but it's tempting to speculate, or, worse - lie, when you feel out of your depth. You lose your clout as soon as you lose your honesty and whoever is in front of you in the audience will sense it straight away.
In my line of work, the challenge is always the rumour and conspiracy that bubbles up on social media during a major news event. I’ve lost count of the number of times a ‘loud bang’ has been misinterpreted online as ‘an explosion’ and then shared as ‘a bomb’ or even a ‘terror attack.’ It usually turns out to be something much more innocuous. For example, in November 2017, Oxford Circus underground station and the area around it went in to lock-down after someone reported gun fire. There was a stampede, people got hurt and others took refuge in shops. Armed police responded as if it were a terror attack but that is how they automatically react in these situations now. Then the pop star Olly Murs tweeted, ‘F*** everyone get out of @Selfridges now gun shots!! I’m inside.’ Even The Daily Mail tweeted an article with the headline: 'Gunshots fired as armed police officers surround Oxford Circus station after lorry ploughs in to pedestrians.’ But there was no lorry, there was no gunfire. There had been an ‘altercation,’ as the police put it, on one of the platforms and things just escalated from there. The Mail later retracted the story and apologised.
2. Develop what you do know.
Once we know a major incident is definitely under way, I will usually go to air with what information we have. You can probably apply my strategy here to any situation where you are worried about drying up. I simply take what I know, break it down in to its parts, expand on each of them and then switch between them. That way I can flesh things out for as long as I need to.
Imagine I was given one line of information: ‘The Prime Minister of Cloutland has been replaced.’ I would circle the key words, which in this case would be 'Prime Minister,' 'Cloutland' and 'replaced.'
I would probably start with ‘Cloutland’ and describe where it is, how many people live there and anything else that can give the story context. Then I would move on to ‘Prime Minister' - Who is it? How long have they been in office and how successful have they been? Is their departure a surprise? I am essentially going as deep as I can in to what I know to be true and drawing on my expertise. Then I would move on to ‘replaced’ - Who’s the most likely replacement? How are Prime Ministers appointed in the country?
Once I have exhausted everything I know, I would switch back to one of the other elements and that in itself prompts me to think of something fresh to say or at least a fresh way of saying it. If I feel like I am repeating myself, I am reminded that people may just be tuning in and I will point that out on air too so I include everyone.
4. Bring in new information.
As new information comes in I use it to flesh out my talking points and add new ones. If it turns out the Prime Minister has been incapacitated in some way, the priority becomes finding out what happened to them and how they are doing.
5. Involve the audience.
I use those talking points to pivot the conversation. It can’t be a one way interaction. I have to engage the audience by explaining what I am doing to get more information. That might mean saying we are waiting for our reporter to arrive at the scene or that a press conference is imminent. If we need additional expertise I will explain that we are bringing it in by way of a guest. It has to feel like we are discovering the answers together.
It’s always more constructive when you are struggling in a presentation to explain what you are doing to find the answer rather than closing the conversation down by saying you just haven't got one. In my job the question is usually: 'What's going on?' but it could be anything.
Someone once described anchoring to me as walking along a tightrope with the rope falling down behind you, in which case breaking news is doing it blindfolded. It’s the coal face of presentation but once you’ve been there a few times and actually touched it, you realise it’s not as scary as you think and, crucially, there’s always a way out. If you’re worried about presenting then all I would say is hiding isn't the answer. Just get out there and face your fear, and you'll realise like most skills, it's just practice.