18 December 2015

Eduardo Reyes - Talking Head

'Take me to your thought leader' by Eduardo Reyes, Features Editor at The Law Society Gazette

Let's start with a few quick-fire questions.

1.Tell me, what's your take on the Crime and Courts Act 2013?

2. Great. Now - what's your favourite colour?

3. Were Sir Rupert Jackson's criticisms of the Woolf Reforms justified?

4. What song gets you on the dance floor every time?

You likely know the answers to "2" and "4" - you certainly should. But it's surprising how many people act wrong-footed when they are asked such questions in public. Instead of "blue" and "Katrina and the Waves: Walking on Sunshine," you're treated to a festival of havering.

I hear all the time about people who want to be 'thought leaders' or (an even more gruesome phrase) 'in the thought leadership space.'

Let's stick with the phrases, allowing ourselves a small wince every time they appear.

The truth is, even the most unlikely candidates can become thought leaders - the type the media naturally turn to for comment - but only if they know the answers to "2" and "4" as well as "1" and "3."

A few years back I invited Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti to talk to a group of in-house lawyers - not about human rights, but about achieving maximum impact on a very limited budget. It's something she's very good at.

She made the point that BBC Question Time doesn't want anyone on a panel who can only talk about their "thing" - you need to give them the confidence that you can field questions on any of the week's news.

And it's a long 45 minutes if you can't talk to your eight 'Desert Island Discs' choices.

There are two things happening here. First, people like Shami are showing they can speak 'fluent human' - which an audience or readership instinctively warms to. Second, if you're in the "I used to think maybe you loved me, now, baby, I'm sure" and "love the colour blue so much" mindset, then you're likely to get straight to the point, and to get to the point in a much more accessible way.

A less likely media 'star' I've seen in action, close range, is the late Lib Dem peer Professor Conrad Earl Russell.

I pick on Conrad, because he really didn't fit the modern media stereotype - crazy hair, a generous showering of dandruff, a slight lisp, buttons pushed through the wrong button holes in the cardigan he wore under his suit. To use his mobile phone, he'd take it out of its box, turn it on, make a call, then carefully place it back in its packaging.

I worked for an MP at the time, and other politicians were busy having makeovers from a personal branding consultancy.

Maybe Conrad wasn't quite a household name, but he did much better than many of the made-over types because he had 'breadth' and showed it.

Hence a government policy would prompt a reference to Romeo and Juliet. Told the new door code for the Whips Office (1764(?)) Conrad beamed: 'Ah, the creation of the Dukes of Gloucester.'

In an era when ministers talk of 'nationwide rollouts', business leaders talk of 'KPIs' and outrage is thoroughly confected, a Conrad Russell quote could sprinkle a little fairy dust over a story or letters page.

Conrad also avoided an error I've found surprisingly common among people who'd like to be 'in the thought leadership space;' he wasn't paralysed by caution.

Any number of aspiring thought leaders think it's enough to give a quote that simply describes what the press or public already know - running shy of any option that sounds unequivocal. And they take a long time doing it - asked question "2", they'd likely suspect it was a trap.

Mayors "Boris" and "Ken," public figures like Shami, and academics like Conrad aren't in possession of some great secret. Perhaps the key difference between them and the failing, would-be commentators, from whom you rarely hear, is that they see questions "2" and "4" as an opportunity when, oddly, others see these same questions as a threat.

Eduardo Reyes is Features Editor at The Law Society Gazette