The Malaysian Youth and Sports Minister's recent appearance on the BBC's HardTalk program was impressive, and while there is always room for improvement it was in many ways exemplary for other local business and political leaders.
Even if you disagree with Syed Saddiq's position on certain issues, such as his stoic defense of his country's banning of Israeli paralympic swimmers which ultimately cost Malaysia the right to host the event, his interview technique – which is the sole focus of my assessment – is one which embodies these key learnings:
- Strong start – The Minister came right out of the gate (assuming the interview started in the way we see in the recording). He opened with "this is the first change in government for Malaysia, [it] will allow the youth to shape the future of Malaysia for the next 20-30 years" and repeated the point throughout. He followed up during the interview with "cementing youth power" and "cannot mess with the youth of Malaysia".
- Lots of statistics and numbers – His level of preparation with statistics to back up his comments was remarkable. Assuming he delivered all the numbers correctly (I haven't checked them) he had a statistic for virtually every point he made: Malaysian youth unemployment at 10.7% compared to the global average of 18%, and 94% of youth with vocational diplomas found jobs, much higher than university graduates, to name a few factoids.
- Address the question – It was notable was that he actually answered questions. Hardest hitting was his sober acknowledgement that "we will be voted out at one point in time". Wow! Which other politician have you heard say that before?! It's an instant credibility booster when you don't appear to be sugar-coating everything or avoiding the question. Now, addressing the question and staying on message requires some finesse, but it is entirely learnable.
- "I disagree" – One frequent mistake spokespeople make is to repeat the point they are disagreeing with, thereby unwittingly reinforcing it. Richard Nixon's "I am not a crook" is a classic example. Instead the Minister said "I disagree", which is one of a handful of phrases you can use when you, well, disagree with the point being made by the interviewer without falling into this trap.
- Laughter – There were some moments of lightness around the 6-minute mark, which demonstrated that the Minister was at ease with the interview process, and created a useful contrast to the times when he took a serious stance on issues.
Broadly I would offer the Minister an A-star for this media technique, especially because the interviewer Shaun Ley was also on point (leaving aside the glimpse we catch of Ley picking his nose at around the 18-minute mark) and didn't let him get away easily. It also stands in stark contrast to former PM Najib Razak walking out on an interview with Al Jazeera.
So, what areas of improvement would I offer, if the Minister asked me (which he hasn't)?
- Eye contact – His eyes kept wandering as he was thinking. No biggie, but try to focus on the interviewer.
- Don't use phrases you don't want to be associated with, or asked about later – Such as "No more brain drain", "kleptocracy" and "dysfunctional opposition".
- Don't make "listening noises" during journalists' questions – Resist making "uh-huh" and other sounds which we usually make in conversation to indicate you're listening. On TV it's distracting.
- Keep your elbows off the broadcast desk – Hammering the point home with his pinched index finger and thumb was okay, but having your elbow on the broadcast desk becomes a problem when you retract it, because it appears like you are retreating.
- Button your jacket – If you are going to wear a suit on camera – and for most corporate spokespeople I recommend you do – don't leave it unbuttoned. Doesn't look as sharp as it could if you buttoned it up.
- Be careful with stunts – There was also a moment around 17 minutes into the interview that could have gone very wrong. The Minister dramatically tore a sheet out of his notebook and apparently handed Ley the phone number of his former temporary press secretary Numan Afifi, a supporter of the LGBT community in Malaysia. This dramatic act seemed staged. The minister even said "I've written his phone number here" in the past tense, so he must have at best anticipated questions on Afifi, at worst received advance notice of the topics. The point is, be careful with such stunts. First, make it real. It is disingenuous when you appear overly prepared. Second, your bluff might be called out. Imagine if Ley really had taken the Minister by his word and called Afifi on the phone. The stunt would then dominate the rest of the interview.
Clearly, being the Youth Chief of his party, BERSATU, has helped prepare the Minister for his public speaking role. But you don't have to have attended the Royal Military College to do well in the media.
Another Minister whose performance I witnessed recently as emcee of a private bank event was that of Ong Kian Ming (the photo below shows my view from the stage). Adept at dealing with all questions with disarming candour, these two Ministers may not just embody the future of Malaysia, but set the pace for all local business and political leaders in being media savvy.