Career Focus

Developing skills for the broadcast media

BMJ 1997; 314 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.314.7089.2 (Published 26 April 1997) Cite this as: BMJ 1997;314:S2-7089
  1. Paul Stillman, general practitioner and co-founder of Media Medics
  1. Claybrooke, Haywards, Pound Hill, Crawley, Sussex RH10 3TR

    There is no middle ground for most doctors: getting on television or radio is either your nightmare or your dream. But whatever you feel, in a media age, you need media skills. General practitioner and broadcaster Paul Stillman pitches some advice for the novice

    Ask most sane people to appear on television or radio in the guise of some sort of expert, and they will decline: politely at first, and with increasing firmness if you persist. The idea of exposing yourself to large numbers of people in a potentially hostile environment, with little control and numerous opportunities for misrepresentation seems to court disaster. Such reason defying behaviours should clearly be left to foolhardy egocentrics who spend their spare time bungee jumping or dangling over rock precipices.

    Yet despite the fact that all of the above is possible, doctors do it. For some the rewards outweigh the risk, or at least the hope that a knowledge of the process and adequate preparation may reduce it to proportions that can be lived with. The media industry is huge. Its many branches have at their disposal the most influential communication tools yet invented. Those of us who have devoted many hours of explanation one to one in the consulting room, or who have tried to respond to the anxieties generated by the latest pill, meningitis, or flesh eating bug scare, must have wondered at some time whether the media could not be harnessed to provide sensible balanced advice. For some this thought becomes an obsession. To do what is a core part of any doctor's job, but for much larger numbers and with the instant authority that the media confers, is a prize meriting very serious consideration.

    Full or part time?

    The media has its lighter side. For many it is fun, despite the reservations. Writing is an enjoyable diversion for many people, and there is quite a buzz to be had from a successful radio phone in or perhaps ultimately a live television interview. For a few this will persuade them to seek the media as full time employment, or at least for the majority of their income. The rewards can be considerable, not only for the high profile doctors that grace our screens on morning television shows but for the greater number who combine occasional television appearances with regular radio programmes and probably some press work. In my experience such doctors took this decision early in their careers, and are highly focused and determined. Which is as well, since the path to success is a stony one. Staying power and thought, preparation, and training are mandatory before you start. Several doctors who I know have been deterred from this course by fears that their role as a doctor will be compromised by the need to be seen as an entertainer. While this certainly requires thought, there is a lesson here for us all. Anyone who would approach the media needs a sound knowledge base and good communication skills, and a desire to use them both. Taking the opportunities and using them effectively means being able to hold your audience's attention as you inform, without being drawn into the trap of sensationalism.

    View this table:

    Is it worth it?

    There is an increasing number of doctors who answer yes. All branches of the media are almost insatiably hungry for health and medical information, and the past ten years have seen substantial increases in the number of outlets, particularly the number of local radio stations. My experience-and the number of contacts on the Media Medics database-lead me to a conservative estimate that about a thousand doctors in this country have regular or occasional contact with the media, either through specialist clinical interests or from general practice. They commonly work through regional radio and newspapers, where their background as practising doctors gives them not only a personality but credibility. Leaving patient contact behind has proved a rash move for several well known doctors, either because of the somewhat erratic nature of the work, or more likely because of the change in perception they have encountered from their new employers and sub-sequently their audiences.

    Ten top tips for radio interviews

    1. Practise on your patients-the art of simple understandable explanations

    2. Don't give lectures-regard the microphone as you would a friend

    3. Make a few points clearly-don't try to be comprehensive

    4. Make notes of what you want to say

    5. Write down the names of the presenter/other guests/callers, and use them

    6. Don't fidget or swing the chair

    7. Keep eye contact with the presenter

    8. Avoid casual asides-you are potentially always “on air” in the studio

    9. Smile-your listeners will hear it in your voice

    10. Turn your mobile phone off.

    A word of caution

    Financially this part time route may seem hard to justify. The attractive salaries of the media relate, in the main, only to prestigious and high profile jobs. Regional media pays poorly, and radio often not at all. It is not a rich industry; it is also one which holds the popular belief that there are many doctors eager for the opportunity to use it to advantage. It is usually better to enjoy the experience, practise your skills, and make your contribution worth while than to seek rewards on a par with medicine. These will occasionally come-in the form of offers from the national media or perhaps non-broadcast corporate com-panies-and can with luck, some skill, and a modicum of self promotion add money as well as an outside interest to your life. But for most of us the experience remains a way of keeping enthusiastic about medicine, avoiding burnout, and staying sane. Don't give up the day job-at least until you are very sure.

    Getting started

    To appear in the media you must be seen as an integral part of it, at least as far as the audience is concerned. Let me take radio as my example. Two likely targets for your attentions are the local BBC or independent station, so spend as much time as possible listening to their programmes. What is their style? Are they principally conversation based, with lengthy, in depth discussions, or a music station, with short sound bite news? Write to the programme controller, features, or news editor and ask for a meeting, stating your case. A telephone call to the switchboard should get you the name of the most appropriate person.

    Progressing

    There is a lot of pleasure to be had in doing a radio programme. To do it well can be thrilling. But as with all presentations in public, it is vital to be well prepared. Most obviously, be sure of your facts: it is always worth while revising the most familiar subject. If you can add statistical information on the incidence and likelihood of illness, translated into simple terms, you may be able to increase your relevance. People like human stories and a case study, anonymised, is useful.

    You can make only limited preparation if your programme is live, although most inquiries are mainstream problems answerable from large print medicine and should present few problems. And if you don't know you can say so.

    Some doctors have been surprised at the attitude of their colleagues. Partners and colleagues may resent or belittle the value of broadcasting. Others may wonder if the radio doctor is merely being self important, or even advertising. It is vital not to inflame this by suggesting any special and unwarranted skill, or by inadvertently criticising other professionals' management. It can be all too easy, searching for new and constructive help for a thorny problem and in the heat of the moment, to imply that previous attempts have been less than perfect.

    Confidentiality can be harder to maintain than you might think. Although you will rarely know any of the callers to a radio station personally, you may very well know of the services referred to, the people involved, or the facilities in a geographical area. And occasionally, your callers may say enough about themselves to reveal their identity and need your protection.

    These days your own identity is somewhat easier. The necessity of working under a pseudonym is long gone. It is perfectly acceptable to be yourself, provided that advice about self promotion is followed.

    I have implied there is a learnable technique in broadcasting; this is undeniably true. But for most of us, practising off air in realistic surroundings is a rare privilege, and success (and failure) must be public. There are techniques to interviewing, or being interviewed, to putting your point across succinctly. A doctor's starting place: the skills acquired in the consulting room, serve well, but it is very worth while joining a group who can provide media training and other forms of support. Contacts may be made on your behalf, finding new opportunities as talent and confidence grow, and perhaps providing the background to potential media stories. Those of us with regular media appointments need three things: a steady stream of relevant subjects, the background facts to make them interesting, and a list that finds information quickly when the next medical scare story hits the media hard and fast. Contact lists are vital, from local colleagues and specialists who might contribute to your programme to the press offices such as that at the BMA or Health Education Authority, who have a wealth of factual material and further contacts.

    Media doctors come from almost every possible medical background. The media needs them, and the public benefits from a better understanding of both health and illness. It is rewarding and satisfying to be involved, and for many the ideal complement to our clinical work. There is no greater medium for mass health education and still many opportunities to exploit it.

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