Updated: Jan 24
Contributing to high-stakes scrutiny events like Select Committee sessions in the UK or Congressional hearings in the US is right up there with the most nerve-racking job duties of any policy professional. But also the most rewarding. Preparing the right way is essential.
Former colleagues and others I've worked with know that I favour what I call the 'Evil Twin' approach. That's because, on more occasions than I care to remember, it's saved me from making a fool of myself.
Evil Twin is the very opposite of the traditional approach to media engagement. Media training teaches you that good communication focuses on a single core argument. The most important thing you want your audience to hear. You craft a 'top line' and three supporting arguments that reinforce the message. That's the basic structure of most press releases and most political campaign lines. It's how any media-trained spokesperson would prep for a broadcast interview. (Next time you watch the news, see if you can spot this in action).
But this approach is most effective when the format is short and the person or organisation behind the message is in control of the engagement. Live TV interviews, for example, usually take three minutes or less and interviewers are under intense pressure to keep to schedule. This hands control of the engagement to the spokesperson. They can be confident that whatever the question, they can always bridge back to their top line and say what they want to say. The format doesn't allow for in-depth discussion or probing scrutiny. There are some exceptions to this. But in those cases I would strongly advise any policy professional to decline the interview. One for another time - but take it on faith there are some encounters you cannot profit from however good you are. Where the very structure of it will work against you.
But what if the encounter is 'long-form' and dynamic in nature? Parliamentary or Congressional evidence hearings are good examples of this. So too are local Examinations In Public in England, online or broadcast panel discussion formats. In these scenarios, policy professionals must prepare to meet resistance - even hostility - to their point of view. You don't get free reign in these settings. And you can't bank on the space to repeat pre-prepared lines without interruption.
So how can your Evil Twin help?
In this approach you do the exact opposite of what you usually do: think about the top things that you don't want people to hear. Your anti-top lines. This is not quite the same as being aware of counter arguments, though that does help. I'm talking about the most damaging things you could say to undermine your cause. Be creative. Be brave. The most damaging ones will confirm others' prejudices about your motives, make you seem self-serving or out of touch with reality.
Once you've got these, the next task is to identify the supporting arguments. The biggest danger of any long-form engagement is the 'pincer' or the 'cul-de-sac' discussion where you find yourself cornered by a question for which there is no good answer. Even if you think the question unfair, often you will not get the opportunity, after the fact, to explain why 'it's a bit more complicated than that'. Knowing the supporting arguments to your anti-top lines allows you to see these nightmare situations develop before it's too late. Think of them as your intellectual trip wires: if one of these snaps, it's time to move out of harm’s way.
For example, let's say you're making the case for improvements to the public realm, like harsher penalties for littering. One thing you might not want to say is that the police should spend a bigger share of their finite resources on litter monitoring. A supporting argument might be that other, more serious forms of crime need more police attention. Working through an argument like this allows you to see it coming before you are cornered with a question like: 'which is more important - police action on drug gangs or empty pizza boxes in hedges?'. It allows you to get ahead of the argument with the case you want to make when the discussion turns to enforcement.
If you embrace your Evil Twin you'll discover it can help you in many other situations - from job interviews to funding bids.