Posted by Alex Vernon on

I wish I’d left the recorder on… five interview mistakes I won’t make again

I recently produced some audio clips for Penny Brohn Cancer Care’s autumn fundraising appeal (I’m looking forward to sharing them when the appeal launches – my interviewee was amazing!).

This work got me thinking that, although I’ve been using audio for some time, I’m always learning new things about getting the best out of it.

So, to help anyone who’s keen to add audio to their story tool-box, I thought I’d share some of my mistakes – and my lessons.

#1 I wish I’d turned the air-con off.

Recently I interviewed Helen, who had hugely benefited from a mentoring project run by Volunteer Bristol. As we sat down in the meeting room, I heard the pesky, constant zmmmmmm of the room’s air conditioning.

I knew my recorder would pick it up, but I couldn’t find the controls to turn the air con off. No other rooms were available – and as we had some sensitive stuff to talk about, I didn’t want to make Helen more nervous by traipsing around finding an alternative venue.

As I’d suspected, when I listened back later, Helen’s eloquence and honesty were accompanied by the distinctive drone of the air con*. If only I’d taken a few minutes to source the controls and turn the damn thing off.

My lesson: I must beware background noise. Unless the sounds of a busy café or bustling street are going to add colour and context to my interview, I should find a venue that’s as peaceful as possible. I need to ditch the buzzing air con – and unplug the phones.

*I use Audacity for editing audio. If any Audacity pros reading this know how to tone down unwanted background noise, I’d love to hear from you.

#2 I wish I’d been more demanding – and less chronological.

I usually ask people to introduce themselves at the start of the interview. All I’m looking for is a straight “I’m Bob and I’m from Bath.”

Trouble is, at this stage of the interview, folks are still a little nervous. As a result, you’re likely to get “(Loud, sharp intake of breath) I’m Bob” or, worse, “Well I’m Bob,” or worse still, “Ummm, I’m Bob…” Such intros don’t make for easy editing later.

I often feel uncomfortable asking people to repeat themselves in order for me to get clean intros. But I shouldn’t feel like this. They’d understand.

My lesson: I could get away with being a little more demanding – and ask them to have another go. Alternatively, I should save the intros for the end of the interview. By then, my subject will have warmed up sufficiently for me to get my “I’m Bob” in one quick, painless take.

Always ask your dog to remove his collar before an interview (but shame on me for forgetting my bracelets).
Always ask your dog to remove his collar before an interview (but shame on me for forgetting my bracelets).

#3 I wish I’d stolen his watch.

If your interviewee is the wearer of bracelets / bangles / a watch and is even the tiniest bit animated, chances are you’ll hear the jangle of jewellery on jewellery or the clang of watch against table top when you listen back later. This could prove distracting.

My lesson: first, I must remove my own noisy wrist-wear. Then, sweetly but firmly, I must ask my interviewee to do the same.

#4 I wish I’d turned the recorder off.

I’ve been known to get so enthralled by my interviewee’s story that I turn on my recorder and forget about it. I’m left with a single, long, massive track that spans the whole interview. And it’s a real pain to process and edit later on.

My lesson: I must turn off my recorder between questions. That way, for each question I’ll have a new, bite-sized track that’s easy to process and edit. Plus it gives my interviewee a chance to slurp noisily on their tea between questions.

#5 I wish I’d left the recorder on.

Huh? No, I’m not going back on #4.

Even the most relaxed of interviewees will breathe a sigh of relief when I say, “Okey dokey, we’re all done, thank you so much” and switch off my recorder for the last time. And often, they’ll choose that moment to come out with a stonker of a sound bite like “My pleasure. I really would do anything for this charity. They saved my life.”


Attempts to hastily turn the recorder back on and ask them to repeat such a gem usually result in something stilted and lacking the natural, spontaneous warmth of what came before.

My lesson: I must avoid the off-switch until the last possible moment. Perhaps until after we’ve said goodbye and I’m en route to the loo.

Posted by Alex Vernon on

Relax and eat posh biscuits: tips for applying to newspaper charity appeals, part two

So! You’ve read part one of my guide to newspaper charity appeals and so finely crafted is your application that you’re pretty sure it’s going to go all the way. Or at least to the next stage: the short-listing.

The Telegraph's offices in Victoria - pic from
The Telegraph’s offices in Victoria – pic from

Quick recap: last year, when I was working for the disability charity Motivation, we applied to the 2012 Telegraph Christmas Appeal – and got it! Based on my experiences of being short-listed and invited to the Telegraph’s offices to meet the appeal’s decision makers, here are some (hopefully handy) insights. I imagine they’re relevant for the other newspapers too.

1. It’s still all about the stories

You pitched your best story ideas in your application and you’re afraid of repeating yourself. Don’t be. The judges read dozens of story ideas during the application process and may well have forgotten yours (despite the fact that those ideas have got you this far).

So now’s not the time to list your formal charitable objectives. Instead, focus on your most moving beneficiary stories. Share them with colour and emotion and honesty and your panel will be hooked. And with any luck, a few months down the line their Christmas appeal readers will be too.

2. If you can, take a beneficiary

To prepare for our meeting, I spoke to two 2011 beneficiary charities – AfriKids and Riding for the Disabled. Both were very open and helpful. Riding for the Disabled described how they’d taken one of their beneficiaries to meet the Telegraph. That person talked about the difference the charity had made to them. This, as you’d imagine, went down a treat.

David and Jen from Motivation overlooking the Telegraph newsroom (and some peskily placed fire extinguishers...)
David and Jen from Motivation overlooking the Telegraph newsroom (and some peskily placed fire extinguishers…)

Motivation is a mostly international charity, so we couldn’t take a beneficiary to our meeting. But our three-strong team did include two people who had lots of experience of working directly with beneficiaries and could talk with passion and authenticity about the difference Motivation was making to them. Both wheelchair users, my colleagues David and Jen both had compelling stories of their own to tell too, which I’m pretty sure played a big part in our success.

In summary: take a beneficiary if you can. If you can’t, take staff with first-hand experience of working with beneficiaries. Oh – and don’t feel compelled to invite your directors / heads of / trustees etc. The panel won’t care about job titles and hierarchy. They just want to hear from people who’ve experienced the impact the charity is making.

3. Don’t spend days preparing a gorgeous, glossy PowerPoint

Luckily, we’d kept our PowerPoint presentation pretty simple. But we had invested quite a bit of time in choosing for it the most powerful images of our work that we could lay our hands on.

On the day, the members of the panel were seated down one side of a long table. We, the Motivation team, sat opposite them. Our presentation was on a screen at the far end of the table.

Alas, the panel barely glanced at the screen. They were too busy looking at us. And they continued to focus on us as fab pic after fab pic went by unobserved. Frustrating! But at the same time, rather refreshing. It really felt like they valued what we had to say.

So the meeting was more of a dialogue than a presentation – and I think it would have been perfectly acceptable if we’d turned up utterly PowerPointless (a scary thought, nonetheless).

4. But do show videos. Short ones.

The panel missed the pics, but our films got their attention. We showed two – both short. The first was a rough-and-ready 30-second clip of Motivation’s rough terrain wheelchairs in action. The second was a professional, one-minute film featuring Afghanistan’s first ever wheelchair basketball tournament. With these little tasters of our work, I think we got it just right. A longer, more generic intro-style film might have got the panel a little twitchy.

This is what comes up when you search for 'posh biscuits' in Google images. Good old M & S.
This is what comes up when you search for ‘posh biscuits’ in Google images. Good old M & S.

5. Relax – and eat their biscuits

“Today’s a special day – we’ve got the posh biscuits,” a member of the panel told us as we were ushered into the meeting room. This throwaway comment made quite an impression on me. I realised that no matter how impressive and intimidating and utterly different from our humble charity office the Telegraph HQ happened to be, the members of the panel were just normal people who wanted to hear good stories and eat nice biscuits. Phew.

I hope these insights are useful. Good luck! And if you’d like any help with your charity’s newspaper appeal application, please get in touch.

Posted by Alex Vernon on

Coverage, contacts and cash: tips for applying for newspaper charity appeals (part one)

Richard from the Telegraph: Well Alex, this feels like my X-factor moment…
Alex: (about to fall off her chair) oooh, um, ok…?
Richard: We’d like Motivation to be one of our charities for our 2012 Christmas appeal!
Alex: (squeals incoherently)

And so went a rather wonderful phone call last November, when I was working at the disability charity Motivation.

Cheque presentation
David from Motivation (middle) with a rather lovely big cheque

Our Telegraph Appeal ‘journey’ had started back in late August, when we submitted our application. In mid October we were shortlisted and invited to the Telegraph’s offices to meet deputy editor Richard Preston and some of his colleagues. We got the X-factor call in early November and the appeal launched at the end of the month. It finished in late January – by which time we’d had eight stories published, added hundreds of new contacts to our supporter database and received a large cheque (literally) to the tune of over £200,000. Not bad!

I’m sure that the Paralympics, the surprise hit of summer 2012, played a big part in our being chosen. As a disability charity involved in wheelchair sports, Motivation was certainly ‘of the moment’. But I like to think that our application had a hand in it too…

So today I’m putting together some tips for applying to newspaper appeals in the hope that comms / fundraising folk might find them useful. My suggestions are based on my experiences with the Telegraph – but I imagine they’re relevant for the other broadsheets’ appeals too.

1. Keep it brief

You’re up against lots of other charities, so you want to keep your application powerful yet pithy. Ours consisted of:

– a short covering email introducing the charity and giving a taster of story ideas
– a two-page application in a simple Word document, containing short paragraphs summarising story ideas
– one page of pics related to the stories we’d included in the application. I felt it was important to include images, not just because everyone loves a good pic but because they showed that we had great quality shots up our sleeves should the Telegraph need to draw on them (which they later did).

2. Go straight to your stories (and stats)

There’s no need for a lengthy description of what your charity does. A couple of lines will do – there’s always more detail to be found on your website.

Instead, jump straight into what the journalists racing through the piles of applications are really interested in: your stories. These should be emotive, compelling and varied, focusing on a particular person* or group of people that your charity has supported. Eight to ten story summaries should be plenty. Include some good-quality statistics to lend context and credibility to your stories. For example, ‘Like 90% of disabled children in Africa, eight-year-old Benjamin isn’t going to school today…’

*Be sure to double-check your beneficiary is happy to have their story shared in the media before you include them in your application. It’s one thing to feature on your website – it’s another to appear in the national press!

Jen in the Telegraph
Motivation’s Jen was on the cover of the Telegraph’s weekend section

3. Look for potential stars among your staff

When you’re coming up with subjects for your stories, consider the very people you work with. Is there an inspirational former beneficiary among your colleagues? Does your chief exec have a visionary story to share? One major benefit of employees as interviewees is that they’ll be right on message (well, hopefully!). Two of our best appeal stories were about Motivation staff: co-founder David Constantine and programme manager Jen Howitt Browning, a gold medal winning Paralympian.

4. International charities should think regionally

If you work internationally, of course you can mention that you’re supporting communities from Papua New Guinea to Peru to Pakistan (etc). But does the paper have writers there? If not, it’s unlikely they’ll fork out to fly them to your projects. They’re working with limited budgets just like we are. So – and I write with hindsight – think about clustering your stories regionally. A Southeast Asia correspondent could easily pop between projects in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, for example. The Telegraph’s Mike Pflanz is based in Nairobi; he visited Motivation projects in nearby Uganda and Tanzania.

Celebs endorse the appeal
Michael Palin wrote a great piece about Motivation for the Telegraph appeal

5. Add a dash of celebrity

If you’ve got a celeb supporter or two, they’re definitely worth a mention somewhere in your application or covering note. Every year the Telegraph runs a story featuring three celebrities endorsing the three appeal charities – we had Michael Palin writing on our behalf (lucky us). If you haven’t had much luck with celebrities in the past, the excellent CharityComms has just published a best practice guide called ‘Harnessing the talent: working with celebrities’ – might be worth a look.

More newspaper appeal tips to follow soon in part two – what to do if you’re shortlisted (after you’ve treated yourself to a celebratory slice of cake, of course).