Update: Shortly after his announcement, Chuka Umunna withdrew from the Labour leadership contest because of concerns over the impact the attention would have on him and his friends and family. We're not aware that this post played a part in making that decision.
I’ve run media training courses for years, and at the end of each I give the same advice: Watch and learn from politicians.
OK, they’d infuriate us less if they answered the question a little more often. But almost without exception, successful politicians do come over very well on television.
On that score Chuka Umunna is up there with the best of them. However, the video in which he announced he’s running for the Labour leadership is disappointing (I’ll explain why later in the post). Nevertheless, it illustrates five lessons that all video communicators can learn from.
Human beings respond to stories - and every video needs to tell one. "So, I’m in Swindon - just the sort of place where Labour should be winning. Since the election I’ve been visiting towns like these all over the country talking to ordinary voters. Now I’m ready to answer the call."
The best communicators target their message at a very precise audience. Umunna isn’t talking to his fellow politicians or the media but to the Labour Party membership - the people who’ll actually decide who the new leader is going to be.
The most effective content appeals to emotions. Hence, "I think we can get back into office in five years, change this country and build a fairer and more equal society. That is why we all joined the party in the first place."
The medium is just important as the message. The TV networks would doubtless have offered Umunna a primetime slot if he’d wanted one, but instead he plumped for Facebook. Far more personal, far more direct.
The reasons for Labour’s poor showing were many and complex, but Umunna understood the need for brevity. He knew there’d be plenty of opportunities to fill in the detail in the weeks ahead. For now a three-minute video was more than sufficient.
But no, the video certainly isn’t perfect - far from it - and it shows us that even Chuka Umunna has lessons to learn about communicating on camera.
You need the viewer to focus on every word you’re saying. Moving about, as Umunna does, can be very distracting. Keep your feet still.
Eye contact is critical. If you’re being interviewed, look at the interviewer. If you’re addressing the camera, address the camera - and don’t let your eyes wander. Even briefly looking away, as Umunna does, can make you look shifty.
Last, but by no means least:
Even a professional broadcaster like me would accept there are instances where the highest technical standards aren’t essential. But if you want to be Labour leader, let alone Prime Minister, the least you can do is to ensure that you’re in focus. The sound quality is also poor; my guess is there’s no wind sock on the microphone. No matter what the weather’s like, the mic always needs to be covered when filming outside.
The video’s lack of technical polish rather unsurprisingly left the Telegraph unimpressed. The “terrible video… made Umunna look a bit like a student embarking on a media studies project,” remarked the paper’s Dan Hodges.
No, Dan, it wasn’t terrible. In fact, for a politician who’s often criticised for being too slick, a few rough edges probably won’t do much harm. But if Umunna ends up winning the Labour leadership he’ll need to raise his game in time for the General Election in 2020.