I took to the road with my students last week.
Bath Road, in fact. A busy shopping street in Cheltenham at around 9.30 in the morning.
My mission on this local election morning: to show them how to do vox pops.
The last time I’d stalked reluctant opinion-givers down a street was at least a decade ago.
I had visions of making even more of a fool of myself in front of my students than I normally do.
But the old magic, that old Wiltshire charm was still there.
It helped that we were talking about something reasonably inoffensive: whether they were voting, and the importance of exercising one’s democratic right.
I was vague about what sort of students I was with, and may have given the impression that we were doing some kind of Mr Cholmondley-Warner public information film.
But no matter. I persuaded a steady stream of people coming in and out of the bank to share their views – and even got one woman with a tale to tell about war veteran ancestors to repeat her motivational message after the first attempt was drowned out by a passing police car.
Of course the bar has been set high recently by the BBC man’s in the West, Jon Kay, who struck vox pop gold with Brenda from Bristol.
So how do we find the Brendas? What’s the best way to get people to talk? What’s the secret of a good vox pop?
These are some of the tips from a few of my journalistic pals.
1. Choose your spot
Post offices, bus stations, bus stops, shopping centre benches. Anywhere where people are sitting, standing or slow-moving targets.
2. Break news to them
As the great Tristan Cork from the Bristol Post pointed out, the reason Brenda works, the reason she’s such animated good value, is that Jon was breaking news to her.
3. Get your opening line right
Opinions varied on this.
Tristan offered this advice:
Tell people asap what you’re talking about – like first.
So if you say ‘hi I’m xxx from xxx and I was wondering if I could ask you some questions?’ It gives them the chance to say ‘no’
But if you say ‘I’m from the xxxx and we’re talking to people about xxxx’ then they instantly think ‘ooooo I’ve got something to say about that!’ and can’t help themselves.
And turn on the charm, as my friend Sian David from the Bristol Post suggests:
Smile. And don’t be nervous. Or pushy. Make friends so they are more likely to say yes to the photo/video.
But Tom Peck of the Independent just goes for it.
@Paulwiltshire Never ever apologise. Don’t go on with “hi, I’m really sorry to bother you,” etc. Just ask them the question. Wallop.
— Tom Peck (@tompeck) May 6, 2017
4. Go for people who look different
From my friend Aled Thomas at Gloucestershire Live came this gem: If they have extravagant hair, or a hat, they’re less likely to refuse the pic
5. Target groups of people
The Bath Chronicle’s Dan Evans had this to say:
My top tip would be target small groups. a. You can get three for the price of one. b. They’ll often say: ‘he’ll do it/she’ll do it’. c. Once b has happened you can then make the others feel guilty. Downside… you’ll still need to do more if you’re after a cross section, but if it’s about a gig or sports event that doesn’t matter so much.
In the vox pop numbers game, three seems to be a very useful crowd.
A group of two never works but three or four always does
6. Keep at it
This from Jordan Bhatt of the International Business Times:
@Paulwiltshire Best vox pops are totally unexpected and can’t be engineered. Takes perseverance. Keep at it, there r plenty of hidden ‘Brendas’ out there!
— Jordan Bhatt (@Jordan_Bhatt) May 6, 2017
And a final one from Esther Beadle, now in PR but previously of the Oxford Mail:
@Paulwiltshire Ask EVERYONE. You’d be amazed at who does and doesn’t stop. You can never predict who has the time and desire to tell their story.
— Esther Beadle (@estherbeadle) May 6, 2017
In among all the advice was an offshoot debate about whether vox pops are still worth doing in an age when everyone lays bare their innermost thoughts on Facebook and Twitter.
I think Brenda proves they still are.