Why changing local BBC’s audience targeting might be a mistake


When Tony Hall spoke to staff at BBC local radio recently outlining how the Corporation will change its focus for the stations, there were some encouraging thoughts. Value seemed to be attributed to the network despite previous indications the BBC felt it was just a drain on resources.

A broadening of the audience was established – making BBC local radio for all. A fine idea and not without merit. The commercial sector has increasingly deserted local programming to save money, leaving a gap for the BBC to exploit or community stations to try and fill. There is an audience there and it makes sense to try and serve it.

But the audience I feel it should focus on is the 40 and over; this is the generation that is attuned to traditional radio and constantly ignored by most commercial brands. Widening the remit to younger listeners is a fine intention but hard to get right and harder to achieve. Trying to be something to everyone inevitably ends up being something to no one.

On top of this changing audience and changing content, local BBC stations need to become more of an exhilarating place to work. Not filled with lifetime jobbers and empire builders but younger, hungrier talent that needs to use the platform to hone their skills before a national progression. It is true this does happen at the better local stations (often those in bigger towns or cities with a real ‘identity’) but in many there are people grazing or worse. Too many shows are done by ‘names’ or people that have been there too long.

Tony Hall’s speech is encouraging and there is now a real hope that staff across the local network may feel more valued. The direction it takes though needs to be chosen carefully. There is a growing older audience which would appreciate being served by a strong local radio brand. I think this is where the BBC should spend our money. It should invest in areas the commercial sector will no longer go. I hope it does.

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Knowing When To Quit Is Never Easy

TMS window at Lord’s

In the last few weeks two ‘legends’ of sport commentary have either retired or announced they’re about to; or as the journalist cliche goes, they are ‘hanging up their microphones’. So farewell it will be to John Motson, who’s leaving us at the end of this football season and there was a goodbye to Henry Blofeld at Lord’s in that final test against the West Indies.  I was touched by the reception Blowers got as he completed his last commentary slot, with the crowd at Lord’s breaking out into applause (to the confusion of the players on the field).

This reception says a lot about Blowers, the affection in which Test Match Special is held and also the nature of cricket fans. Supporters of cricket, and the test format in particular, are a unique brand of sports fans. They treasure everything that makes the long form of the sport great and that includes someone like Blofeld. His fascination with buses and birds was a part of the TMS fabric as much as the cricket itself. I know many listeners to TMS that don’t even like cricket. It is as quintessentially English as afternoon tea or rain on a summer’s day, and his chitter chatter was a special ingredient.

But I have a confession. In recent years, whenever Blofeld would take over the microphone, I would have to switch off. I became frustrated at the slightly bumbling nature of the commentary. Fielders and batsman would be mis-named and important moments would get lost. This brings me to fellow retiree John Motson. He too has been guilty in the latter years of his career of making a few mistakes and not being quite as ‘on it’. What has also happened in both cases is that they have become caricatures of themselves. Motson’s statistics would become what defined him, along with that weird chuckle. Blofeld’s watching of planes, trains and cranes began to dominate his commentary.

I have never been a huge fan of Motson, but he was undoubtedly groundbreaking with his research about teams, in the era before a quick Google would answer most questions. His passion for the game was also evident, as with Blofeld, and I think that’s why both have lasted so long. But when do you decide to quit? Blowers is nearing his 78th birthday, while Motson is 72; ages at which most of us will hope to have been long retired. I am not necessarily being ageist and saying they couldn’t do the job, but almost certainly younger people coming through can now do it better. TMS is littered with classy broadcasters who have moved commentary on from the era of Blowers.

Motson says he knew when to quit and I respect him for that but I felt he lost his mojo some years ago. He has sounded ‘old’ to me for sometime. On the other hand Sky Sports’ Martin Tyler is only a year younger but does not sound 71 years’ old. Soon though he may too decide that it’s time to go before he’s pushed. That’s where broadcasters need to be brave and make changes before the quality is lost. Peter Alliss still appears on the golf coverage on the BBC, in his mid 80s. But he sounds out of date and of a different era. No longer is his voice a soothing piece of nostalgia. He just sounds old.

All these voices have their time and we hold them in a special place, partly because of the moments they are fortunate to commentate on – pieces of history – but there is also a point when they begin to tire. Knowing when to quit is never easy and I respect Blofeld and Motson for their decisions to walk away when others would have carried on. But, my dear old friend, they have both had a good (career) innings.

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S-Town – An emotional rollercoaster; radio at its very best

At the end of the final episode of S-Town, presenter Brian Reed thanks what he calls ‘the best podcast team in the world’. Over statement? Probably not. From the makers of Serial, S-Town is a superb piece of radio storytelling that breaks and warms your heart in equal measure. Laugh out loud funny at times, the story takes dramatic and poignant twists, right until the final few seconds and a wonderfully written reveal. Radio really doesn’t get better than this.

There are technical and journalistic reasons why this is so good. Let’s look at the technical aspect first. S-Town begins very differently to Serial. Firstly, it is Reed presenting and not Sarah Koenig. While the script has all the same hallmarks of This American Life and Serial, the tone is slightly different. Also, the star of this series is undoubtedly John B McLemore and not Reed. In Serial, despite the access to Adnan Syed in prison, Koenig was the star; placing herself at the heart of the narrative and her investigation. Reed plots and shapes the script in a similar way here, but you feel like you’re walking the path with him, not being led up it.

On episode one of S-Town you hear mostly from John B. Although his southern drawl initially grates, you begin to warm to an extraordinary character. You soon form a remarkable attachment to John B. It makes these seven episodes some of the most emotional moments of radio I have ever experienced. At times the storytelling is like the best of literature; transporting you to another place. Sometimes it feels like a different time too, like the previous century. And time plays a crucial role as the story unfolds; from John B’s work as an horologist to his insistence that his home is on a different time zone than the local town.

When Reed first visits John B, he is shown a maze in the grounds of their house, made and designed by John B himself. The imagery and production in these ten minutes is terrific. It is a perfect example of clever scripting and powerful audio production and it magically transports you in a way visual media cannot.

When listening, images from the first series of TV’s True Detective came to mind, with vast open spaces of nothing and people that rarely, if ever, travel beyond their hometown. Like True Detective, music is also key. The backing tracks are cleverly chosen, to match mood and environment and the final closing song from The Zombies has a poignant connection to the story.

Away from the production, there are moral and political questions to explore. The moral concerns are genuine – but I do not want to discuss them here, as this gives away the story. My love of the podcast shows where I stand on that issue anyway.

As for the political issues raised, I lazily fell into the trap of discovering the characters and residents of Shittown Alabama (or Woodstock as it’s officially known) and thought these are the sort of people that made Donald Trump US President. There are those people that are openly racist and even a company with a name that has an unapologetic nod to the Ku Klux Klan. But dig deeper and you find there is a heart to the place. People that really care for each other. Brian Reed avoids judgement – or if he gets close to it – admits he might be wrong.

As Koenig put it herself, Serial was a ‘Shakespearean mash up’ that had the perfect ingredients for a classic murder story. S Town doesn’t have that same mystery and intrigue, but it makes you think and reflect more. This added depth I describe made S-Town far more rewarding to listen to. The story has a real arc. A beginning, a middle and an end, carefully plotted and beautifully told. Where Serial was the Smells Like Teen Spirit of podcasts, lifting the medium into the mainstream, S-Town might just be the Stairway To Heaven. It’s set to become a classic of its genre. 

Radio is all about connection and engaging an audience. When done as well as this, it really is wonderful. You might listen and not connect to it the same way as I did, but you’ll certainly admire the work that must have been put in. Ultimately S-Town is about judging; challenging our perceptions and avoiding leaping to a conclusion about people. But it is also about a relationship. Not like the teenage love story at the heart of Serial, but the special bond forged by Reed and John B. This is quality journalism from a presenter who genuinely cares and it is all the more powerful as a consequence.

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Bruce Forsyth – nice to lead with, to lead with nice

As a radio journalist I have witnessed and taken part in some furious debates over the years about what to lead a bulletin with. However, there is often more than one right answer. I often tell students that there can be several stories you could lead with, depending on the station’s style and audience. Whether it felt right at the time is the best judgement; you cannot use hindsight to then say the choice was wrong.

On an overnight shift recently I was alone in a radio newsroom when pictures started coming in of the Grenfell Tower fire. At first I wasn’t sure how big the story was and only had the news channels (with Sky and BBC often going to pre-recorded content between 2 and 4am) and Twitter as a guide for how serious the story was. I had a 4am ten minute bulletin that had a lead story in place. But I felt the fire ought to lead – albeit with limited information and content as a breaking story. By 5am it was clear this story was going to be huge and I was glad I made the right call.

Instinct and gut was what led to my decision then and it was the same thing when news broke of Bruce Forsyth’s death. I was on Forces Radio/BFBS, where we had a very strong military story as our lead followed by the emerging details about the Barcelona terror attack 24 hours earlier. I decided that the programme should start with teases to the other stories then after the introduction the newsreader should say ‘but first, in the last hour the death of Bruce Forsyth has been announced’.

We had a one minute obit quickly mixed and edited and it sounded great and the running order felt right. Later that day I was interested to see Adam Boulton of Sky News tweeting that the BBC were wrong to lead the 10pm news bulletin with Bruce Forsyth. I respect his opinion but I was not surprised by the BBC’s decision or think it wrong. In fact the package and report about his career made me smile and was a good celebration of his impressive career. Perhaps it was refreshing to have something lighter at the top.

It is also slightly rich of Adam Boulton to be criticising the BBC for its lead story when Sky News can make dubious calls too. They also spend hours saying a story is ‘breaking news’ when it stopped being breaking sometime before. I know why they do it and understand. The same goes for the BBC. I know why they led with Bruce and completely understand the decision. I happen to think it was the right one.

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Mentoring. How a session works and how it could help you

When people ask me about the ‘Media Mentor’ and the idea behind it, one of the first things they want to establish is how it works. Put simply, mentoring is about supporting you achieve your goals or make significant progress towards doing so. But everyone has different priorities and aims, but also everyone has different areas that may need help and guidance.

The practical help I provide works alongside the more supportive role I play. Mentoring is defined as to ‘advise or train’ and that combination of factors is key. You may want your CV improved, or may struggle with writing covering letters. These two things are areas I focus on, as they are, of course, vital parts of the application process. There could also be advice on interview technique or even sessions when we conduct a dummy interview to help you improve your confidence. Another practical area I work on is voice coaching, helping to make you feel more assured on air.

But mentoring can mean much more than these skills focused sessions. Mentoring is about pushing you and supporting you. Often clients come to me unsure of what it is they want to do next. I have had many sessions where we have discussed targets for the next job or even a career, looking at how things might develop. We discuss choices to make, both with work and home life. Mentoring means being empathetic to a client’s demands across the spectrum. I need to understand why you might struggle to find the time to do the things I want you to do. But in return, the client knows I will push. A two-way relationship is essential.

In the last few years many clients have progressed their careers after a consultation, which is hugely satisfying. People gain confidence and focus, understand the right direction and right type of jobs to go for. One of the biggest benefits of speaking to me is that I am neutral. Everyone you know has an agenda, whether that’s positive or negative. Colleagues and bosses will always look after themselves first, while family and friends will have views about you that are already shaped by time. Without any of this ‘baggage’ I am honest and direct with what I say and sometimes that can be something you don’t want to hear. But that’s mentoring. If you are not honest there is no point.

Often though, the process goes far beyond media or career advice and practical guidance. I have had clients in tears needing support; not needing a bit of direction for a job application but wanting and appreciating a shoulder to cry on and having someone calm and reassuring at a time of crisis.

This is when the service works differently for different people. If you simply want to improve your chances of getting a job, a review of your CV and cover letters will be hugely valuable. The process sees you paying a fee for that meeting and then feedback on the changes afterwards. But increasingly clients are asking for a bit more of a continuous relationship, where I am available for chats and advice more often. I have several clients who choose to pay me monthly for this service and find it hugely valuable.

For those asking about how the media mentor can help, I do hope this answers some (it not all) of the questions. If you’d like to ask more or would like a quote, please drop me a line. I look forward to hearing from you.



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The Media Mentor take on BBC pay

Amid all the ranting and raging about BBC pay, there were some serious issues raised and some comical moments too. Watching and listening to the BBC broadcast shows talking about themselves often falls into the latter category. Presenters refusing to appear on particular BBC shows to talk about their pay and Dan Walker tweeting newspapers to get their facts right seems farcical. Then there was Jeremy Vine tackling callers about his own pay. All very strange. But of course the BBC finds nothing more interesting than talking about itself at times.

To be fair there were some good interviews and fair points raised. Such as John Humphrys telling Radio 4’s Media Show that he welcomed the disclosure of salaries (indeed had pushed bosses to reveal his pay years before) but was angered by the disparity between men and women. Would he take a pay cut himself to address those differences? Yes he said; although when pushed by Amol Rajan he wouldn’t be specific about how much he would happily lose.

Away from the BBC’s navel gazing, were the “how can he/she be paid THAT?” type comments. Whatever your thoughts on BBC pay, whether you like someone or not is frankly irrelevant. I am not a fan of Steve Wright, have never liked his radio show, but that doesn’t automatically mean I don’t think he is worth around £500k a year. He is certainly paid a lot in radio terms, but could have in the past, commanded a higher sum from the commercial sector. He has also been with the BBC for more than three decades and therefore his ‘salary’ will have risen over time.

However, I look at someone like Gary Lineker and think; is it worth paying someone nearly two million pounds to present (mostly) football highlights? Does anyone ever watch Match of the Day because of Lineker? Unlikely. If he is being paid that much by the BBC, I want to see him more often. I want to see him present Homes Under The Hammer, I want him making sport specials. Basically, I want to see value. But where this disclosure of salaries is so flawed is that it is not the whole story, by a long way. Fees paid through outside companies and agents are not included and we don’t exactly know what the money is for. Some people will do more programmes than others. Lauren Laverne may contribute more output and appear on more platforms than others paid less, but we do not know.

Which leads me to someone like Jane Garvey and the serious issue of the gender pay gap. A consummate professional and one of the best broadcasters of her generation (here I am being subjective) she was not on the list of the ‘BBC 96’ (as they’ve become known). Quite rightly outraged by the revelations – I wish her well in a bid to be recognised as generously as some of her colleagues. I find it hard to believe that the BBC did not see this coming, and in fact the corporation has already moved to reduce the impact of these pay revelations in future by changing the way people are paid. Thus avoiding disclosure. So I think it deserves this backlash.

On the gender pay gap, I find it hard to imagine why there would be any wage difference between a man and a woman doing the same job (any job; broadcast journalist, nurse, secretary etc). But the media industry does get hammered for its representation more than other industries. We are a visible presence obviously, so must lead the way in displaying equal opportunity. But when I travel around Europe to corporate exhibitions, I still see ninety percent men and sometimes the only women there are being used as models. So do not think for one minute that the media is the worst offender. In fact, a female visitor to a recent expo told me about visiting a company in the last few years where there was no women’s toilet. Something you’d imagine from the 1960s, not 2010s.

So has the BBC pay disclosure been healthy? Certainly not for the BBC itself, and maybe not for the media industry as a whole to be honest. But important debate has been sparked and unfairness highlighted. As the licence fee is compulsory, I think it is right we know where the money is spent. But we need to have full disclosure, not this halfway house. I think the BBC is amazing value for money but it is not without serious flaws. The debate around pay may help it address some of those issues.

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Confessions of a broadcaster: Live or not so live?

Radio commentator Paul Donovan wrote in the Sunday Times this week about a recent incident on Classic FM, when Bill Turnbull made a ‘mistake’ about a piece of music – twice – seemingly indicating that his lunchtime show was pre-recorded. Paul seemed surprised that Turnbull’s show could be recorded, before then saying it’s a common practice for commercial radio presenters to do this. So why the surprise? Is it not OK for a large station like Classic FM to do this but it’s fine for a Peak FM or such like?

Recording shows is not solely the domain of commercial radio either. After all, the country’s biggest radio station – Radio 2 – decided this year that it is fine to record the overnight programme and remove the live presenters as part of ‘cost cutting’. Paul’s article struck me as naive at best but hinted at double standards too. What may have happened on Classic is that a producer failed to check properly or the live Tech-op (if there is still one) missed the error. This type of mistake is less likely on the BBC, because they have greater resources to oversee pre-recorded shows.


In terms of the idea, I have never been a fan of recorded radio shows when listening figures may be higher unless they are specialist or documentary programmes. Radio needs to be live to create the magic. I have voice-tracked many shows over the years and despite my best efforts, they never have the same feel as live radio. I also think the listener does notice. There are exceptions. For example, Steve Wright has recorded much of his afternoon show for years, with most people not noticing. What has changed in the last few years though, is that stations have had to be more ‘honest’ about when a show is live or not. Lying or tricking the listener can land you in trouble if you are not careful.

When I first worked in radio attitudes were different. As computers were introduced, the ability to schedule and record links became easier. My first proper presenter role was at the UK’s first fully computerised station. It meant we could drop links into a running order and work out timings more accurately. Twenty five years ago though, there was not the pressure to be honest to your listeners and we often pretended to be live when we were not.


All this reminds me of an incident early in my career, when I was guilty of deceiving the listener. Back then it was quite common for a record company to send out an interview with high profile singers, that would allow you to add your own questions. You could edit it together to make it sound like you had interviewed Tina Turner or Sting yourself.

One Saturday morning I had plugged on my show an ‘interview’ I had done with Garth Brooks, the US country superstar. But I had forgotten to edit it properly and announced on air that the interview had been cancelled because “Garth has been unable to travel to the station”. This was an awful lie of course and it was about to get worse. Ten minutes later a colleague came into the studio to say Rolf Harris had contacted the station and offered to be a replacement for Garth. Because I had already filled the hour with something else I declined his offer; much to the amazement of everyone at the station. It seemed to make the lie even worse.

Back then, this kind of deception seemed innocent. I was just starting my career and those more experienced around me did not tell me otherwise. In a more accountable world, radio can longer play these tricks and games. A recorded show should be clearly identified as such. However, they are common practice everywhere and Paul’s surprise at this, is in itself surprising.

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The Lost Art Of The Compilation

I’ve written before about how technology’s extraordinary pace of development brings with it both benefits and negatives, especially in media, where faster processing of information and data allows fewer staff to be employed and increases the risk of mistakes. Not unrelated to radio, is another part of life that has changed dramatically in recent years; the compilation, or mix tape as Americans tend to call it.

When my wife and I were first together I would spend hours planning and recording cassette compilations for her to listen to in the car. The songs needed to be chosen well, the segues had to flow and there was a craft to these tapes. At least I felt like I crafted them anyway. Time was spent finding the right songs to follow each other or fit the chosen theme.

Since those early days in the mid nineties – cassettes have been replaced by CDs in cars and now Bluetooth or USB connections. When we moved to CD, it meant I no longer needed to record each track in real time and didn’t have to browse my collection of CDs (carefully and correctly placed in alphabetical order) finding the right track to get that flow and mood right. Instead I lazily dragged and dropped into a CD burning software from my iTunes library. Browsing on computer never feels the same as the physical process of flicking through records or CDs. At least though with this process, there was still an element of craft as my software allowed overlaps and segues to be perfected. 

But when my wife updated her car last year to one without a CD it marked the end of those loving hours. Now all I had to do was click on a track and add to a playlist on her phone. The easier it becomes, the less thought you seem to put in. A step further is using Spotify to do it for you; finding tracks through its not so fun calculations though lacks a personal touch. It’s like the issue with Sat-Navs. They are hugely useful but they stop you thinking. You end up embarking on journeys with no idea where you are actually geographically heading.

While these changes or advances might seem to make things better and easier, what it leads to is a lazy and less focused process. Suddenly that compilation takes 15 minutes to make not 2 hours. Songs don’t flow as well and the ‘compilation’ is less successful. Here I will draw a comparison to the modern world of journalism, or churnalism as we like to call it.

Advances in technology and changing ways of delivery and consumption mean that there is need to get content out there as quickly as possible. This inevitably leads to a fall in quality. Just like the compilation might be thrown together with less thought, content is churned out to fill the endless space of the internet. Speed is the priority, quality comes much further down the list. Click bait and all that. 

Of course there are exceptions and quality content exists amid the sea of rubbish. There is an increasing demand to find well written and researched material (not fake news), with some publishers swimming against the tide and making paywalls work. It is my hope this sector will grow, just like I hope there are still people like me lovingly crafting compilations for friends, partners and family.  I intend to continue to enjoy one of my favourite pastimes, despite technology’s best efforts to rob me of this pleasure. 

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Twitter – the light and the dark

The positive power of the internet and its negative impact have been highlighted in different ways and through different stories over the last two weeks. While Katy Hopkins finally paid the price for her often pernicious and vitriolic comments, the Manchester bombing also saw the media use its power to reunite families separated during the horror of that attack.

Twitter can be very powerful in those circumstances and does a lot of good. In another way this week it showcased exactly why the idea of a social media platform like this was so attractive to start with. Once Donald Trump’s fingers had slipped unfortunately short of a coherent sentence, the Twitter-sphere came into its own, with hilarious comments and spoofs. Covfefe provided us with a smile at a tough time to be happy with the world. For that Mr Trump we are thankful; however inadvertent this was on your behalf.

For me using Twitter has been a learning experience. A few years ago I angrily tweeted a BBC presenter about their approach to interviews which resulted in a needlessly bitter exchange. I wasn’t nasty, just critical. I told the presenter they always make interviews about themselves and felt annoyed. But tweeting them directly was a form of online Knock Down Ginger. I left a comment and ran off. When they engaged me I was surprised and alarmed. Over the next two hours, myself and other colleagues were drawn into an online form of a primary school row. The presenter eventually apologised and despite encouragement of colleagues I did not complain to the BBC or sell the story to the Daily Mail!

What it taught me was that ‘normal’ people can act differently online because exchanging views is much easier than being face to face. After this episode, I vowed to be more positive with messages and tweets and only comment for praise. After all negative feedback is always easier than being positive. As for the presenter involved, I’m not sure it was out of character from what I know from colleagues but they might just have been having a bad day. Katy Hopkins meanwhile is ‘a lovely person’ according to people I know that worked with her at LBC. But what makes a ‘lovely’ person act so nastily online remains, in some ways, a mystery to me. I like to play devil’s advocate but constantly pushing and poking in such a provocative way only ends up inciting more anger.

The Hopkins affair has reminded me of an excellent Radio 4 drama I heard last year. It involved the eventual murder of an outspoken commentator and the fluctuating public reaction. It went from hate and vile at the person’s comments in the press to dismay, upset and outrage at their death. It perfectly captured the quick-fire, knee-jerk reactions social media seems to fuel. I wish no ill on Hopkins in that sense but you can see how the drama’s plot was not implausible. Stir up that much hate and it could come back to haunt you.

When it works to unite, entertain and help, social media is fabulous, delightfully funny and empowering, but too often we experience its darker side. I am sure gaining attention is part of Hopkins’ reason for tweeting as she does, but why would you want people to think of you in this way? Her skin must be thicker than an elephants. She’ll be back on a channel and tweeting away again soon enough. Or maybe she has learnt a lesson like I did.

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Does your CV contain fake news?

If you’ve ever seen The Apprentice in the final weeks of a series, you will know that ridiculous interview round, where the candidates are ‘grilled’ by associates of Sir Alan Sugar. It’s ridiculous because it’s such an extreme scenario. It’s like when I exercise people in media training and I play a journalist being super grumpy and difficult. I know that in the real world it’s almost certainly never going to be like that. But it’s fun to push those being trained a bit harder. For a TV show it’s certainly very entertaining to do that.

But one of the things that always comes through that interview episode, is that any lies or false claims will be exposed. They are ruthless in checking every statement and previous job. Not all companies will be as forensic but it highlights the key point. Never lie.

Very rarely in my work with clients, helping to improve their CV and applications, do I discover or worry about them lying. In fact, the most common issue with CVs is the opposite; people tend to underplay their experience and do not ‘talk up’ enough what they have done. Recently though I had one example where I felt one part of a CV didn’t ring true. This was a new client (I always ask for the CV to be sent before our first meeting so I can review it) and I had yet to establish exactly what issues they were facing in job applications.

Within 2 minutes of the start of our meeting I asked about this reference on the CV and they straight away admitted it was false. I was more shocked at the relaxed way they confessed it wasn’t true. Why lie? They told me it was just to bolster their qualifications and felt it enhanced their job prospects. Quite the opposite I told them.

Most people recruiting are not stupid and, like me, will notice something like this instantly. Lying on your CV is never a good thing. You are doing far more harm than good. It led me to hold just one meeting with this client and not work with them anymore. 

When I mentor someone I have to trust them and be confident that if I put them forward for work I can rely on them to deliver. In this case that trust had been broken before we even started. Putting false information on your CV will have the same effect on potential employers.

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