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My media habits: ‘Other people can contaminate my original voice’ – MC & speaker Simone Heng

In an interview with Mumbrella's Dean Carroll, keynote speaker and MC Simone Heng says she believes that people remain the best recommendation engines and asking them about their media habits is a great way to start useful conversations

What are your must-read news sources you can’t live without on a daily basis, and why are those particular media titles so important to you?

“I actually am very, very bad. I use social media mostly to inform me about news. But I’m also a voracious reader and podcast ingester. So I do read Coconuts, CNA and The Mothership for really local news. CNN on the TV for world news.”

In terms of news consumption – do you prefer, print, television, radio, websites, newsletters, social networks, blogs, apps or something else entirely? 

“I mostly consume my news in transit via my mobile phone. I follow Straits Times on Instagram and if something of interest pops up, it then leads to me searching for the full story online. That’s normally how I get my breaking news.

“Sometimes I just hit ‘News’ on Google to find out what’s going on. Social media acts a big signifier for me as to what the massive stories are, and which are relevant to my work. I speak on human connection and so I am always interested in stories that resonate with people and why these stories are being shared. I don’t look to print, television or radio at all. Unless I am in a taxi and radio is on.”

Do you prefer long-form or short-form content?

 “I feel the only time I listen to anything long form is a podcast, everything else has been shaved and honed into small nuggets. This is sad but it’s interesting to me as someone who conducts media training. It’s something that we have to accept and grow with. It’s always interesting to gauge the changing shape of news and media.

“I subscribe to a few podcasts. My favourite is by Catt Sadler, the former E News presenter in the US. It is called ‘Naked’ and it features some incredible female guests like Jennifer Lawrence and encourages them to be vulnerable. The other podcast I love is ‘Hello Monday’ by LinkedIn and it’s about the changing future of work. It really helps to keep me abreast of trends which then help me to formulate content for my own LinkedIn.”

Can you name your favourite journalist and set out what makes them great? 

“In 2007, I was at a real intersection in my career – between modelling and freelance TV hosting, looking for an example of what sort of media person I would aspire to be. The only person that I could see myself in was Ann Curry. I was in Australia and at this point the media landscape was so white. “So for me, just to see myself represented made her great. Obviously, 12 years later, the landscape has changed, and it’s much more diverse but you can imagine for a 23 year-old girl back then, that was pretty important. That’s never left me, strangely and sadly for Ann Curry, there was a very abrupt demise to her career but nevertheless, I’ve never forgotten her.”

What piece of journalism has changed the game in recent times, in your view? 

“The stand out thing for me as someone who was a practitioner in local Singaporean media, looking at websites like the Mothership and Coconuts, these have really disrupted the monopoly of media. You now have these independent voices being very listened to and having a lot of influence. They add value for me as someone who has always been in mass, popular media.”

Are there any titles you have paid subscriptions to? 

“I have thought about subscribing to the Telegraph UK. They’re a really great source and very good feature articles but I just get too annoyed to do it. I know that they’re worth it. The journalists are worth it. I read the teasers of the articles but I just haven’t got around to pay. My subscription money goes to Spotify and Netflix and HBO on the Go and all these things. So yes, maybe I should.”

In terms of films and shows, is your preference for terrestrial television or streaming platforms like Netflix? 

“I don’t consume any terrestrial television. I do consume quite a lot of YouTube for lifestyle content. I watch a lot of TV and then I started paying for streaming platforms like Netflix and HBO a year ago. And they are basically the two that I bounce back and forth between, but to be honest I’m consuming an increasingly huge amount of audio content. Since leaving radio, I think there’s something about missing audio stimulus when you’ve had it full time for 12 years. So Spotify is where I go and place my money.” 

Are recommendation engines a good thing or do they cancel out the joy of serendipity in terms of discovering fresh content not aligned with your previous preferences? 

“I have a few friends who use recommendation engines. I don’t, because I seem to be inspired to look at new content by everyday interactions in real life. I will be curious and then I will research. I constantly have notes open on my phone or books I must read that come up in conversation.

“I get sent content directly from people and I barely get enough time to go through those things. As I mentioned, my keynote speaking topic is human connection. And so, I believe in asking people about their preferences in terms of music, news, film, television and art. It’s is a great way to actually connect with people you’ve never met before. So if I start using a recommendation engine I feel it’s going to take another element out of my life with which I can use to converse with people.

What was the best film you saw of late – and can you describe why it made an impression on you

“I just saw the new Brad Pitt movie “Ad Astra” and It made an impression because I realised a couple of things. Firstly the whole movie was about human connection. How much we need it and how someone might travel to the ends of the earth and beyond for it. The second thing I realised was that so much money is being poured into massive movies.

“I think there’s something we’ve always known but when I see a movie that I know visually has a massive budget but doesn’t leave me feeling emotionally moved when I step out of the cinema. I actually think “We could use that money to build some schools” all over the third world. 

“The second film I have seen that blew me away was “Hustlers” because I am obsessed with Jennifer Lopez. Her screen energy in that movie completely takes over. I am rooting for her to win the best supporting actress at the Oscars.”

And what shows do you consider to be event TV, those programmes you just have to watch and can’t contemplate missing? 

“The last two shows that I felt were event TV were ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and ‘Big Little Lies’. ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ because I absolutely love Elisabeth Moss and she’s an incredible actress. Even though the show is quite dark. I also feel Elisabeth Moss being a lead female character is just subversive on its own because she doesn’t conform to Hollywood’s standards of beauty and I feel like she’s such a badass.

“‘Big Little Lies’ features Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon which are reason enough but watching Meryl Streep in that last season was just masterful. Incredible actresses. I watched the entire series on the edge of my seat. It is actually written by an Australian author. So I found that interesting to see how an Australian book was made for an American TV audience in America.” 

In terms of devices, how do you access content most often – on mobile, desktop, tablet, laptop or television? 

“Desktop for Netflix and HBO. Mobile for podcasts, YouTube, socials and news.”

How damaging is piracy and illegal downloads when it comes to the media and entertainment space?

“I think it’s extremely disruptive to the entertainment industry. I often interview artists about how hard it is now as a musician to make money because of the internet. On the one hand, people can access your music much more easily but it also becomes so easy for illegal downloading to happen. So I think that it’s damaging but at the same time people get exposure to music that they would never have otherwise heard because of the Internet. It’s a double-edged sword. But it is definitely compromising on profits.”

And moving on, what’s been your favourite book in recent times? 

“This is my favourite question. I read so much. I’ve also got a paid subscription to Blinklist which summarises the most popular books on the market via an audio app. The last book that shook my world was ‘Louder than Words’ by Todd Henry and it’s all about finding your authentic voice. If you’re a creative (he comes from a media advertising background) there is so much in there about refining your content to resonate with your authentic self . Great tips too for how to cope in a creative organisation where you need to comply to someone else’s agenda and schedule. 

“The other book I’m reading right now is “Daring Greatly” by Brene Brown and it’s all about trust and vulnerability. But what was really resonant for me, was when I was working in the TV world years ago, I would try and break apart and examine why certain presenters (because I was a presenter myself) connected better with the audience and what made people more endearing and likeable. I believe, connecting the dots now all these years later, that vulnerability really was the key.” 

So Kindle or hard copy

“Hard copy. I love to highlight and annotate. I even have friction pens that can rub out an add in text. I’m all about the hard copy.”

And now to music. How do you buy and consume music? 

“I’m a Spotify person. I used to actually watch a lot of videos on YouTube because I am very visual but now am all about Spotify.”

Which musical artists appeal to your tastes right now?

Galantis

“It’s funny. I’m all about music that makes me feel joyful and motivated. So I’m a massive fan of Kygo. I love Galantis. I often will listen to those two artists before I get onstage to do a speech for the energy. I’ll listen to Ed Sheeran when I get off stage to bring me down a notch.” 

Social networks: Hero or villain when it comes to giving you access to content? 

“This is a big question. I feel for a while my Facebook was just routing me the same content because of the algorithm. The same news that every one in my friend circle was talking about. It was like breathing stale air. I believed that Facebook was making my world smaller and didn’t like that. So I removed the app from my phone and instead, now I spend a lot more time on LinkedIn because the algorithm is different and exposes me to more diverse views. 

“I am a little different in how I use social media also because I publish content that I’ve worked on, but try not to browse. I have an aggregate idea of what people around me are creating but not a specific idea. I don’t even watch other peoples’ instastories because I feel that looking at a lot of other peoples’ content can contaminate the evolution of my original voice. I would rather look at thought leaders, people I believe who are masters, whose books I can read to give me inspiration for content. So I think that’s something you have to work out for yourself. 

“Is social media my hero? Yes , It can be if you make good choices. It is also the villain if you’re using it to compare and steal your joy.”

And are social networks like Facebook and Twitter actually media companies these days in your view, even though that is something they deny – perhaps to avoid further regulation? 

“I absolutely think Facebook is turning itself into a media company. If you look at Jada Pinkett Smith’s or Huda Kattan’s series that have been commissioned on Facebook, you know they’re trying to be a media company. Also Facebook owns Instagram. IGTV can go for, I think up to 60 minutes for larger accounts – that tells me they absolutely are trying to monopolise our eyeballs and are building themselves into media companies.

“Now that I’m no longer working for a traditional media outlet, I try and spend a similar amount of time creating content for LinkedIn, Instagram and Facebook. These are the new platforms that my business as a speaker will live or die by.” 

In the digital world, algorithms rather than humans are the media gatekeepers. Do you miss the old days when the likes of journalists, critics and broadcasters played that qualitative role, or have we simply evolved to a better quantitative system?

“We have evolved to a better quantitative system. And that is because, from a talent point of view, I love that there are now people who are left of centre, who don’t represent somebody else’s idea of beauty or worthiness. They are given the opportunity to contribute their creative ideas into the world. It is the individual’s responsibility to exercise good choices in terms of where you put your eyeballs and onto what content. If you use media wisely, in that way, this absolutely is a better quantitative system.” 

Finally, what does the future hold for the media space in your view – will artificial intelligence and virtual personal assistants take over to the point where we just trust the machines to tell us what we want to consume, in terms of news and entertainment? 

“The algorithms are going to get more and more scary in terms of pushing ads to us and things like that. I don’t think we should ever trust the machines fully. I think we need to be very careful with our brain space and our time and I know this has been said a thousand times. I do speeches and young people come up to me afterwards and say ‘Simone, but how do you do it?’

“A big part of it is that I’m a Xennial. So I had a analogue childhood and a digital adulthood, which means I remember the times when mind was not invaded by digital media and because of that I’ve got measures to control my attention. Those barriers need to be placed on the younger generation so that they have some sort of safety barrier between them (because they do trust) and the media that’s being pushed to them. Because I think that what we consume absolutely shapes us.”

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