Ever prefaced a statement with, “To be perfectly honest, I …”?
Look out. That’s a verbal crutch—sometimes called a throat-clearing statement—and when speaking to the media it could hurt a spokesperson’s credibility.
, a social media trainer and former chair of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), discovered this phenomenon while assessing the strengths and weaknesses of corporate spokespeople.
To perform the analysis, a journalist interviewed individual spokespeople for 40 minutes, then the journalist and a PR assessor rated their abilities across 12 key skills. Among the areas she examined was whether journalists considered the spokesperson “open and honest.”
“We found there is a very big difference between being
open and honest and seeming
so,” Gibson explained in an email to PR Daily.
She began by analyzing various aspects of spokespeople’s performances to learn why journalists think they’re not truthful when they are, in fact, telling the truth.
“I found that the higher the number of uses of verbal crutches within an interview, the lower the score in this area,” she said. “Then I also realized that those spokespeople [who use] what I identified as ‘honesty-related’ verbal crutches …
almost always had lower scores.”
Four of these “honesty-related” crutches are:
1. “Let's be clear”;
2. “To be perfectly honest”;
4. “Just between you and me.”
Gibson’s research also showed a direct correlation between the “open and honest” score and a journalist’s interest in a long-term relationship with the PR pro.
“Certainly there are a number of other factors that can affect this score,” she said. “But it seems that nothing can overcome the negative impressions made by verbal crutches, so it's worth working to diminish their use.”
Dr. Susan Fletcher
, a practicing psychologist, said that what these four phrases do is induce suspicion.
“These phrases almost act like a ‘highlighter’ or a cue to alert the listener that what you are about to say should be noted,” she explained.
“It's not the actual content or the words in the phrases that are the issue,” Fletcher continued. “The issue is that it takes the listener off track and cues the listener to
be alert and pay attention—this type of cue creates suspicion.”
Speaking of suspicion, not everyone’s on board with these conclusions. Clinical psychologist Dr. Patricia A. Farrell questioned whether these statements truly call into question a person’s honesty.
“Sometimes, when someone needs a few moments to gather their thoughts or to come back with a great sound bite, they will use these utterances to get those precious few minutes,” she explained.
Farrell added: “I don't necessarily see it as crafty obfuscation.”
Gibson said she conducted the research on behalf of clients and not as a formal research project, warning that “without more formal research, controlling for variables, etc., it would not be safe to say that any of those theories have been proven.”
She added, however, that “as a means for developing theories and informing further explorations, it is sound.”