An exasperated President Harry Truman once quipped: “Give me a one-handed economist. All my economists say, ‘On the one hand, on the other!’”
Like Truman’s economists, too many media spokespersons hedge their statements with weak words, burying important content in the language of uncertainty.
For example, consider the contrast between these two quotes:
Version 1: “We think there are a lot of important charities that people can contribute to, but we hope that people will give to ours, since we believe we are providing an important service for Cincinnati’s homeless population.”
Version 2: “Cincinnati’s homeless have fewer shelters available to them than at any other time in the past 30 years, and we’re asking all local residents to make a donation immediately to make sure our city’s homeless have the warm shelter and food they need to survive this cold winter.”
The first version fails because it is dominated by the language of uncertainty—“we think,” “we hope,” and “we believe.” Quote two, on the other hand, uses strong phrases and words such as, “at any other time,” “immediately,” and “need.”
Spokespersons working in technical fields are notorious for their never-ending use of hedged language. Afraid to say anything definitive, they water down their messages into a tentative mush that ends up saying nothing at all.
In fairness, their concerns are real. Scientists, economists, and policy analysts worry about the implications of being inaccurate in their media statements—and they know they’ll receive a disapproving look from their colleagues if they leave out a critical detail. Plus, they worry that incorrect statements could be used against them in future media stories.
But spokespersons waffle more than they need to, unnecessarily reducing the impact of their communication. Their hedging may even cost them their chance to be included in news stories at all, because journalists are inclined to drop sources who won’t express a clear viewpoint.
To eliminate unnecessary tentative language, focus on the parts of your story that are
100 percent true. Three examples of absolute language follow; I’ve bolded the declarative words:
1. You might not be able to say that a new drug will work, but you could say it’s the most promising new drug you’ve seen in your career.
2. You might not be able to say that your company has never had a safety violation, but you could say you’ve never had a major incident at your plant.
3. You might not be able to say that your nonprofit’s fundraising drive will solve the problem, but you could say that more people in your community have volunteered to help than ever before.
Here are a few weak phrases and their stronger counterparts:
“Here’s what we’re committed to.”
“Here’s what we know.”
“It’s clear that.”
“We are doing.”
“The evidence tells us.”
This is an excerpt from the new book The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview by Brad Phillips. He blogs at Mr. Media Training.