Often, we as public relations (PR) professionals engage in training our spokesperson(s) on how to deal with media, sensitising them about do’s and don’ts and how to convey the message effectively with full command and control.
Based on some experiences and tips learnt from seniors and experts, this article of mine is an attempt to look at some examples of phrases that annoy journalists and audiences and of corporate jargon, which has become all too commonplace in media interviews.
So, here is a list of the words and phrases our spokespeople need to stop using:
Root and branch: Every time something goes wrong, particularly in the public sector, a spokesperson comes forward to promise a “root and branch” review. It is usually followed up with a little tinkering around the edges. Leave the root and branch stuff to tree surgeons—”thorough” and “comprehensive” are better alternatives for everyone else.
With all due respect: A phrase used by spokespeople to try to show they think the journalist has asked the wrong question, when actually that question has made them uncomfortable and they don’t want to answer it. Also heard in studio debates between spokespeople of opposing views. Here, it loosely translates as “I think your view is stupid.”
Humbled: The problem with “humbled” is that while it has become increasingly popular, almost everyone is misusing it. Type “I am humbled” into Google and you will find an almost endless source of stories with spokespeople revealing they are “humbled.” But they don’t actually mean it. What they really mean to say is that they are “honoured.” Take a recent example of a young cricketer! Just this week, he told the media he was “humbled” about his selection to the Indian cricket team, which really means he felt embarrassed and defeated—surely not the emotions he was trying to convey.
Saddened: Something we are hearing more of when spokespeople are asked to give their views on something bad which has happened. But it sounds contrived and lacks sincerity as it is not a word people use in conversation when they are told about something going wrong.
Deep dive, drill down, granular: Should be avoided at any cost. Typical management speak. Try “take a detailed look” instead.
To be clear: A new favourite of politicians who use it to start a response where they plan to completely ignore the reporter’s question or provide a totally ambiguous answer. Or both. All answers in a media interview should be clear.
Guarantee: This seems relatively harmless. But it can leave organisation’s a hostage to fortune, particularly if they are dealing with a crisis. Can you really guarantee the same thing will not happen again? You should only really talk about guarantees if they are a legally binding contract.
Traction: Unless you are in farming, tyre manufacturing or the medical world you don’t need to be talking about traction. “Progress,” “growth,” “achievement,” and “momentum” all better convey progress being made towards a desired goal.
Honestly: You might think this is a good word. It is certainly a good trait. But using it in media interviews creates a needless air of suspicion, as if a spokesperson is not being quite as honest as they should be.
Myriad: Using this word doesn’t make spokespeople sound clever. It just ensures messages sound scripted and rehearsed. “Many” or “countless” are much more conversational alternatives.
Thanks for having me on the show/programme: A boring start to an interview. Broadcast interviews are generally very short and dull exchanges like this eat into the precious time you have to get your messages across. A short and sweet “it’s a pleasure to be here” sounds much better.
Our/my message is: A sure-fire way to make responses sound rehearsed. Try “if there’s one thing I’d like people to remember it’s…”
Reach out: Unless you are a member of a security service provider, there is absolutely no reason to utter the phrase “reach out.” It is an example of the horrible boardroom language which all too often finds its way into media interviews. Fortunately, the English language offers better alternatives, such as “contact” and “appeal.”
That’s a great question/I’m glad you asked me that: If used sparingly, these phrases can be an effective way for spokespeople to buy themselves a little thinking time before responding to a difficult question. But when used repeatedly this can become a distraction and irritate audiences. It can also sound like brown-nosing.
As I said earlier: A phrase which tells the journalist and the audience that the spokesperson is getting rattled. It is likely to see the reporter continue with that line of questioning.
Deeply concerned: A favourite phrase of some of our politicians and celebs who use it in many, many statements and interviews. The wider problem here is that the phrase has become a generic, automatic response when things go wrong and people and organisations need to show they care. Such is its overuse that when audiences hear it they question whether the organisation really does care or is indeed even particularly interested in what they are talking about.
Our thoughts are with: Very similar to “deeply concerned.” It lacks sincerity and compassion and sounds like a hollow gesture.
We’re not here to discuss that: A phrase which makes spokespeople sound defensive and uncomfortable. You would typically hear this at the end of an interview when broader topics may be brought into the conversation. Use media training techniques like bridging to stay in control and avoid this phrase.
We are sorry if: The original non-apology apology. It suggests the spokesperson and their organisation do not believe they have done anything wrong and that anyone who is upset or frustrated is being oversensitive.
Holistic: Classic impenetrable jargon. A sure-fire way to ensure your audience will switch off. “Comprehensive” and “complete” offer meaningful alternatives.
Ground-breaking: A boastful phrase which is overused and often to describe something which is not ground-breaking at all. Stay clear unless you are a spokesperson for a mining company. Game-changing and revolutionary should similarly be avoided.
I’m not sure, but I would guess: A phrase that sees spokespeople step into the risky realm of speculation. A media interview is no place for guessing.
We put the customer at the centre of everything we do: This all sounds very nice, but it is pretty vague and meaningless. A better approach is to provide some examples which show the extra lengths you go to for your customers. “Show, don’t tell.”
Excited/passionate: We’ve all heard interviews where the spokesperson rambles on about how “excited” or “passionate” they are to be talking about their particular subject. The problem is no-one cares about their excitement level. People just want to know what the announcement means for people like themselves. It can also make interviews sound horribly contrived—particularly if they are discussing something rather dull.
Engage with/engagement: Another phrase which features rarely in everyday conversation yet has become a feature of media interviews. Instead of telling us you are going to “engage your customers,” tell us what you are actually doing. “Talking to people” may not sound quite so fancy, but the audience will have a much clearer idea of what you are doing.
Disruptive: Another word which has sadly become commonplace in interviews, yet few people really know what it means. Even in the world of tech it has become little more than an empty buzzword.
Robust: Surely one of the most currently overused words. Everything it seems now has to be “robust.” This once good word now drives audiences to distraction and ensures messages lose their impact.
At the end of the day: An unnecessary verbal crutch which adds nothing to the interview and wastes valuable time. Cut it out and get to your messages earlier.
I think: A phrase which is used constantly in everyday conversation. But in a media interview it creates an unnecessary element of uncertainty. Avoiding the phrase makes spokespeople sound more authoritative.
Touch points: Yet more boardroom guff which creeps into media interviews. It also sounds a little creepy. Spokespeople need to avoid and instead tell the audience what they actually mean.
You know, look, well, so: The new errs and umms. These words have been cropping up in interviews all over the place. Spokespeople use them at the start of responses to buy themselves a little thinking time. But it sounds unnatural and is horribly distracting. Errs and umms are preferable and sound much more natural.
No comment: A short phrase which is loaded with meaning. In fact, it is hard to think of two more damaging words which a spokesperson could utter in a media interview. It suggests the spokesperson has something to hide and surrenders control of the interview.