Are you a spokesperson-bot?
When Theresa May was christened “the Maybot” by a Guardian columnist in 2016, the name stuck. By speaking in anti-soundbites like “Brexit means Brexit” and “I’m focusing on delivering article 50” the Prime Minister failed to convey any meaning, allowing (forcing?) others to come up with their own interpretation. An absence of clear messaging usually backfires. Spokespeople who spout incomprehensible slogans, talk in clichés and use jargon, inevitably alienate, irritate and mystify the audiences they are trying to reach.
A strange transformation can take place in untrained, under-prepared or nervous spokespeople when faced with a microphone or camera. Previously normal people morph into spokesperson-bots. They suddenly want to “engage with stakeholders”. They speak about their organisation’s plans “going forward”. They regret that “an unfortunate incident has occurred”. Good communicators, who can really reach their audiences and speak like one of them always avoid police-speak – the classic “a suspect was seen proceeding in a northerly direction, acting suspiciously.” What the reader, listener or viewer really needs to hear is “witnesses saw a man/woman walking towards the high street and who was behaving strangely”.
Journalist-led media training is the most effective way of stress-testing key messages and helping spokespeople identify and strip away jargon, management-speak, technical language and press release phraseology. Under pressure, it can be really difficult (especially for experts who know a huge amount about their field, or senior executives who are used to communicating primarily with internal audiences) to make sense and sound human. Journalists are story-telling experts capable of getting and holding the attention of their audience, so learning how to manage the stress of a difficult interview and how to steer its direction from an experienced journalist media trainer really can help prevent a spokesperson retreat into management speak and end up sounding like a press release.
Want to avoid being a spokesperson-bot? Here are some top tips for natural, convincing, credible communication:
- Test your key messages on an intelligent teen. If they don’t get it, the chances are no-one else will either
- Find alternatives to clichés such as “our hearts go out” and “safety is our number one priority”
- Compile your own jargon glossary, for example:
INSTEAD OF: engage with stakeholders SAY: talk to customers/partners/staff
INSTEAD OF: going forward SAY: in the future
INSTEAD OF: earning capacity SAY: how much they can earn
Bridgid Nzekwu is Director of Media Training at TNR, part of the Press Association. She coaches spokespeople in business, politics and the public sector in media interview and public speaking skills and trains comms teams in media handling. Bridgid is a former Channel 4 News presenter and reporter and is a freelance anchor for ITV News.
Follow Bridgid on Twitter @BridgidNzekwu