Shakespeare, Henry IV part 2, Act 1 Scene 1: Yet the first bringer of unwelcome news hath but a losing office. Pretty eloquent stuff (well what would expect of the Bard?) but basically in modern parlance we’re talking “Don’t shoot the messenger”.  Bad news is often reason enough to feel like pulling the trigger, but just plain bad communicating is just asking for the metaphorical bullet between the eyes.  So how can we try to avoid the bullet?

Rule one in ensuring an effective message is carefully selecting the appropriate words and phrases. Culture, education, gender, language skills, age, even things as nebulous as emotions play a role in the way in which words, phrases and sentences will be perceived, and that’s not even catering for the vast number of words in English which possess differing meanings to different people.  Context and the syntax applicable to that context (the rules of the Queen’s English do not always apply) also have significant effect.

Simplicity is key, and especially in media engagement, where context, culture etc will be a much more amorphous.  The more simple (without losing the essence of the message) the less likely to be misunderstood, cause confusion or, even worse, offend. And this is where your average technocrat, official, reasonably educated guy or gal, often goes astray.  When writing documents, briefing panels, scribbling papers, especially in an official capacity, there is often a mesmerising desire to use distracting, confusing, misleading, obfuscating, imprecise wording (try reading an official document – corporate or public sector – you’ll see what we mean).  Now that’s acceptable (to a degree) on paper, but not in speech.  If the audience is struggling to merely comprehend the wording, any message those words should convey, are going to be lost.  At this stage, the receiver may well, check the magazine for bullets.  So, for simplicity’s sake, what to avoid:

  • Slang, jargon or regional expressions, as they might not be understood by everyone.
  • Abbreviations or acronyms unless well-known.
  • Technical terms unless the audience is fully aware of the topic.
  • Neologism (see point above*)
  • Politically incorrect words (unless of course that is the objective and also remembering the context (some audiences may be receptive)).

Now, in public speaking often we can gauge the crowd and thereby the context, but it’s a little more difficult over the media.  Simplicity here really is key.  And being simple in the explanation of a complex issue is far from simple.  It takes time and preparation and is as far removed from technocratic, business speak as possible.  Some see rapport as a major player in communication, or a common ground between speaker and listener (or viewer).  But when millions are watching or listening, rapport as such doesn’t exist (it may between journalist and interviewee, which can help (if the journalist is respected/liked by the audience)) and the common ground will lie in simplicity and ensuring that as little effort as possible is required of the audience to decode the words and ‘get’ the message (and then hopefully do something with that message).   It’s worthwhile pondering here that giving a presentation is very, very different to giving a media interview – the mechanics of the former, we practice every day when talking with others, the mechanics of the latter (talking to one person, whilst actually trying to engage with thousands, even millions, through that person) are rarely experienced.  Being a good public speaker doesn’t necessarily make media interviews easy – it could even be a hinderance.

* By the way, it means the use of newly coined words or phrases

Keep the ego out of it

As mentioned above, keeping it simple, stupid, isn’t all that simple to do in practice.  And that’s often because of ego.  We all naturally communicate ego-centrically – I’ll say it this way because if I heard it, I’d certainly understand it.  Yeah, well, the message isn’t for you, it’s for your audience.  Public speaking and presenting always involves assessing your audience and servicing their requirements.  Those audiences tend to be smaller and, to a degree, homogenous.  In a media interview, the audience is as heterogenous as they come.  Of course, if you’re really up to the mark, you’ll know exactly what your objective is and who, of that audience, you need to convince or persuade to achieve it.  If not, or you’ve got to carry the vast majority of the entire audience, then the communication, the words, phrases, construct, need to cater for the needs of the entire audience.  And that means decoding your syntax into theirs.  And the more heterogenous the audience is the more neutral that syntax, and those words, are going to be. Note, this is not about being neutral in terms of position or passion but in syntax and style.

So it’s got to be as simple and as neutral as the audience, not the speaker or interviewee, dictates.  Otherwise, the gun’s hammer gets cocked.

But there’s got to be flair

Brilliant – it’s got to simple and neutral, and that’s difficult to do, especially with a complex subject or issue.  Well, we’ve not quite finished.  Simple and neutral is getting there but there’s a hitch – too simple and neutral and the audience will fall asleep, and that’s only assuming the journalist or editor has bothered to air what’s been said and recorded.  Got to have a little flair, a little ‘sizzle’ to it.  If it’s boring, it’s going nowhere – the media will shun it and the audience will ignore it.  Both will go elsewhere for their information.  Of course, credibility matters, but many will be claiming that credibility and the ones who can be credible but interesting with it will win out.  And that’s not just about words but also in the way that their said, both verbally and non-verbally.  If the delivery doesn’t have that something special, fingers will tighten on the trigger.

Words simple, syntax neutral, delivery exciting and all via a third person or filter, the joutnalist/camera – easy!

If it’s bad news, the messenger often gets shot, but by preparing carefully and considering the above, then hopefully the wounds won’t be fatal.