Choosing the Right Words

The crash of two Boeing 737 Max aeroplanes, in Indonesia and then in Ethiopia, is clearly a major story and a crisis for the aircraft manufacturer. So, they were careful to consider the right time to make a public statement. Sadly, the choice of words that Beoing’s CEO Dennis Muilenburg used in his first TV interview were not so carefully chosen.

At the end of May, I was listening to Radio 4’s 0530 News Briefing when I first heard a clip from the TV interview and the words he used certainly woke me up. He apologised, which is good, but he apologised “for the impact”. A very poor choice of words, which made me think in visceral detail of the crashes. If those words had that effect on me, who is an interested bystander, I can only imagine how distressing they would be to people more closely connected to the crashes.

Words have power and should be chosen carefully, to make sure the effect they have is the effect you want them to have.

This is why, in media training, we talk about planning your key messages ahead of time. If your answers are interesting – and after one of our courses they will be – a journalist will often ask a follow-up question. This is why we test the messages ahead of time. If the example you’ve given triggers a follow up that takes you in a direction you don’t like, then that’s an example that needs to be ditched in favour of something better.

You can’t expect to do this on the hoof. We use realistic camera equipment and make the mock interviews on our courses feel very real. Afterwards delegates tell us that the adrenaline was pumping. In that environment, construction of an answer is nigh on impossible, so it’s much better to recall what you planned to say, rather than build it in front of the reporter. It’ll still be authentic, because it’s still what you decided to say. You just made the decision a few minutes ago, when you could healthcheck it with the help of your comms team (because you’re not on your own when you agree to an interview).

Resist the ‘magic bullet’ answer that pops into your head on the hoof. You won’t have healthchecked the likely follow up questions and, if you’re anything like me, you’ll be so pleased with yourself for coming up with something under pressure (anything!) that you won’t properly question whether it’s any good. And when you hear the terrible follow up question, only then will you know it wasn’t.