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The Emperor’s New Speak:
How embarrassing when your messages unravel

By Steve Bennett

When it comes to clothing, most people can’t resist tugging on a loose thread, even though they know that the action might lead to a sartorial disaster. When it comes to corporate messages, however, most companies are loath to tug on a loose thread (a shaky idea) for fear that their nice tight beliefs might come undone. After all, it took two months to get everyone on board - no way they’re going to go backwards now. So it’s: "Damn the loose threads - full spokespeak ahead!"

Not so fast admirals. You won’t be doing your spokespeople any great favours by sending them on the road with flimsy messages that can be easily teased apart. Here are some of the loose threads that can leave your spokespeople standing naked when their messages unravel at the hands of journalists, editors, and industry analysts.

A hidden "if" clause. The message is true or plausible if the listener thinks about it in a certain way, as in "we really do dominate out market space if you exclude the B and C segment." A sure sign that you’re dealing with an "if" clause is that a champion of the message (usually the person who thought of it) vehemently insists that those members of your team who don’t "get it" aren’t looking at the message from the "right" perspective. The problem is that journalists and analysts don’t operate on the old fast food principle, "have it your way." It’s their way or no way.

A flaky assertion. It’s remarkable how many companies send their spokespeople on press tours with patently hollow claims of "first mover" or "thought leader" [yuk!] status, and the like. The claims are hollow because they aren’t accompanied by supporting data or third party validation. If you can legitimately lay claim to market leadership, then tout it ("According to the XYZ Research Group, we own 46 percent of the market…"). But if the message is essentially happy hour fluff designed to make people feel good about working 90 hours a week, it’s likely to end up a pile of threads.

Wishful thinking. "We want to be the leader in our field." Whoopie - which of your competitors doesn’t!? "We hope to generate significant revenues from our new solution." Aristotle concluded, "hope is a waking dream." Unfortunately, few journalists and analysts are interested in what you dream of doing; they want to know what you’ve actually accomplished while you’re wide awake in the here and now.

Future pretense. This is a close relative of the "wishful thinking" thread. It goes like this: "We’re planning to launch a major incentive program for our VARs and other channel partners." Or "We’re going to be creating a new customer satisfaction program in the near future." The common element here is the tense - the future tense. Tug on the future tense and … look ma, no program! At least not yet. Don’t tout major programs or initiatives that don’t exist today; you’ll very likely regret it tomorrow.

Stale stuff. "We offer an award-winning solution." Awarded by whom? Well, the assertion used to be true - last year. This is akin to a restaurant’s displaying a yellowing "Best of…" award from ten years ago. The question of course, is: "what’s the rating this year?"

Tug on any of these loose threads, and the message ceases to be so appealing; the bare truth is that the message is not really valid or useful at all. That’s why it’s prudent to test your messages for loose threads in the privacy of your own conference room before making a public showing. When you do find one, it’s not necessarily time to scrap the fabric; finding and yanking on loose threads is a healthy exercise that can lead to a strong and elegant message that any spokesperson would feel good about displaying in public.

Steve Bennett is a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based media trainer who specializes in helping spokespeople of high-technology companies deliver effective strategic messages to: the trade, business, and consumer media; analysts; stakeholders; and the public. An active journalist in the computer field, Steve is also a sought-after freelance spokesperson by major corporations. You can reach him at or by calling 617-492-0442, or at

See also:

How the Media Can Be Positive For Your Business
HotLink Resource Shelf - #30 - Review of Media Relations by Allan Bonner