I Think Maybe Media Spokespersons Might Hedge Too Much

An exasperated President Harry Truman once quipped, “Give me a one-handed economist. All my economists say, ‘on the one hand, on the other.’ ”

Like Truman’s economists, too many media spokespersons hedge their statements, burying important information in the tentative language of uncertainty. That prompted one of this blog’s readers to write in with this question:

“When economists and lawyers speak, everything is hedged and expressed with uncertainty (probably some layover from writing academic work)…Does today’s ‘fact checking’ blogosphere world cause some spokespersons to include too many details and hedges?”

In a word, yes. They’re afraid not only of online fact checkers who might point out inaccuracies, but also of their colleagues, who might castigate them for presenting an incomplete argument. Plus, they worry that incorrect statements can be used against them in future media stories.
Businesswoman gestures confusion
To be sure, those are valid concerns. But spokespersons use more hedges than they need, unnecessarily reducing the impact of their communication. Worse, they may not make the cut at all; reporters are much more likely to drop sources from the story if they can’t express a clear point-of-view without relying on hedged words.

Here’s a tip to help you eliminate unnecessary tentative language: focus on the parts of your story that are 100 percent true. Three examples of statements using absolute language are below – I’ve bolded the declarative words:

  • You may not be able to say that a new drug will work, but you can say it’s the most promising new  drug you’ve seen in your career.
  • You may not be able to say that your company has never had a safety violation, but you can say you’ve never had a major incident at your plant.
  • You may not be able to say that your nonprofit’s fundraising drive will solve the problem, but you can say that more people in your community have volunteered to help than ever before.

The next time you find yourself using words such as, “maybe,” “might,” “I think,” or “we believe,” ask yourself whether you can find absolute language somewhere else in your story.

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