Perhaps you saw the recent blunder resulting in the hashtag hilarity that was #FoxNewsFacts – in which a terrorism ‘expert’ made outlandish claims and was rewarded with a social media backlash? If you missed it and could do with a good guffaw, it’s worth a Twitter search.
In his broadcast, Steve Emerson of Fox News claimed:
“And in Britain, it’s not just no-go zones, there are actual cities like Birmingham that are totally Muslim where non-Muslims just simply don’t go in. And parts of London, there are actually Muslim religious police that actually beat and actually wound seriously anyone who doesn’t dress according to Muslim, religious Muslim attire.”
Initially, I’d only seen that part of the transcript so I hadn’t grasped the full scale of his exaggeration. Even so, my immediate response was “Perhaps, when someone uses ‘actually’ too much, the alarm bells should sound. Loudly.”
But then, I knew his claims weren’t true.
What IS believable?
Leaving aside the serious journalistic/broadcasting issue behind the furore and fun, how much does such language influence us day-to-day?
I remember being disappointed when I overheard a senior manager, on being charmed by an interview candidate, saying “All those adverbs…such enthusiasm makes up for experience!” when I’d seen that some of the CVs were from experienced candidates of the calibre we needed. When it came to exploring aptitude in the second interview, though, the candidate didn’t meet the basic requirements.
In this case, initial impressions on one person were positive – but the candidate couldn’t make the grade in the long run. But it’s not just when we’re on the receiving end that we (consciously or subconsciously) might benefit from being more aware of our language. We all have moments where we want to emphasise a point – it’s a question of effectiveness.
Do we believe people more when they add the extra wordage? Or is it counter-productive?
There’s adding value and there’s going overboard. Marketers, wordsmiths, speechwriters and comedians try to make each word count. A writers’ rule of thumb is to edit out ‘ly’ ending words to no more than 1 in 300 using vocabulary that ‘speaks for itself.’
Likewise, in using adjectives such as ‘real’, ‘actual’ and ‘serious’ are we doing the same?
And what about those who just say it how it is – perhaps they deserve more of our attention?
Powerful words are simple.
How might we curb our language to secure our credibility?
One thing which perhaps only becomes obvious when you read the transcript – was Mr Emerson’s repetitive language, which just heightened the impression of over-excited hype.
Here are some suggestions:
1. Choosing impactful verbs
e.g. ‘He shouted’ rather than ‘He said loudly.’
2. Using shorter sentences
Notice how Mr Emerson says “There are…” as opposed to making the statement “In Birmingham …” Likewise an example would be “Her presentation was delivered professionally and she did fantastically” versus “She delivered a fantastic, professional presentation.” Brevity cuts out unnecessary wordage.
3. Repeating with restraint
Repetition has its place (‘education, education, education’), but repeating the point too many times can smack of trying too hard, or (in the worst cases) hysteria. We’re better off making our point with clarity and assurance. And then moving on. If the situation allows, we can repeat it in our summing-up.
4. Staying balanced
Acknowledging an objective alternative perspective can strengthen, rather than undermine, our point – particularly when we can cite a credible benchmark study or quote reliable statistics. Being informed says, ‘don’t just take my word for it’.
5. Approaching superlatives with caution
We might be convinced that we’re making the best, most fascinating and extraordinary observation ever. But (unless we’re writing advertising headlines, and even then, it requires kid gloves) if we want to convince our audience, we can let facts speak for themselves. By sticking with the simple facts, our vital points will be clearer, our arguments stronger; and we’re less likely to look foolish if there’s a disagreement, or if we turn out to be wrong.
To appear confident and competent, and to notice when something may not be what it seems, perhaps it pays to make small language adjustments?And we’ll let the Mr Emersons of the world provoke our laughter and entertain us with far-out claims.