Deep Pitfalls of Using Examples

If AOL President Tim Armstrong had thought in advance how his reference to "distressed babies" could be interpreted, he might have dropped it from his comments at an employee town hall.Specific examples are an important part of storytelling and making a point. But they also can be a trap in waiting.

AOL President Tim Armstrong discovered that painful reality after mentioning the high costs associated with two "distressed babies" as an explanation for why he ordered changes in the company's 401(k) plan. 

The references backfired when Deanna Fei, mother of one of the babies Armstrong referred to, posted a detailed, moving piece on Slate titled, "My Baby and AOL's Bottom Line." Armstrong's reference to "distressed babies" had already travelled the social media trap-lines, with Armstrong the bulls-eye of pointed comments such as, "How many distressed babies does AOL pay this guy?"

The strong response prompted Armstrong to backtrack on his 401(k) plan change, eventually apologize to AOL employees and make personal calls to the two families whose children he cited as $1 million babies.

Fei, an author whose husband works at AOL, told reporters she accepted Armstrong's apology. But, as she said in her Slate article, "the damage to my family had already been done." Not to mention the damage to Armstrong's reputation.

In her article, Fei described the ordeal of her prematurely born daughter and her struggle to survive. "I don't take issue with Armstrong's number. I take issue with how he reduced my daughter to a 'distressed baby' who cost the company too much money. How he blamed the saving of her life for his decision to scale back employee benefits."

When Armstrong prepared his remarks for a company town hall, he probably thought giving an example of rampaging costs would reinforce his point about the need for corporate cost-cutting. Unfortunately, it had the exact opposite effect.

Armstrong would have been wise to test his comments before expressing them in front of employees, who could be expected to take such examples very personally. "I swear I didn't have any babies in 2012," quipped one AOL employee online. "Don't hate me for messing up your 401(k)."

Examples don't give speakers or writers "get out jail free" cards. They can and will be subjected to the same scrutiny as any part of what you say or write. Just like you should weigh the use of inflammatory language, you must make a 360-degree assessment of how well your examples make your point.

You also must consider context. Armstrong's pocketed $12 million in 2012 and his call for cost-cutting came on the same day he announced the best quarterly earnings for AOL in years.

Sometimes it helps to write the lead of a news story and a headline to gauge how your comments might be interpreted. Here is how Fei ended her Slate article"

"Our daughter has already overcome more setbacks than most of us have endured in the span of our lives. Having her very existence used as a scapegoat for cutting corporate benefits was one indignity too many."

If he had thought about it, that should have been enough for Armstrong to dump the reference and make his case without mentioning "distressed babies."

Don't avoid examples. But give serious thought to how they make your point — and whether they can undo your intent.