explanations

Affirmations First, Then Explanations

Ohio officials, including the governor, faced a crisis over safe water in Toledo. Direct, plainspoken affirmations would have helped reassure a wary public.

Ohio officials, including the governor, faced a crisis over safe water in Toledo. Direct, plainspoken affirmations would have helped reassure a wary public.

Affirmations work better than explanations in crisis situations. Affected audiences want to hear that you have fixed the problem, not necessarily how.

For knowledgeable people, this can be a challenge. Their instinct is to explain the cause of the problem and explain the solution. Those details are important, but in a real-time environment they serve best as secondary messages, not primary ones. People want reassurance you are on top of the problem. That requires declarative language, not jargon.

For example: "We deeply regret the incident, but we are fixing it and will take steps to prevent it from ever happening again. We also will make things right with those who have been impacted."

Simple words, but a powerful message that conveys the key elements of an effective crisis response – remorse, resolve, reform and restitution. Just as important, it qualifies as a sound bite with a chance to be seen on TV, heard on radio or viewed in a newspaper or online.

Following a strong, assertive statement, you can fill in the details – in priority order. In some crises, the priority is to make things right with those affected, such as airline passengers stranded on a runway for hours. In other cases, the priority may be on describing the fix.

The same rule applies to details – use direct, plainspoken language. If you are describing safe drinking water from the Willamette River, paint a picture of what happens. "We know how to treat water to make it safe to drink. We test water from any source coming into the treatment plant so we know what we have to treat. Then we test the water before it leaves the treatment plant to make sure we made it safe to drink."

That may seem sparse to technical ears, but it is train of events that average people can grasp. And it mentions "safe to drink"  – a bottomline message – twice in just 50 words.

The point of an interview is to get your point across to viewers or readers. Like any interaction, you have to be mindful of what audience will tolerate and be willing to absorb. In a crisis, people want to hear some empathy and hear about some action. The English language contains a lot of words. For this purpose, simpler ones are most appropriate.

If you want to be understood, skip the explain and stick with the affirmation.

Explanations Versus Impressions

Entertainer Ben Vereen saw his career screech to a halt when his attempt at a teachable moment turned into an indelibly bad impression.

Entertainer Ben Vereen saw his career screech to a halt when his attempt at a teachable moment turned into an indelibly bad impression.

Ben Vereen went from one of the hottest entertainers in America to someone who couldn't get his calls returned, even from friends, after making an unintended bad impression in a high-profile setting. What happened to Vereen is a classic case of how an impression outshines an explanation.

Vereen was asked to perform at Ronald Reagan's 1981 inaugural celebration. He chose to pay homage to popular black minstrel star Bert Williams. Vereen performed in black face, as Williams was forced to do when he entertained white audiences.

The response to Vereen's act in blackface was instantaneous and overwhelmingly negative. One critic called him a "disgrace to his race." Vereen's attempts to explain his teachable moment fell on deaf ears. People only remembered what they saw, not what he said.

While what you say is important, it is equally important to anticipate how people will hear or see it. If Vereen had anticipated the reaction, which in light of the times and the occasion should not have been unexpected, he might have adapted his performance. Vereen might have entertained as Williams would have, then ended with a provocative note that Williams was forced to perform the same act in blackface. That would have left a strong impression, requiring little explanation.

We live in a world where the impression you make is a key to whether anyone will pay attention to your explanation. Trying to explain your way through a tough issue is a lot like bringing a spatula to a gun fight.

Issue managers need to suppress the urge to explain and focus on how to impress. Believing that "if people could just hear the facts, we'd do fine" is regrettably a dangerous fallacy, especially when you are dueling with opponents who color across the lines when they give the "facts."

There is nothing unprincipled about stating your case accurately, fairly and with some oomph. Marketers follow this principle because they know people can only absorb so much information, so you need to claim a toehold of their mind with an indelible impression.

With a toehold in your audience's brain, you create the opportunity to provide some explanation. Without that toehold, your explanations have little chance to penetrate, let alone influence.