“So terrified was he [my eldest brother] of being caught, by chance, in a false statement, that as a small boy he acquired the habit of adding ‘perhaps’ to everything he said. ‘Is that you Harry?’ Mama might call from the drawing-room. ‘Yes, Mama - perhaps.’ ‘Are you going upstairs?’ ‘Yes, perhaps.’”
The above is a quote from Eleanor Farjeon’s ‘A Nursery in the Nineties’ – an excerpt included in ‘The Uses of Argument’, by Stephen Toulmin. He used the term “non-committal façons de parler” in his book and that term stuck with me through the years.
It usually bubbles up in my head when revising long-winded texts which are poor in content and rich on ambiguity, vagueness, jargon and euphemisms. Or I stumble across these when observing how organisations communicate when in a crisis. Traditionally, these non-committal ways of speaking were also common in CSR communications, populated by expressions like “we strive towards”, “we provide appropriate compensation for”, “we organise relevant training in”. Admittedly CSR communications has become much more concrete and effective (and creative!) in the past years, I believe. Possibly, companies issuing these reports were confronted with follow up questions like “striving is not really achieving, is it?”, “how do you define ‘appropriate’ or ‘relevant’?”.
Seeing through these expressions and prompting the company to dare to speak in a concrete and truthful manner is one of those many situations where the communications manager needs to show assertiveness. The credibility of the message is weak, long texts with little content claim the reader’s time and patience and creates suspicion, rather than instilling trust.
Incidentally, it is one of the many times in the job I really appreciate my background as a journalist, writing economically and killing a lot of darlings in the process.
In 2010 I did a study on how finance journalists reacted to typical imagery and wording of CSR reports and, not surprisingly, euphemistic expressions were seen as a strategy to avoid full disclosure and certain pictures were thought to be staged due to their glossy feeling. Conversely, they were much happier to read quantifiable information and specific descriptions of these companies’ CSR work.
The respondents in my study were allergic to the used ‘non-committal ways of speaking’ which resemble the story of the boy adding ‘perhaps’ to every sentence so as not to be caught lying.
Sergio Guimaraes – Speaking of PR