Everyone makes mistakes. If newspapers were perfect, you would never see a single correction or typo in a story. If television reporters never made a mistake, you would never hear an anchor deliver a retraction regarding an earlier report.
There are many, many mistakes that can be found in communications by organizations and businesses. The best way to improve is by learning from others’ mistakes. Here are five of the most common mistakes I’ve witnessed, and continue to see on a regular basis in corporate and organizational communications:
1. Falling into the trap of You Syndrome. The easiest way to sum this up is by reflecting on BP CEO Tony Haward’s well-publicized gaffe during the Gulf spill. “We’re sorry for the massive disruption it’s caused to their lives,” Hayward said.”There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do, I’d like my life back.” Groan. Hayward started out OK. He focused on remorse and compassion. But the second half of his quote did what you don’t want to do: He made it about him. Always, always identify your target audience and determine what is the message you want to deliver to them. Contrary to what you think, their priority is not YOU. It’s them. Make sure your message is audience-drive, not you-driven. If you make the kind of gaffe that Hayward did, you may never be able to make a U-turn to save face.
2. Identifying the Media as Public Enemy No. 1. This happens all the time. The media are frequently painted as the bad guys or girls. Be warned: When you attack the media, you’ll only ramp up a fight you’ll never win. The media always has the last word. And they’ll use it. No matter how angry you are at the media, NEVER forget that media is consumed by the public. That ‘public’ likely includes people you want to reach. Media exposure is an inexpensive way to get your message out. Stay in control and focus on whom you’re trying to reach. Resist the urge to lash out at the media.
3. Deciding to wing it. This never works. You must rehearse. You must choose your words. Delivering communications in a polished, confident manner will convey an attitude that you are in control. That can be vitally important, especially in situations when the public’s confidence level is sitting on a fence.
4. Self-indulgent blah blah blah. Reporters and editors have to constantly ask themselves the following questions: Why should my readers care about this? Too often, organizations and companies issue communications, such as press releases that are nothing more than jargon-laced, self-indulgent, ego-catering babblespeak. Take a look at the opening paragraph of this real-life press release: “_____________ Corporation announced today that total (Corporation) cleared volume in July reached 279,245,228 contracts, representing a 9% decrease over the July 2009 volume of 307,085,331 contracts. However, average daily volume for 2010 is 15,816,927 contracts, a 9% increase compared to last year’s average of 14,552,341 contracts. The (Corporation’s) year-to-date total volume is up 8% with 2,293,454,442 contracts.” Huh? This release might as well be written in a foreign language. It’s ironic that so many news releases intended for the public have very little interest for the public. Always ask yourself: Why should my readers care? And then deliver communications that focus on that answer.
5. Failing to understand that your audience can read too. I’m sure you’ve encountered this many many times during webinars or PowerPoint presentations. Slides pop up on a screen and the host/lead communicator simply re-reads the text of each and every slide. It’s a very painful process for any audience. You might as well just skip the presentation in its entirety and hand out material that can be read later on. To be effective, it’s a must to approach every webinar or PowerPoint as a two-pronged presentation: one part tech, one part human. Each entity needs to be unique, yet contribute to delivering one overall theme. If all the audience is doing is looking at slides on a screen, your presence has been lost, regardless if you’re a CEO, president, special guest, or other. Think of yourself as the lead actor, and the PowerPoint or webinar as the supporting actor, not the other way around.