It's one of the questions we'll be discussing at my August 23 workshop for communicators, Be an Expert on Working with Experts, where you can learn about experts' default communications styles and how to work more effectively with them. So what might be standing between your expert and effective handling of public mistakes?
- Fear of failure in public: Take it from Stephen Colbert, who branched out to Broadway singing after encouragement from no less an expert than Stephen Sondheim. In an interview, Colbert admitted he didn't announce his performance stint to his huge TV audience, because "I had no idea whether I wanted anyone to know I was doing it, because I knew how hard it was going to be, and I was afraid I would suck." He chalked that up to being a perfectionist.
- The inability to say "I don't know:" If you go along with Bohr's definition of an expert, this should be easy to say. But plenty of smart subject-matter experts have trouble saying this, even though "I don't know" is one of the strongest speaker statements -- and ironically, the easiest way to boost your credibility if you're the expert saying so. The real risk is that your expert, in a hasty quest to find something to say that suggests knowledge, will veer into overstatements when she should be steering clear of saying too much.
- Blaming everyone else: The presumed shame of admitting a mistake might prompt the defensive blame game, or just plain ire at being questioned. Communicators get blamed for not promoting something or the reverse. The "general public" gets blamed for not understanding nuances. Reporters get accused of misquoting the expert, or blamed just for asking for more information, as happened to the blog Retraction Watch when a journal editor replied "None of your damn business" to an inquiry about why a journal article had been retracted.