Jeb Bush: Crying Out Loud, an opinion column by the New York Times's Charles Blow, reminded me that, much more than ums and uhs, communications pros should be listening for--and helping their principal speaker work on--repetitive phrases that give reporters (and others) inadvertent clues to what they're thinking.
I'll let Blow explain it for you:
As a person who uses language for a living, I find it hard not to notice rhetorical quirks committed by others.
It has become something of a parlor game for me to note whenever he says “for crying out loud,” which always seems to signal some level of exasperation. And, somewhere around that phrase, he seems to say something interesting, sometimes something careless, nearly always something that makes news.
It’s one of those subconscious things that speakers do — like scratching their nose while telling a lie or taking a drink of water when listening to a question that makes them uncomfortable — that journalists learn to pay attention to.You can read the several examples in Blow's column as a guide to breaking down this type of rhetorical quirk. And there's more recent coverage of Bush's frequent use of the word 'serious.' It's a tough habit to correct, but if you're working with a speaker who does this, it can save you and your company or organization a world of public trouble.
I once trained an executive who'd handle media interviews perfectly--until a hypothetical question for which he had no information came up. Every single time, he would say, "Probably..." followed by a major conjecture. Inevitably, that became the story. We identified the trouble signal word via transcripts and a review of media coverage, then worked on having him stop himself mid-sentence once that word flew out of his mouth, to say, "No, actually, I don't have enough data to answer that. I don't want to conjecture." But this takes a lot of practice.
Don't know your principal speaker's giveaway words or phrases? Try running all her recent speeches and interview transcripts through a word cloud tool or just read them through, looking for repetition. Then analyze when it happens, and why it happens. That will give you the ammo for a tough but needed conversation.
(Creative Commons licensed photo by Michael Vadon)