Many years ago my boss asked for a statement to the press. I’ve long forgotten the story, but I will never forget what he said. He asked for “… a form of words …” to express whatever the company wanted to say to the financial market.
The phrase implies that the form of words is more important than their meaning. It echoes the term, ‘formal’, for language of which that is true. It also foreshadows the unique genre of PR-writ that I call ‘mushmouth’.
Truly formal language lends gravitas to legal documents. Mushmouth is designed to blur the truth and to confuse or pacify the reader.
I’ll look at two examples from a current story. This is the tragic tale of Lance Armstrong’s being nailed for doping by the US Anti Doping Agency (USADA) and its impact on others in cycling.
Armstrong’s former manager, Johan Bruyneel, was managing the RadioShack-Nissan team. He was spotlighted as one of the ringleaders of Armstrong’s doping gang, so he had to go. Here’s the form of words they used to explain why Bruyneel was no longer managing the RadioShack-Nissan team:
‘His departure is desirable to ensure the serenity and cohesiveness within the team.’
‘… he can no longer direct the team in an efficient and comfortable way.’
Radio Shack and Nissan are telling their customers and prospects that they would tolerate a dope pusher and cheat as long as he was ‘comfortable’ and their athletes were ‘serene’.
What is missing from these statements is a form of words that includes ‘outrage’ and ‘cheat’ and ‘sacked’ and ‘intolerable’.
What is missing from this verbal gruel is reassurance that Radio Shack and Nissan agree with the USADA that Bruyneel is guilty as sin and must be sacked, fired, stripped of his honours, tarred, feathered and run out of town on a rail.
Imagine how much positive press coverage Radio Shack and Nissan could have reaped with a form of words more like this:
The RadioShack-Nissan pro cycling team has fired its manager, Johan Bruyneel. We took this action after reading the 200-page summary report of the US Anti-Doping Agency’s investigation of Lance Armstrong’s US Postal team.
The report stated: “The overwhelming evidence in this case is that Johan Bruyneel was intimately involved in all significant details of the U.S. Postal team’s doping program.”
Radio Shack and Nissan refuse to be associated with drugs and cheating. Anybody else in our organisation who is discovered to have been involved in drugs or cheating will be fired as fast as we fired Johan Bruyneel.
We would hope that every other team in professional cycling, and every member of every official cycling body, agrees with us.
This makes a much stronger impression than the mushmouth original. It puts Radio Shack and Nissan out front.
Here’s Australian Matt White’s far better statement, qualified though it may be:
‘I am sad to say that I was part of a team where doping formed part of the team’s strategy, and I too was involved in that strategy. My involvement is something I am not proud of, and I sincerely apologise to my fans, media, family and friends who trusted me and also to other athletes in my era that consciously chose not to dope.’
White sets his tone in the first three words: ‘I am sad …’ In the second sentence he uses the form, ‘I am not proud of …’ I believe ‘ashamed’ would have worked better for him in both places.
Note that he never refers to actually cheating by injecting illegal dope. Instead he apologises for being ‘… part of a team …’ that had a strategy involving doping, and for being ‘… involved in that strategy.’
The form of words defuses the offensive noun, dope, by using its softer gerund form, doping. Then it shifts the reader’s focus away from doping to the neutral words strategy and team. ‘Cheating’, of course, is never mentioned at all.
Grammatically, White is not apologising for ‘cheating by taking drugs’. He is only apologising for ‘being a member of a team whose strategy included doping.’
Here’s a form of words that seems far more heartfelt and contrite:
Today I have resigned from my positions with the Orica-GreenEDGE team and Cycling Australia. When I was riding in the US Postal and Discovery Channel teams, I regularly took illegal drugs. We dominated the Tour de France, if not pro cycling as a whole, for years, but we did it by cheating.
I am ashamed to have been a part of it. And I cannot let my shame reflect on team Orica-GreenEDGE, which is utterly clean, nor Cycling Australia, which rightly adopts a zero-tolerance approach to drug cheats. I only wish I had had the courage to confess before now.
Such a complete, and frankly worded, confession would have won him even more friends and supporters than he already has.
Thank you for reading. Check out my other tutorials in the archive at right. Order my book here: http://thecopymentor.com/