By Joe Lilly
As a kid, I loved the show “Dragnet.” Every week, Sgt. Joe Friday would remind those he arrested that “Anything you say can—and will—be used against you…”
In business, EVERYTHING you say can be used against you. And if you say the wrong thing, that mistake can cost you money and damage your company’s reputation. And while you may be tempted to adopt the stance that “you have the right to remain silent,” you may miss opportunities to generate goodwill among your staff, increase sales and grow your business in the community.
The key is knowing what to say—and not say—and when.
Years ago in a business where I worked, a new boss was named and after a few days, he held a meeting with his staff. He started his remarks saying, in essence, “I came in here thinking that all of you were lazy and unproductive, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised.”
While I’m sure he meant that as a compliment, that was not the way it was taken. And that one misstep damaged his reputation with the staff for his entire tenure.
What could he have done differently? He could have put himself in their shoes. He could have prepared by asking himself, “What would I want to hear if I were a member of this team? How can I build them up while inspiring them to achieve the goals I have set?” Instead, he “spoke off the cuff,” and damaged his ability to get the team behind him.
Speaking to your internal audiences is extremely important. However, speaking to your customers can affect your company’s reputation—and your bottom line.
A hospital in the northern United States made the decision to decrease a woman’s stay in a hospital after childbirth by a full day. To make the announcement, they had one of their doctors speak to a television station. This doctor smiled as he said to the reporter, “The extra day in the hospital is more like a ‘vacation day’ for the new mother, and unfortunately, we can’t afford to pay for a vacation.”
The hospital’s switchboard lit up with thousands of calls from angry women, insulted at his “cavalier” attitude toward the rigors of childbirth. Hundreds of couples canceled plans to have their babies at that hospital, and obstetricians bombarded the hospital’s leaders.
In reality, medical experts may have had solid statistical evidence for the original change. However, the way it was presented caused severe damage to the hospital’s reputation and patient load. As a result, the new policy had to be scrapped.
The doctor should have prepared for the interview by having someone conduct a “mock interview” with him, asking tough questions and recording his response. When the recording was played back, chances are he or someone on his staff would have recognized that his attempt at a “cute” response was instead, insulting.
Missteps in communications also can get you fired. Ten years ago, an explosion and massive oil spill killed 11 men and caused the worst environmental disaster ever in the Gulf of Mexico. The CEO of the company that caused the spill told the media that the spill was “tiny” and said that dealing with the issue “interrupted his vacation.” He added no one wanted to resolve the crisis as badly as he did because, “I’d like my life back.”
Eleven people killed. A massive oil spill that caused hundreds of millions in damages, and he complains that “he wants his life back.”
He was fired shortly thereafter.
He should have taken himself out of the picture. His one job was to represent the company, express sympathies for those who were lost, communicate the facts and explain that the company would take aggressive steps to determine what happened and then rectify the damage.
So how should you prepare before you speak to an audience?
First, put yourself in your audience’s shoes. Who are they? What are they expecting to hear? What would be the best or worst outcome after you speak with them? How do you want them to feel after hearing your message?
Second, write down one to three key messages you want to communicate. Do you intend to inspire or challenge? Do you want to entertain or educate?
Finally, practice delivering your messages. Have someone listen to you so they can point out potential trouble spots with what you say. In the case of a media interview, write down three things you’d like to be asked, and three things you don’t want to be asked—and practice answers for all of them.
Think all this is unnecessary? Consider this. You spend hours looking at spreadsheets, studying the bottom line and what affects it. Why not spend minutes preparing for any opportunity you have to speak to an audience, internal or external? Your words can have a dramatic effect on your company.
In business, don’t let your words be used against you. While it may not be criminal, it can be extremely costly. ■