Boris briefing bingo and more words to avoid in media interviews

Every time the Prime Minister announces he is holding a press conference on the latest pandemic developments, our social media timeline is filled with people playing ‘Boris Briefing Bingo’.

It certainly helps to ease the pain of waiting for the next bit of bad news and provides a break from pondering why nine months into the crisis, no one has bought Chris Whitty a clicker.

The bingo card contains some phrases you would probably only hear from Boris Johnson – things like ‘alas’, ‘with a heavy heart’, ‘world-leading’ and, of course, a random bit of Latin.

But there are plenty of other phrases on there that are used more widely – and not just by politicians.

And that got us thinking that we haven’t done one of our media training blogs on the words and phrases spokespeople should avoid for a while.

So, here is the latest instalment of our irregular feature, including 9 more phrases you need to cut out of your media interviews.

1 “We are taking a more granular approach”

I’m not sure who decided that ‘detailed’ was no longer a powerful enough word, but it seems to have been almost entirely replaced by ‘granular’ now. It’s everywhere, unfortunately. Not only is it a big favourite of the Prime Minister, but I even saw a headteacher recently use “granular detail” in a quote – someone think of the children. No one who uses it is ever talking about small grains or particles.  Even if you think ‘detailed’ is no longer on-trend, you could choose something like ‘thorough’ or ‘examine closely’.


2 Unpack

Who knows when luggage became language, but the first time I came across this was when I had prepared a briefing for a senior leader, in a previous role, and he asked me to “unpack it”. It resulted in a lengthy awkward standoff where I looked at him completely bemused (I’d only just come to terms with the expression ‘deep dive’ at the time) and he looked back at me with obvious confusion about my bemusement. Sadly, since that uncomfortable encounter, “unpack” has become commonplace and has moved from boardrooms and meeting rooms into media interviews. It is a horrible phrase that has the same effect on some people as ‘moist’ has on others. It must be avoided unless you are advising people to remove their contents from a suitcase.


3 Pivot

In 2020, everyone was pivoting. “We had to pivot to working from home”, was a quote that could be seen just about everywhere from everyone. ‘Pivot’ was arguably the buzzword of the year and rapidly became overused, featuring constantly in headlines, quotes and soundbites. And now it is a word you should pivot away from. There are much better alternatives, including adapt, change and evolve.


4 An abundance of caution

This was probably the phrase I hated the most last year. The whole world seemed to decide that ‘caution’ was no longer good or strong enough and that it needed a little more to make us feel reassured. The phrase has, sadly, been around longer than the pandemic – often a sign of legal teams interfering in crisis media management statements. But there is little doubt it became ubiquitous in 2020.  Not only is the ‘abundance’ part unnecessary, but the phrase has quickly become cliché. If you feel compelled to add emphasis to your caution, use everyday language instead, such as “we’ve been particularly cautious”.  


5 Disambiguate

This one seems to be following the lead of some of the examples in this media training blog in making the move from the corporate world and into interviews, albeit at a steadier pace. “We need to disambiguate the figures”, is an example of where you may have heard it. The problem is the word is somewhat ironically confusing. It was recently named as one of the ‘worst buzzwords of 2020’ where the judges said it “rather cleverly obscures the thing it seeks to clarify. Like spraying mud on windows to clean them.” Stick to ‘clarify’ instead


6 Verticals

We hear people talk about verticals a lot in media interviews. For example, you might have the misfortune of catching someone say something like “we work in the manufacturing vertical.” Not only does it sound a bit pretentious, but it is questionable whether anyone really knows what it means. It is unnecessarily confusing. And when things are confusing, people switch off or zone out and the great opportunity a media interview presents is missed.


7 Holistic

‘Holistic’ has appeared in one of these media training blogs before. But we make no excuse for including it again because, if anything, it is becoming more widely used. I’ve even seen football managers talk about taking a ‘holistic approach’ in their interviews. Not only is it everywhere, but it remains meaningless. Please avoid it.


8 One-stop shop

I hear this a lot. “We’ve launched a one-stop shop” may sound fun and catchy, but it is a terrible way to describe your brand or new service in a media interview. It is cliché and doesn’t add anything to the audience’s understanding of what you do. To stand out in a market full of one-stop shops, focus on what makes you different and describe what you do and how you do it.


9 “What I want to focus on”

This almost always translates as “I don’t want to talk about the subject raised in the question”, when it is used at the start of a response. And it is not just used in this way by politicians. It sounds defensive and obstructive. The bridging technique – which our media training courses will teach you to use well - is a way of more subtly steering the conversation to a subject you would prefer to discuss.


But how can you ensure you avoid using these words in your media interviews?

The key is to use the language you would if you were talking to friends or family about the subject.

One of the current working journalist tutors on our media training courses talks about the ‘Auntie Doreen test’. If you were talking to your auntie about your interview subject, would you use words like ‘disambiguate’, ‘verticals’, or ‘holistic’?

Pretty doubtful. So why use it in your media interviews?


About to face the media? Get your media interview homework off to the best start by downloading your copy of our free media interview preparation eBook.


Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 35 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers. 

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