We are all now using words and phrases every day that few of us had heard of at the start of the year.
It is an understandable side effect of the pandemic and while some of the new language has been useful, particularly in the early stages of the crisis, much of it has become overused and tired and needs to be avoided in media interviews and internally.
‘Furloughed’ is perhaps the most obvious – and useful - example of the way coronavirus has changed the words we use.
But our new vocabulary also now includes things like ‘support bubbles’, ‘social distancing’, ‘flattening the curve’, ‘cocooning’ and ‘underlying health conditions’.
And if you’ve been involved in helping your business get back into the office you’ve probably come across ‘high touch point areas’ as well.
We’ve even had ‘speaking moistly’, although Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seemed to quickly regret coining that particular phrase.
Some of this vernacular is new and, in other cases, the pandemic has completely changed the meaning of phrases that have been used for a while.
And while some of it is helpful, much of it has quickly become irritating and distracting in this ‘new world’.
As the lockdown – another phase few of us were using regularly before – gradually eases and businesses look for opportunities for promotion, it is important media spokespeople - and leaders -know what to say and what phrases to avoid.
So here is the Coronavirus version of one of our most popular and light-heated media training blogs – the words and phrases spokespeople should avoid when talking about the pandemic.
But it also has an important message, regardless of whether you are talking to journalists or to your teams.
This is probably the word we have heard the most during the pandemic. There appears to have been an unprecedented increase in the use of ‘unprecedented’.
Technically, it is not accurate – this isn’t the first infectious disease to spread across the world.
But that is not the real issue. A far bigger problem is its overuse.
Our leaders say it. It is used in news headlines. Spokespeople use it in interviews. And it is used throughout the promotional emails we receive from brands.
It has even been used in this media training blog, but fortunately, our proof-readers have cut most of those out.
Its overuse means it has become boring and causes people to switch off. Find an alternative – there are more than 30 synonyms for unprecedented.
The scale of the overuse of the word “unprecedented” in the last few months is unparalleled.— Johnnie Craig 🇪🇺🏴🇮🇹🏳️🌈 (@TheJohnnieCraig) June 22, 2020
i would like to ban the word “unprecedented” from our vocab due to overuse in the year of the damned 2020— Katie Wheeler (@kagwheeler) June 13, 2020
We are living through an unprecedented use of the term “unprecedented” pic.twitter.com/JlZlaWQ0y3— Jay Van Bavel (@jayvanbavel) May 2, 2020
In these challenging times
This phrase and similar ones like ‘strange times’ are used all the time, but they add nothing to the conversation.
Everyone is aware of the current situation we are living in.
Cut this phrase out and start with what would have followed ‘in these challenging times’.
We’re all in this together
This one means well, but everyone’s experience of coronavirus is different.
You can’t compare a healthcare worker who has been exposing themselves to risk every day with someone who has been able to work from the comfort of their home.
Some have found that their jobs have gone. Others are under threat and some are secure for the foreseeable future.
What might sound warm and friendly for some, is likely to feel fake for many others.
Spokespeople should always avoid platitudes, particularly in media interviews during a global health crisis.
‘Uncertain’ has been used almost as much as ‘unprecedented’.
A quick look at my inbox shows that my dentist, building society, supermarket, energy provider and a ferry company are among those who have felt the need to use this expression.
Unlike ‘unprecedented’ there is nothing technically wrong with uncertain – although there is an argument it perhaps plays down the situation.
The real problem again is its overuse. Why would people sit up and listen to what you have to say if you are going to use the same descriptions as everyone else.
It has become meaningless and feels lazy. And if you are using it in media interviews, it can feel like you are talking from a script or using a template, which does not get across the empathy you are probably trying to show.
This is a phrase that has been around for a while, typically used after a business has been restructured.
Now pretty much everything has become the ‘new normal’. Working from home, social distancing, staying in contact through Zoom and home schooling are just some of the changes that are regularly used with this term.
We’ve used it ourselves in posts on this media training blog, at the start of the pandemic as we tried to find ways to describe the impact coronavirus was having.
But it is a phrase that has been overworked and it has stopped being helpful. In fact, it has become irritating.
When did unprecedented times end and new normal begin?— libby (@libby_ayres) July 3, 2020
Please stop saying "the new normal".— Adam Liaw (@adamliaw) July 2, 2020
every corporate commercial on tv: “during these unprecedented times” and “during this new normal” pic.twitter.com/CPIZN0cccf— Irene (@ireneyourene) June 30, 2020
An abundance of caution
When did caution no longer become enough?
It certainly seems that during the pandemic businesses felt that ‘caution’ was no longer strong enough and that there had to be an abundance of it.
The phrase, which has unfortunately been around for a while (normally when legal teams are involved in crisis media management), suddenly became ubiquitous.
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”.
Language has evolved quickly over the past few months, but the best messages remain those that sound human.
As we say on our media training courses and when we deliver internal communication training, think about the language you would use if you were talking to a friend in a pub or café – socially distanced of course – and use the same words and phrases.
Not only will you avoid the clichés, but you will also sound human and empathetic.
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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