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There was a TV interview which caught my attention last night.
And unfortunately, it was not for a good reason.
It captured my interest because the spokesperson used the same completely pointless phrase eight times in seven minutes.
In fact, it was used with such regularity that some social media users suggested it should become a drinking game with viewers consuming a drink for every repetition – an idea that would have ensured few viewers stayed sober for the credits.
new drinking game proposal (watching Mark Harper on C4 news) - a drink for every time a politician replies to a question with ‘I’ve been very clear’. 8 so far.— Dorothy Bishop (@deevybee) June 11, 2019
This alone shows people had completely stopped listening to the points he was trying to make.
It happened when Conservative Party leadership candidate Mark Harper appeared on Channel 4 News to be interviewed by Krishnan Guru-Murthy.
To give you a flavour of what happened, here are the first three questions and how each response began.
Mr Guru-Murthy: “As a former chief whip, should a cabinet minister threatening to vote against the Government be sacked?
Mr Harper: “Well, look, I’ve been very clear…”
Mr Guru-Murthy: “But you agree with Rory Stewart that any Brexit by October 31st is impossible?
Hr Harper: “I’ve been very clear…”
Mr Guru-Murthy: “Would you give Parliament a vote before taking us out with no deal?”
Mr Harper: “I’ve been very clear…”
And so it went on as Mr Harper racked up the ‘very clears’ without every really offering any clarity. You can watch the interview on the Channel 4 website.
There are several issues with 'I’ve been very clear' and reasons why it should be avoided.
Firstly, it almost always comes at the start of a response which is anything but clear or which ignores the question asked. Essentially you know that when someone uses this phrase or alternatives like ‘let me be clear’, you are going to get an ambiguous answer.
It was noticeable in this interview that when Mr Harper said 'I’ve been very clear', the journalist often had to ask him another question and press him for that clarity
#C4news Mark Harper saying “I’ve been very clear” umpteen times - clear as mud more like 🙃— Polly Pingwing (@PollyPingwing) June 11, 2019
“I’ve been very clear” seems to be a contagious phrase. Especially among the chronically unclear #c4news— Johnny Appleseed (@JohnnyCameo) June 11, 2019
Mark "I've been very clear" Harper ending his leadership challenge live on #C4News— The Laird McDermott (@BCollier2012) June 11, 2019
Additionally, no one really cares how clear you have been in the past. The journalist and the audience want to hear your views on a particular subject now.
It also sounds very artificial, robotic and excessively rehearsed – not, as we tell delegates on our media training courses, the impression a media spokesperson should be striving to create in an interview. After all, who would repeatedly say 'I’ve been very clear' in everyday conversation?
And it can be completely distracting when used repeatedly – the responses on Twitter suggest that people had simply become interested in counting how many times Mr Harper used the phrase.
To be fair, Mr Harper is far from the only politician to rely on this phrase. A look at Twitter would suggest it was used by other Tory leadership hopefuls in interviews yesterday as well. And it has been one of Theresa May’s go to phrases along with “let me be clear”, “it is clear” and “it is very clear.” “Let me be clear” was also a great favourite of President Obama.
But it is not exclusively used by politicians. CEOs and other media spokespeople have been known to use the phrase.
So why is it used so often?
A politician may use it to try and show that they have taken a consistent approach to a particular issue. But it is also often used by spokespeople as a pointing phase, similar to saying to the audience, "Pay attention, this is the important bit, the part I want you to remember.” But it is a phrase that is used so often that it only really serves to annoy audiences and if anything will make them switch-off rather than remember a particular message.
Its other main use is as a filler phrase or verbal crutch while the spokesperson tries to gather their thoughts – a sort of next generation ‘erm’ or ‘um’ and similar to starting a response with ‘so’.
But, as well as being grating, it can also demonstrate discomfort with the subject matter and line of questioning.
And actually, as we tell delegates on our media training courses, there are better ways of giving yourself that split second of thinking time while you plan your answer – including a brief moment of silence.
I hope I’ve been clear.
Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 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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