Avoiding the words that will make your audience run for the hills …

There are some words that can make such an impact on us that we tend to ignore the surrounding context and act on our basic fears. One of those is ‘panic’. So if we hear someone say ‘don’t panic’ we will tend to do the exact opposite. This was played out to great effect over the past month or so during the petrol crisis, when we were told by politicians and the industry that “there is enough petrol to go around in the UK so we shouldn’t panic-buy.” People ignored the first part of the sentence and only picked up on the second. The same thing happened during the first part of the pandemic, when some people rushed out to buy vast numbers of loo rolls as soon as they heard rumours about empty shelves, and supplies running low in supermarkets. It appears to be happening now with a predicted shortage of some Christmas food and gift items. The mindset goes something like this: “It’s not me who’s panic-buying, but I know other people will do so in the current circumstances because they’re all sheep, so I’d better try and get out ahead of the rush, and buy enough to tide me over for the next few weeks/months while there may be shortages, it’s just sensible”. Queues start to form, pictures appear in the papers and then everyone else goes into panic mode too.

What are the lessons if you’re being interviewed on any topic which might impact on public behaviour? There are two essential strategies. Firstly, never use negative language as above, because words like ‘panic’ or ‘nightmare’ tend to resonate and get noticed, while the word ‘not’ gets missed. Instead, use positive reassuring language, such as “I want to reassure people that there is plenty of petrol to go around in the UK, so everyone should just buy normally and there will be more than enough to go round”. Certainly don’t repeat any negative phrase used by an interviewer, otherwise this just reinforces the negative impression. This is a good general rule that applies in most circumstances, and one which we emphasise in our media training courses.

The second strategy is to add context, straightforwardly communicated. In this case, something like “there are more than 8,000 petrol stations in the UK and the vast majority have got normal supplies. They’re being replenished every day as usual and we are working hard to get things back to normal for the rest”. Of course you can be lucky or unlucky, but this sort of approach means the ‘panic’ is much less likely to take off.

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