Your Lying Boss

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on August 27, 2010 – 7:16 AM

There’s a media trainer out there who tells a story about training a musician.

Every time the musician said, “We have a new album coming out on Tuesday,” the trainer would say, “Who’s ‘we?’ Do you think the audience can go to the record store and ask for the new record by ‘We?’ Say the name of your group so people can find your record!”

It’s a reasonable point. Many media trainers have long argued that spokespersons should replace personal pronouns, primarily “I’” and “we,” with their company’s name.

I disagree with that advice, and have always thought a few “I’s” and “we’s” were okay. A spokesperson who says something like, “Well, Starbucks Coffee believes that…” too many times risks sounding forced and inauthentic. And since that spokesperson will be identified by the reporter as a Starbucks representative anyway, it may be unnecessary.

A new Stanford University study called “Detecting Deceptive Discussions in Conference Calls” strengthens my position. According to The Huffington Post’s review of the study:

“Using phrases like “the team” and “the company” over “I” and “we” is one of a number of linguistic cues that an executive could be lying…executives who later revised their firm’s financial statements displayed distinct styles of speech in analyst calls, including language that ‘disassociates themselves from their subject matter.’”

Am I suggesting you should never say your company’s name or use phrases such as “our team” since they could be seen as an attempt to disassociate yourself from your firm’s behavior? No. It’s okay to keep those words in your media repertoire.

But do feel free to sprinkle in a few “I’s” or “we’s” along the way, and ignore any advice that tells you to kill personal pronouns altogether during media interviews.

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Comments (4)

  1. By Tim Law:

    This is a great piece on linguistics.

    However, I would have to disagree that words such as “I”, “the company”, and “we” should be labled as a red flag of falsification.

    If it was true, every other disclosure press release is full of bull!

    There is alot more to catching a liar, IMHO…a CEO who’s constantly comforting her investors is a much brighter red flag.

    It isn’t just in linguistics.

  2. By Brad Phillips:

    Hi Tim —

    Thank you for stopping by the blog and leaving a comment.

    You’re right that word choice alone isn’t enough to determine whether or not something is true. I’m certain there are honest executives who say, “the company,” and dishonest ones who say, “I.”

    I would view those word choices merely as linguistic cues – something that might give you pause and make you carefully consider what you’re hearing. But I agree that it usually requires additional cues to make a more complete judgment.

    Please keep the feedback coming!


  3. By Tim Law:

    You know, this topic brings to mind a great example of a corporate liar.

    Kenneth Lay, former Chariman, ENRON Corp.

    It’s just amazing how he managed to mislead thousands of his own employees (not to mention the public) about the true financial health of Enron Corporation.

    Lay was famous for bombarding his audience with positive messages such as:

    “It’s not long until OUR stock will fully recovers.”


    “In the case of Enron, WE balance OUR positions all the time.”

  4. By Brad Phillips:

    Yes, good examples. I’m not sure the linguistics study makes any claims that anyone who uses “our” or “we” is inherently honest. Rather, the study looked at specific business cases and discovered an interesting pattern regarding the linguistics choices spokespersons make.

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