Few people are better at delivering a story than Brian Williams. Night in and night out, he’s clear, relatable and concise.
So it struck me as odd that when it came time to set the record straight on the helicopter attack that wasn’t, he elected to use a strange word in his apology: “conflate.”
His statement read: “I think the constant viewing of the video showing us inspecting the impact area—and the fog of memory over 12 years—made me conflate the two, and I apologize.”
Williams might have been better served to say he got the choppers mixed up, or that he clearly was confused in the aftermath of the incident. “Conflate” is a word that jumps off the page and gives you pause. So is “misremember.”
Given my line of work, I always read statements of apology or explanation from a public figure in mid-crisis with a discerning eye. A good one sounds genuine and has no hint that a reputation management SWAT team carefully crafted it in a PR war room.
So, if you’re ever in that unenviable position, don’t use words that aren’t spoken in regular communication. Obscure words or stilted phrases make the apology sound contrived. Brian Williams isn’t alone.
A matter of ‘certitude’
Back when disgraced congressman Anthony Weiner was still trying to wiggle off the hook of his Twitter fiasco, he told the media that he couldn’t say with “certitude” whether the texted images of the half-naked man in question were of him. That single word made my BS meter hit the red zone.
In a September 2014 interview with CBS, embattled NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was on the hot seat over the league’s handling of the damaging emergence of the Ray Rice elevator video.
When asked by Norah O’Donnell why league executives hadn’t seen it, Goodell said they had asked authorities to see it but hadn’t “been granted that opportunity.” It was an overly formal and stilted way of making the point, and it caught the critical eye of Jon Stewart, who made that phrase the centerpiece of his ridicule.
The same essential communication strategy that works in all verbal exchanges applies doubly in crisis situations: Keep it real, keep it simple, and don’t sound scripted.
A version of this article first appeared on LinkedIn.