#83: I did not kidnap anyone!

One Idea. One Challenge. Once a Week.

“Rumors are only valuable when they are denied.”
~ The Bed of Procrustes

Imagine you’re sitting alone in a waiting room.

There’s a TV on the wall playing a loud infomercial. It can’t be muted and is too loud to ignore. You’re watching when a Breaking News bulletin pops on. There’s a guy in a fancy suit standing behind a lectern. You don’t recognize him. He’s surrounded by cameras and giving a statement: 

I want you to listen to me, I’m going to say this again. I don’t beat my wife! I never told anybody to lie. These allegations are false!

Be honest. What do you think about him? Likely one of two things:

  1. He did it. 
  2. His brand is lies and domestic violence.

Slightly different situation. It’s 1998 and you know the guy on TV well. He’s the President of the United States. He says

I want you to listen to me, I’m going to say this again. I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky. I never told anybody to lie. . . . These allegations are false!

Do you believe him? 

Or consider this clip of another president. It’s 1973 and the country is more than a year into the Watergate scandal: “I have never profited from public service. . . . I have never obstructed justice. . . . I’m not a crook!” 

What do you think? 

President Richard Nixon delivering his “I’m not a crook!” speech 

They all sound guilty. And a big reason why is because they repeat negative phrases. The audience gets the words stuck in their heads: beat my wife; sexual relations with that woman; told anybody to lie; profited from public service; obstructed justice; a crook!

The denials feel like the speaker is hiding the truth: “I don’t . . . I never . . . I did not . . . I have never . . . I’m not.”  It reminds me of an Easter morning as a kid when my brother swore he didn’t eat the black jelly beans. Even though we could all see the evidence dripping down his face. 

When a speaker repeats the negative their audience associates them with the accusation. If you say “I’m not a crook!” we’ll remember “you + crook.”

Here’s the lead sentence in an email a friend received from the James Madison Institute: 

Did you know that, contrary to what the others says [sic], The James Madison Institute (JMI) isn’t funded by hundreds of special interest groups or by “dark money”?

I work with executives and wonks who routinely get tripped up and repeat the negative. This is most common during Q&A sessions, testimonies, media interviews, and conversations at networking events. Especially with emotional or loaded questions. 

Consider: 

Q: Why do you support policies that hurt poor people? 

BAD ANSWER: We don’t support policies that hurt poor people! Honestly we don’t! 

Resist the urge to respond with emotion. 

Instead of being defensive and repeating the negative, stay calm and state your position clearly in a positive way. And then build your credibility with a concrete example: 

Q: Why do you support policies that hurt poor people? 

BETTER ANSWER: We support policies that improve the lives of people most in need. In fact, this month we released a study showing how we can make simple reforms to our licensing laws that will empower the most vulnerable in our state. 

Billionaire Howard Marshall, 89 years old, with his Playboy centerfold wife Anna Nicole Smith, 26. She famously said, “I did not marry him for his money.”

If you get accused of something, or misrepresented, don’t fall for the trap of repeating the negative. This can harm and even destroy your brand. 

An aspiring politician sank her campaign with a TV ad she began by saying, “I’m not a witch.” A school Superintendent in Georgia went viral with this quote: “we do not provide pornography to our students.” Senator Ted Cruz’s wife got countless headlines with her statement “My husband is not the Zodiac Killer!” 

The most cringe-inducing example I’ve found is Mark Ellis. During a run for parliament in Australia, he tweeted this: 

He lost the election. 

Please do not take the Mark Ellis approach! Follow these steps instead:

  1. Keep calm: Remain in control of your emotions.
  2. Stay on message: Set the terms of debate in a positive way.  
  3. Give an example: Be specific so you bring your point to life. 

The more you clarify your ideas in advance, and practice delivering them, the better prepared you’ll be to crush it during the moments that matter most. 

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IDEA

Deliver your message in a calm and positive way.

CHALLENGE

What is a common criticism or accusation you receive? Take five minutes right now and draft a response that follows these steps: 

  1. Keep calm
  2. Stay on message
  3. Give an example

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