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A spokesperson in ads says nothing. A spokesperson for a company says nothing. DId you see the Microsoft ads with Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Gates, with Jerry as the spokesman? They said nothing. RIP Patrick Swayze.


 
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The Art Of Saying Nothing
art of saying nothing

Big mouths but nothing of value coming out


The third week of every month, I attend an entrepreneur meetup in a nearby hotel. The evening starts with a company talking about its business success, followed by questions and answers, and then a networking session amongst the visitors. The most recent speaker was the managing director of Microsoft Thailand, informing all the attendees, with their tongues hanging out like begging dogs, how Microsoft had made 70 million lives better. I became so bored with the propaganda, I spent the remaining time in the back where Microsoft salesmen eagerly demonstrated Microsoft's poorly received Surface tablet PC's.

Occasionally, a real entrepreneur, of a no-name smallish company, shows up to deliver a real talk about entrepreneurship. But sadly, the norm is multinationals with a Thai presence serving up the PR spiel about why their company is a leader in the industry, an innovator, a game changer. You've heard all this crap before. On YouTube, a talk of this nature would be lucky to get more than fifty views.

At the very least these business spokespersons are talking about something even if that something isn't directly applicable to entrepreneurship. If you could manage to pay attention throughout these excruciating borefests made worse with their accompanying cluttered PowerPoint slides, you might be able to pick up a thing or two of value.

Which is more than most spokespersons. Pick up the paper. Read the news. Skim the internet. Most spokespersons spend a fair amount of time talking about what amounts to absolutely nothing.

At the latest G20 Summit in St. Petersburg, Syria was one of the topics of discussion. To bomb or not to bomb. Dmitry Peskov, press secretary for the Russian president, commented after the first day of the summit, "A number of states maintained the stance on the necessity of hasty measures ignoring any legitimate international institutions. A number of other states called against the depreciation of the international law and to remember that only the UN Security Council has the right to make decisions on the use of force."

Quite a handful. Peskov made sure to use a lot of words. Verbose statements sound like they're packed with real content. Boil away the filler and Peskov said that some states think unilateral action should be taken against Syria while others choose to leave it up to the UN. Doesn't any international dilemma involve these same choices? Think of both Iraq wars, North Korea, Iran and its uranium enrichment scheme. Either a country or a coalition takes matters into its own hands or the UN passes a resolution first. Peskov added not a micro-ounce of insight into anything that was discussed at the G20. He said nothing.

The historian Will Durant once said that "To say nothing, especially when speaking, is half the art of diplomacy." Since Durant's time, saying nothing has evolved into an art form. Plenty of people are handsomely paid to add zero value to things which never had any value in the first place.

Do any of you remember the ridiculous ads comedian Jerry Seinfeld did for Microsoft back in 2008? In the first ad, Jerry spots Bill Gates in a bargain footgear store and coaches him on the appropriate shoes to buy. The second has Jerry and Bill living with real people in their home. Both ads are played for comedy, but neither Jerry or Bill are good actors or have impeccable comic timing, and the ads weren't well written to begin with. Years from now these ads will probably appear on some blogger's list of MOST SENSELESS AND COSTLY ADS EVER MADE. At the time, the ads were heckled. No one, including myself, could figure out what the ads were for. Microsoft's name wasn't mentioned until the last 30 seconds. Bill Gates wasn't cast in a hip new light. Pairing him with a sitcom star whose show had gone off the airwaves a decade earlier wasn't the best way to make Bill and Microsoft look relevant. A proposed third commercial never aired, and Jerry Seinfeld ceased to be Microsoft's celebrity spokesman thereafter.

Microsoft's reaction? "We figured that that sort of obscure nature of the communications would make people lean in a little more closely to see what we were going to do next. And that part certainly worked, in the sense that everybody leaned in, and they paid a lot more attention to our subsequent work," said one spokesman, David Weber. Tom Pilla, general manager of corporation communications at Microsoft, added, "Jerry was fantastic and we appreciate the value he brought to this campaign. These were teaser ads to start a conversation and get a buzz going. This was the plan the entire time."

More dressed up worthless nothings. If Jerry were so fantastic, if he brought so much value to the campaign, why didn't he appear in any more ads? His compadre in Seinfeld, Jason Alexander, lasted longer as Kentucky Fried Chicken's pitchman. These Seinfeld-Gates teaser ads did not start a conversation, get any buzz going, or encourage anyone to lean in closer to see what was coming next. Be honest, folks! Did you converse, go with the buzz, or lean in to hear more from Microsoft? Plus these ads cost Microsoft upwards of $10m for Jerry Seinfeld's performance.

Rather than treat the public like buffoons, would it have been so hard for Microsoft to have been honest? Couldn't the Microsoft spokesman have said instead, "The Seinfeld ads didn't generate the reaction we anticipated. We wanted to show Microsoft as a company which solves real human problems for real people, and Bill Gates as the compassionate human visionary who has led the company to where it is today"? This reaction might have actually generated the buzz and the leaning in the real spokesmen were fantasizing about.

A spokesperson has about as much reason to reveal the truth as a mainstream newspaper does. A newspaper is bound to push the agenda of its corporate backers. What bills are good, what politicians should be re-elected, who is responsible for the condition of the economy, and so on. The spokesperson's field of vision is much narrower. He just has to express his company's or employer's viewpoint as uncontroversially as he possibly can. The typical spokesperson isn't looking for acclaim. Many times, his name isn't even mentioned after his virtually useless statements. If he's doing his job brilliantly, the public should tune out everything he says yet remember he said something, which usually equates to nothing.

In August, Chris Lane, an Australian on a baseball scholarship at an Oklahoma university, was shot to death by three disaffected youth. The kids were bored. Others might go see a movie or go bowling when bored. These kids decided to kill someone. Lane's parents must now be wishing their son stuck to cricket. President Obama issued a statement through his spokesman: "The president and first lady's thoughts and prayers are with Chris Lane's family and friends in these trying times." In this case, the presidential statement is so run-of-the-mill, anyone, including the President himself, could have said it without needing a spokesman. More likely, the President didn't even know about the shooting, and his spokesman chimed in with a generic uncontroversial snippet that would neither make the President look good or bad. The point for the public was to remember the President said something.

In real life, we tend to speak up on an issue – and get quoted on it – when we actually know something about it which others might also wish to know. If you work as a mechanical engineer, you may act as an unofficial spokesman to your department head about what work your team is accomplishing. A well regarded criminal defense lawyer in Wyoming might get asked by the local paper to make comments about a high profile legal case going on in New York. Salesmen out in the field are possible spokesmen for their company if they can tell a potential customer about the company's product offerings and how they'll be of benefit to the customer.

But in the world of corporations, celebrity, and politics, spokespeople issues statements because that's what they're paid to do. Corporate functionaries, celebrities, and politicians always want themselves in front of the masses' eyes and to do this, they need to issue a statement about something without alienating anyone.

You can assess how worthless a statement is by asking whether you could craft a similar fragment without knowing anything about the subject. Going back to Peskov's statement about the G20, would you have had to personally be there to state that some nations wanted to launch a preemptive strike against Syria and others wanted to go through official UN channels? Notice Peskov didn't bother to mention which countries were in each camp. That's how ineffectual his statement was.

Did you know who Chris Lane was? Probably not. No matter. If I told you a man named Jack Ass was cruelly knifed in an alleyway last night and I needed you to write an official statement, you could, while simultaneously stoned and inebriated, compose something along the lines of "Our deepest sympathies go out to Jack Ass, his family, his friends, and all who cared about him. He will not be forgotten." You could use this identical condolence for literally anyone on the planet save for a mass murderer, paedophile, or dictator.

Nowadays, with social media tools like Twitter, corporate sinecures, politicians, and celebrities can issue their statements directly to their fans instead of going through a press release. Don't kid yourself. I'd say odds are high that many of these tweets are still being drafted by professional spokespersons. When Patrick Swayze died of pancreatic cancer in 2009, celebrities started tweeting their hearts out. "Patrick, you are loved by so many and your light will forever shine in all our lives," said Demi Moore. "I will always cherish my amazing memories of Patrick. We had so much fun together. Come back soon, Patrick. We need you here on earth," wrote Kirstie Alley. "Very sad news about the passing of P Swayze. He was a kind and generous man. Respect," stated Ben Stiller.

Okay, those three tweeters all knew Patrick Swayze. Kirstie Alley acted alongside him in the TV miniseries North and South in 1985. Ben Stiller had a small role in Swayze's 1989 film Next Of Kin. And Demi Moore appeared with him in 1990's Ghost. Did they remain close with Swayze forever after? You wouldn't know from reading the tweets. Anyone who never met Patrick could have written those.

What's more, you and I know damned well that in Hollywood a celebrity never speaks poorly of someone else in public because he never know how it might affect his career. Watch an interview with a celebrity and hear him answer how it was working with such-and-such a director or actor in his latest film. You can fill in any names you choose and still be able to draft the answer, the spokesperson's answer: "It was an honor and privilege to work with so-and-so." If a celebrity really wants to go over the top, he'll call so-and-so a genius.

Death is probably a poor, yet at the same time illuminating, example of how worthless spokespersons' statements can be. Were I to tell you that Joe Public just passed away, although you never knew Joe Public or had any idea who he was, your first reaction, unless you're a sociopath, is to say, "I'm sorry to hear that." Few people would have been thrilled to hear about Patrick Swayze's – or anyone's – passing, even if they had no clue who he was. So when famous celebrities tweet about Patrick's death publicly, the condolences are mostly meaningless, despite the tweeter possibly being sincere in his intentions. Condolences are typically delivered in private, to the departed's loved ones and family, not to one's own personal list of fans. It sounds more kosher, though just as trivial, to hear a hackneyed morsel from a corporation, such as when 20th Century Fox Television called fallen overdosing Glee lead, Cory Monteith, "an even more exceptional person … a true joy to work with." Could they really call Monteith anything else?

Not so long ago, the domain of the meaningless statement was reserved for the professional spokesperson. Today, everyone with a mobile phone can relay meaningless drivel to all his followers, Twitter Counter publishes the Twitter Top 100. Justin Bieber tops the list with 45.8m followers. His latest post reads, "So much love for the fans. You are always there for me and I will always be there for you. Much love. Thanks." I'll copy those insightful sentences down to pass onto my followers when I reach 45.8m.

This is not a diatribe against social media. I've witnessed social media put to good use. A software company lets all its followers know about an upgrade. A musicians lets his fans know the location of his next concert. But anything that can be used to save time can also be used, equivalently, to waste it.

The art of saying nothing was already a quite developed skillset before the internet. Technology has just made it simpler for all of us to become equally adept at saying nothing all the time.

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