A note about quotes: Make them real

quotation-marksBy Dennis Nealon

There’s advice and then there’s really good, sage advice – the kind that lasts a lifetime or an entire career.

Some of the best guidance that I have ever received as a communications and media relations practitioner had to do with the drafting of quotes and statements on behalf of a company or organization. This advice came to me not from books or professors, but from a former Associated Press reporter whom I  approached with press releases and story ideas (many of them duds, admittedly, but more than a few winners) while working as a pitchman and spokesperson in higher education. “Prepared quotes have to be real,” he told me early on in our working relationship. “They have to sound like something that someone would actually say.”

This sounds simple. It seems almost obvious. But it’s not. The traditional press release may be fading like the daily, hard copy newspaper in society, but some communications practitioners are still cranking out canned and tired quotations and statements.

Turn on the television news or read any report that contains a prepared statement from a chief executive, elected representative, or spokesman and you will still find poorly concocted remarks that sound rehearsed. These find their way into news reports when the media has no other comment or sound bite to use. Nowhere is this more apparent than when you read about a tragedy or sudden death. I am still surprised when an individual or organization issues the simplistic, “our thoughts and prayers go out to the victim’s family.” Or when a communications office issues a press release with a CEO waxing about a “wonderful, unique, new program that so many worked tirelessly to bring to fruition.”

As these kinds of statements pop up in news stories I think back to that advice that I got from my acquaintance at AP. In fact, I return to that same advice each and every time I find myself drafting quotations for a boss or client.

There is an art to avoiding canned, fake quotes. And there will be tiny workplace wars waged in trying to convince your boss or the firm’s executive leadership to stay simple, direct and genuine with their messaging. But these are battles worth fighting if your goal as a practitioner is to get your quotes picked up and make the CEO sound thoughtful and, well, real.

In a perfect world where you could be completely open and honest with your boss, you might tell him or her the following when it comes to issuing statements or comments in writing: Let’s forget about sounding omniscient. Forget about being deliberately multisyllabic, too. Be brief and real, and say something that doesn’t sound canned, endlessly vetted, or so very typical. Don’t ever write or say, “we’re shocked and saddened,” or our “thoughts and prayers go out to the family…” Don’t labor over a quote to try and make it sound super smart. It won’t work. For goodness sakes, reach for something real and sincere. Something like, “we’re all crushed by this terrible loss, but we will stick together and work together to try and accept it as best we can.”

When I was working as a daily newspaper reporter, a great editor did me a favor when he sent me back some routine fire copy I had filed for the next morning’s issue. “I like it,” he said. “It’s good.” “Now take out every other adverb and every other adjective.” The same thing might be said to the communications practitioner who’s working on a press release or CEO’s reaction to something in the news. Lose the hyperbole. Aim for a true gut reaction and proceed from there.