I was reading a reputable sports magazine the other day – I shall leave you to guess the sport – and I was struck by the number of players, coaches, managers and chief executives who were interviewed…. and what meaningless hogwash they uttered. I have made a list of examples of the most vacuous:
We must show that we get it
We intend to work on action and changes
There’s definitely a progressive theme here
We’re on a journey
We need to execute our skill sets
We need to take a more holistic approach to our operation
Having a robust culture is never a project that is finished
We did a lot of work with the group around discussing what they wanted as one of our key stakeholders
We’re currently in a good mindset
I’m thrilled to have the chance to make more memories here
He’s definitely in the mix
It’s important to create the right culture in the group going forward
And how about this for a piece of overblown circumlocution:
The ideal candidate will be an individual of outstanding achievement, with the time, passion and commitment to devote to associated stakeholders at this exciting time in the development of the club.
Goodness me! They were not trying to employ the President of the United States. Or the Director-General of the BBC. Or the head honcho at MI5.
The use of inflated language to enhance words with a greater importance than they deserve is not, of course, limited to sports people; it’s been a tactic of politicians, dictators and officials down the millennia. Take Julius Caesar:
“But I am constant as the Northern star
Of whose true fixed and lasting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament.”
He is comparing himself to one of the brightest stars in our sky and doesn’t find himself wanting. Another populist leader from much closer to home, Donald Trump, shamelessly used bombast and empty rhetoric in his public announcements. Try this for size:
“Our country is in serious trouble. We don’t have any victories anymore. We used to have victories but now we don’t have them. When was the last time anybody saw us beating, let’s say China, to a trade deal? They kill us. I beat China all the time. All the time.”
Vainglory is a human trait, though not an admirable one. I just wish people, when they are being interviewed would cock an ear to what they are actually saying. “Brevity will prove an aid to clearer thinking,” Churchill told his staff at the height of the Battle of Britain. Take his famous speech to the House of Commons on 4th June 1940:
“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”
First, nobody can be in any doubt of the message he is conveying; it is pithy, clear, unambiguous and totally lacking in grandiloquence. Secondly, the tools he uses – the language – are simple. Almost all the words are of one syllable. All of them – saving ‘surrender’, which we shall come to shortly - are from Anglo-Saxon, the basis of our language. The fundamental, elemental words we use - hand, head, arm, leg, sky, star, land, tree, dog, cat, cow, food etc, etc - all originate from Anglo-Saxon and are of one syllable. The French influence, following the Norman Conquest, gave us more words (about 30% of the total lexicon, it is estimated) that derive from the Romance languages (originally Latin) and are usually multi-syllable. Thus, we have an abundance of synonyms in our everyday language: face/visage, head/titular, church/ecclesiastic, food/nourishment, grass/herbaceous, shop/boutique, love/amorous, hate/detest, walk/march, look/regard, live/vivacious, dead/deceased etc. The French words, or the words originating from Norman French, add shades of meaning and inestimably enhance (another French word) the language (yet another one, but I don’t want to labour the point). The point is that Churchill kept it simple,but his words lost nothing in their power and effectiveness. If you are wondering about ‘surrender’…. that is the only word that comes from French - ‘surrendre’. I wouldn’t put it past the wily old dog to insert that French word, as France had just surrendered to the Germans.
The people whom I have quoted above have not kept it simple, to the extent that what they are uttering is largely meaningless. I would go even further and encourage them to say nothing; if all they can offer is empty platitudes, why do the interview in the first place?
Yet I understand the voracious appetite of the media for interviews, comment and soundbites which are difficult to turn down. If the predictions, hunches and guesses before the event are quickly forgotten, the post-match interviews are socringeworthy. Has a sportsman or woman ever made a coherent and measured response immediately after the heat of battle? Wouldn’t it be more likely to get a sensible and thoughtful assessment once the dust has settled? But of course, television and radio have their schedules and the public appetite for instantaneous comment must be slaked. For the most part, nothing of any interest is uttered. There are of course the interviews that make you laugh out loud, on account of their hopelessly mixed metaphors, their garbled syntax and their mangled grammar. I shall never forget one comment from a manager after a football match: “’E’s done groin. We’ll ‘ave a look at it later.” Or Paul Gascoigne’s comment, “I never make predictions and never will.” Or “That was a highly contagious decision.” Or “The tide is very much in our court now.” I could go on.
In truth, it has to be said that the poor interviewee is rarely helped by the inanity of the questions put by the interviewer. “Tell me, what’s it feel like to be Wimbledon Champion/ World Cup Winner/ British Open Champion/Grand National Winner?” How can anybody in the immediate flush of victory harness feelings to give a rational and sober response? Yet surely, even the most scrambled brain can think of a better reply than, “Over the moon”.
There are exceptions, however. When my friend, Bryan Richardson, was chairman of Coventry City and Gordon Strachan was his manager, the television monitor in the directors’ suite would be turned up loud for everyone to listen to Strachan’s post-match interview. They were priceless because Strachan was possessed of a quick wit and a sharp tongue. Examples abound of how he regarded inane questions as fertile ground for wisecracks:
Q “What is your impression of Jermaine Jenas?”
A “I don’t do impressions.”
Q “Gordon, can we have a quick word?”
Q “So, Gordon, in what areas do you think Middlesbrough were better than you today?”
A “Mainly that big green area out there.”
Q “So, Gordon, any plans for Europe this year?”
A “Aye, me and the wife quite fancy Spain in August.”
Q “So, Gordon, any changes today?”
A “Naw. Still five foot six, big nose and ginger hair.”
Q “So, Gordon, if you were English, what formation would you play?”
A “If I was English, I’d top myself.”
Q “This may be a daft question, but are you pleased to have that win under your belt?”
A “You’re right, that is a daft question, spot on there. I’m not even bothering to answer that daft question.”
Q “Gordon, do you think James Beattie ought to be in the England squad?”
A “I don’t care. I’m Scottish.”
I am told that sportsmen and women have media training these days, presumably to get them to feel more relaxed and less wooden in front of a camera or a microphone. They might well just not have bothered. All it teaches them is to toe the party line, to parrot the fine-sounding cliches and to avoid saying anything controversial – not good for the corporate image. There is much talk of “the group staying strong”, how the club is “on a journey”, and that “It’s a game of two halves”, that “we’re taking it one game at a time” and always “we’re giving it 110%”. Rarely does the interviewee step outside the confines of his media training and utter something that is vaguely interesting or insightful. Are they all stupid or just frightfully dull? I doubt that. In every sport we find mavericks, those who do not sit comfortably in the wide spaces of the anodyne, either out there or on the pitch or withtheir nonconformist opinions. They are the ones, I suspect, who are swiftly led away from any contact with the media or their public. They might upset the apple cart.
I have come to the conclusion that:
• Footballers utter cliches
• Cricketers utter platitudes
• Golfers speak gobbledegook
• Tennis players speak American
• Jockeys speak Oirish
• Athletes are out of breath
• Racing drivers speak… well, you can’t hear them
But it’s all claptrap.