Talking Like A Leader – General Tells It Like It Is

by Sue Johnston, MBA, ABC, MMC

We’ve seen it too many times. A leader finds his or her organization in the middle of a mess and tries to minimize its seriousness. Out pop the weasel words, euphemisms and positioning in a bid to convince the world that things are not as they seem. It fools nobody. When ‘spin’ enters, so do doubt, speculation, suspicion and mistrust.

So it was refreshing to see the way Australia’s Chief of Army, Lieutenant-General David Morrison, handled a serious issue facing his organization. No spin. No positioning. Instead, we got a sincere delivery of a message that matters - along with a stern warning.

On June 13, Morrison
met with the news media and also recorded a three minute video for members of the armed forces – and the public. His messy issue is that army and state police are investigating a group of military men who produced and circulated videos the general described as “highly inappropriate material demeaning women.”

With the investigation ongoing, the general can’t share details. But he can share his views. “If this is true, then the actions of these members are in direct contravention to every value the Australian Army stands for.” He’s appalled and won’t tolerate such behaviour. His stance and his speech have won praise in Australian and international news media.

Why is his message so powerful? He makes it easy to understand. Morrison conveys his ideas clearly, using unambiguous language anyone can comprehend. He shows us he means what he says. His tone and manner reveal his emotions and touch ours. Finally, he invites others to help.

1) Clarity of message

clarity of message
“Those who think that it is OK to behave in a way that demeans or exploits their colleagues have no place in this Army.”

In both his statements, Morrison answers questions and speaks honestly. He shares the facts as cleanly and clearly as he can. Without compromising the investigation, he anticipates and tries to answer the questions a reporter, soldier/employee or member of the public might have.

He leaves no doubt that there are consequences for the sort of behaviour under investigation. No cushion words, no euphemisms, and definitely no nonsense. He is clear and concise. There’s no opportunity for misquotes or misunderstanding. Women are and will always be in the military. “If that does not suit you, then get out.” It doesn’t get much plainer than that.

2) Language and emotion

language and emotion
“If you become aware of any individual degrading another, then show moral courage and take a stand against it. No one has ever explained to me how the exploitation or degradation of others enhances capability or honours the traditions of the Australian Army.”

Morrison touches emotions. He doesn’t conceal his anger. It shows in his tone and his serious demeanor. There’s no need to pound the desk or shout. Other emotions, disappointment, shame, pride and hope show in his words. This CEO is not a charismatic spokesperson – he doesn’t need to be. He gets the message across with honesty and intensity.

This is a general speaking to soldiers and he deliberately uses the word ‘courage,’ an essential trait for soldiers. They are willing and trained to risk life and limb to defend their country. But he challenges them to show ‘moral courage’ and face a different sort of risk – emotional risk.

3) Call to action

call to action
“I will be ruthless in ridding the Army of people who cannot live up to its values and I need every one of you to support me in achieving this. The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.”

Morrison not only lets his troops know that the army won’t tolerate degrading behaviour, he invites them to help in fighting the systemic problems. “Every one of us is responsible for the culture and reputation of our Army and the environment in which we work.”

At the time of writing, the video has had 1,315,659 views on YouTube. Dozens of news articles and blog posts applaud Morrison’s no nonsense stand against offensive behaviour. It’s too soon to know whether this communication will, ultimately, lead to behaviour change in the Australian army. But the buzz it created has put a lot of eyeballs on a serious issue in Australia and elsewhere.

Did the general do a good job with this talk? How so? Or not? What did he miss? What did we miss? Share your thoughts.


Sue Johnston helps organizations and individuals communicate for results. She is dedicated to the belief that a real conversation is the most powerful business tool we will ever have.

Sue Johnston, MBA, ABC
Located in southwestern Ontario, Sue works with leaders and emerging leaders to develop their skills as authentic, confident communicators. The focus of her training and coaching is face-to-face communication, from media interviews and presentations to conversations with employees, clients and colleagues.

A professional communicator for 30 years, Sue worked as a TV and newspaper reporter and editor in Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton and London. That led to opportunities as a corporate writer and communication consultant in Canada's banking industry, where much of her time was spent helping executives step out from behind the slide-shows and newsletters and really talk to people.

Today, Sue combines her journalist's skills, her corporate communication experience and her business training as a communication trainer and coach to help clients achieve peak success.

Sue is licensed to deliver
At Ease With the Media.

Using Media Relations to Market a Product or Service

by Eric Bergman

Over the years, I have had the privilege of providing media training to SOCAN, which is the organization that licenses the public performance of music in Canada.

I have worked with the organization’s senior staff members and members of its board of directors, who are producers and musicians themselves. It has been a fascinating and rewarding experience to rub shoulders with the creative elite of the music industry.

rock and roll band
For one engagement, my client called to ask if I could provide one-on-one training to a new board member. It turns out that this person is the driving force behind a rock-and-roll group that I was a huge fan of in my early years (if you think of “Mary” and wonder why she’s so lonesome or been gone so long, you’d be on the right track).

On my way to the client’s location, I thought to myself: “This person has been a high profile musician for the better part of four decades. He has probably been interviewed for more articles than my kids—combined—have ever read. What can I possibly teach him that he doesn’t already know?”

At the start of the session, I talked about managing exchanges with journalists to win-win outcomes: help the journalist on one side; achieve your strategic objectives on the other.

I had barely gotten the words out of my mouth when he said: “I wish I’d met you forty years ago!”

He told me the story of being in a town for a gig with the band and being interviewed by a local radio personality. He said the DJ was very knowledgeable and they “rapped about music” throughout the interview.

secret to win-win outcomes
When he got back to the hotel, he asked the band members what they thought. One of the band members said he didn’t like the interview.

This took my training participant by surprise. “What’s not to like?” he asked. “We rapped about music. It was an awesome interview.”

“Why are we in this town?” the band member asked.

“Because we’re playing a gig.”

“I’m glad you know it and I know it,” said the band member. “But nobody else listening would know it. Neither one of you mentioned the gig once during your discussion of music.”

And therein lies the secret to win-win outcomes when you’re marketing a product or service. All the DJ or the band member needed to do was mention that tickets were still available, preferably once at the beginning of the interview (which could have been negotiated prior to the interview taking place) and once at the end.

They could have still had an interesting and free-flowing exchange that would have engaged the audience and brought the group’s music to life, while meeting the organization’s strategic objectives at the same time.

Win-win. And when you’re using media relations to promote a product or service, it’s often as simple as that.


Eric Bergman, BPA, ABC, APR, MC
´┐╝Eric Bergman, ABC, APR, MC, has coached spokespeople for more than 30 years. His media training program, At Ease With the Media, has helped thousands of spokespeople from five continents manage exchanges with journalists to win-win outcomes, while protecting themselves and their organization.

While he continues to train and coach spokespeople himself, he also offers the only structured, disciplined online media training program on the market, and the only “train-the-trainer” media training program available worldwide.

Contact Eric if you’d like to set a new standard in media training for your organization.

Commenting on a Politician's Tactics

During the summer of 2012, a colleague from Newfoundland contacted me to say that a politician, accused of overspending during his election campaign (a serious no-no in Canadian federal elections), had been asked a number of questions by a reporter about "irregularities" and kept repeating the same thing over and over. They wanted someone to interview for an upcoming public affairs program.

Two things about this video (aside from my bad haircut and big ears). First, as you watch the interview with the politician, see if you can think of defensive strategies other than "stay on message" that could have been used. Also, should the politician admit to errors? Should he take responsibility?

Second, during my interview, see if you can figure out who my audiences were (aside from everyone else who's fed up with the shenanigans of politicians the world over). I had two distinct audiences (in my mind, at least). If you can think of the audiences, see if you can determine what I want them to do or not do as a result of the conversation.

Separate Print & Broadcast

by Eric Bergman

One of the most important considerations in dealing with journalists boils down to one simple question: Is this a print journalist, or a broadcast journalist?

In this post, we’re going to briefly compare print versus broadcast, and focus on succeeding with print interviews. During later posts, we’ll focus on broadcast, namely sound bites and live interviews.
difficulties arise quote

Print journalists are those whose stories have to be read to be understood. It includes words printed to paper, certainly, but also includes words printed on-screen. Bloggers and tweeters are perfect examples.

Broadcast journalists operate with the spoken word. Their stories have to be heard to be understood. Television and radio are included in this mix, as are podcasters, videobloggers, and virtually anyone with a smartphone and a YouTube account.

Difficulties arise when the spokesperson doesn’t understand that what works well with one doesn’t work well with the other.

With print journalists, the information provided in the interview must go through the journalist, an editor, and a headline writer before it’s read by the end audience—the people the spokesperson would like to influence for his or her “win” during the exchange.

used by the journalist 3
The route to the end audience is always indirect. As information goes through those stages, it changes. And it does so very quickly.

To be successful with print media, spokespeople need to be clear, concise and focused in their answers. Answering the question and stopping is desirable more often than not. Smart spokespeople recognize that most questions can be answered in ten words or less.

That way, when messages are inserted to influence end audiences, they rise to the top. They are not surrounded by clutter that may or may not be used by the journalist.

To recap: Pause-answer-stop is your primary tactic. When you expand your answer, only do so with the intention of talking to an end audience. And the audience you address should be consistent with the question asked.

That’s how messages are woven in, not driven home.

Don't Be Afraid to Stop Talking

I read an interesting article recently, entitled "9 practical tips for a spokesperson." It's advice that author Brad Phillips provides to clients when he has 10 minutes or less to prepare them for interviews.

Certainly there is some good advice in the article. It provides insight on topics like "Don't Make a New Friend" and "Speak Everyday English"—references to the fact that the only friend a journalist has is another journalist, and the importance of clearly articulating your ideas. I'm looking forward to exploring more of Brad's ideas when we're part of a panel for a
Bulldog Reporter webinar in a couple of weeks.

In the meantime, with Brad’s permission, I would like to add a 10th tip to the list: "Don't Be Afraid to Stop Talking."

If you've said too much, stop. If you even think that you've said too much, stop. If you're not sure where you're going, stop. In fact, if you feel that a succinct answer is answer enough, stop talking.

You'll protect yourself by reducing the likelihood of being quoted out of context. You'll be more engaging to interview. And you'll increase your ability to communicate effectively in all situations, both print and broadcast.