Those who follow British politics will be familiar with a much-repeated, much-quoted line from Prime Minister Boris Johnson when he promised – “do or die” – to take the country out of the European Union by 31 October 2019.
So welcome to November 2019!
Astute observers will have spotted there are currently still 28 member nations in the European Union, including er…. the United Kingdom.
And Boris Johnson remains alive and well – even though his credibility has taken a savage blow.
The Prime Minister may have been through a political near-death experience as his Halloween Brexit deadline came and went.
Nonetheless getting Britain out of the EU by the end of October proved to be beyond Boris Johnson’s reserves of positivity, energy and charisma.
With the outgoing British parliament ahead of the forthcoming general election having more pro-remain MPs than pro-Brexit ones, getting the UK to honour its referendum result of 2016 and extract the country from the EU hasn’t yet proven possible.
Nonetheless amidst all his political the difficulties, the biggest challenge afflicting Boris Johnson’s credibility was one he generated for himself.
The ultimate problem for his credibility were those colourful words he used to express his determination for leaving the EU ahead of the 31 October deadline.
His now infamous “do or die” pledge – originally made while campaigning to win the Conservative Party leadership ahead of becoming Prime Minister – has come back to haunt him since the scary night of Halloween 2019.
WATCH YOUR WORDING
Boris Johnson is a student of great philosophers of the ancient Greek and Roman worlds.
But when it came to his ill-fated “do or die” pledge, he would have been better to have studied the relatively more recent work of the less philosophical dancer/singer/actor Fred Astaire.
In the musical comedy “Follow the Fleet”, Fred Astaire sang a song which contained a prophetic warning to Boris Johnson worthy of Ancient Greece’s Delphic oracle.
In the film’s introductory number – “We Saw The Sea” – Fred sings:
“We joined the navy to do or die
But we didn’t do, and we didn’t die”.
Uncannily it proved precisely the same for “do or die Boris”.
He didn’t do, and he didn’t die.
If, like me, you missed Fred Astaire’s song when it was released in 1936, he’ll sing it again for you here:
And if you missed Boris Johnson’s “do or die” pledge you can check that out here:
LEARNING FROM BORIS AND FRED
But while Fred was able to smile while neither doing nor dying, it’s been more difficult for Boris.
By not doing and not dying, Boris Johnson has had to face stratospheric levels of ridicule.
And he’s had the same result with his other infamous declaration.
This is the one where he said he’d rather “die in a ditch” than officially write to the European Union to seek an extension of the UK’s membership while it struggled to work out how to leave.
You can remind yourself of this unwise pronouncement here:
Alas as required by parliament, Boris Johnson has now sought an extension rather than die in a ditch.
The communications lesson for us all is clear.
When you’re making any announcement or promise regarding that unpredictable territory known as the future, you need to be ever-so-careful about how you word it.
It’s something I work on with individuals and groups when helping prepare them for their presentations, media interviews and other situations where they need to say important things in the spotlight – including great business answers to tough Brexit questions!
The fundamental rule is, don’t allow yourself to become a “hostage to fortune”.
So when you announce things about future intentions, word them in such a way that you’re eliminating the prospect of being caught out by unexpected twists and turns.
And be ready for all the questions you may face, which is why this book has been published:
If Boris Johnson had pledged that he’d “do everything humanly possible” to get the UK out of the European Union by 31 October – and he certainly threw himself into that challenge – then his credibility would have ended up in a much better place.
If he’d promised that he would only seek an extension to the UK’s membership of the EU “as an absolute last resort”, his credibility would have remained stronger.
Like the oracle of Delphi, we cannot reliably predict what’s going to happen.
But we can be careful to word pronouncements about the future in a way that won’t make us look silly – or untrustworthy – or both.
Communications training to test out you – and your wording – in advance will help make you and your message as bombproof as possible.
If you’d like to ensure that your credibility, and your organisation’s credibility, doesn’t die in a ditch, avoid bumbling your way into a “do or die” situation.
Media training to help bomb-proof you and your team’s media interview technique can be checked out here:
Presentation training to make sure you get those crucial wordings right is available here:
Programmes to ensure key members of your team are communications-ready for a wide range of challenges are set out here:
And if you’d like vital communications insights and techniques spread in an entertaining fashion at your conference, check out the options here: http://www.michaeldoddcommunications.com/speaking-at-your-event/
BE THAT SWAN
As a professional speaker, I’ve had the privilege of speaking in some extraordinary places.
One particularly memorable one was at a hotel conference centre overlooking the glorious waters of Scotland’s Loch Ness.
When the view is magnificent, the challenge for the speaker is to work smarter than ever to keep the audience so enchanted by your topic that it prevents their minds wandering off as they gaze out the windows.
In the case of Loch Ness, I had the additional potential distraction of audience members thinking that – at any moment – they might see the Loch Ness monster rise out of the mysterious waters.
I thought there could be no worse way to be upstaged – especially after I came face to face with the monster himself on the banks of Loch Ness!
But I have now faced an even bigger challenge: speaking amidst the splendours of the Brockholes nature reserve in Lancashire.
The conference centre, just outside Preston in northern England, is set amidst a stunning nature reserve.
And there isn’t a lurking a monster hidden in the stillness of its waters as far as I could tell.
What Brockholes does have is an abundance of ducks, herons, egrets and other birds constantly wading, paddling, flying and fishing amongst the reeds.
While I was there helping an audience of senior teachers at their conference to prepare for media interviews, the challenge was to keep them focused on the task at hand without being distracted by the birdlife.
Fortunately, by testing out volunteers with “blowtorch-on-the-belly” questions in mock interviews, it did concentrate their minds effectively on becoming as media bombproof as possible.
Of course, one of the aspirations for those facing tough media questions is to make it SEEM effortless – even if you’re working hard to give great answers and avoid making yourself a “do or die” hostage to fortune.
So the majestic white swans of Brockholes sailing past the large conference room windows provide a role model for all.
As the swans glided across the water, they made it seem effortless because – from above the waterline – you can’t see how hard they’re paddling underneath.
So be like the swan whenever you’re facing tough questions.
If you plan, prepare and practice in the right way in advance you, too, can glide through the experience while making it appear effortless.
And if your preparation involves working out carefully, precisely and safely the wording of any statements about the future, then there’s no need for your credibility to die in a ditch!