Sunday, March 17, 2013

Speakers - Just the facts, please

Back in the 1950s, Jack Webb created a character called Sgt Joe Friday of the LAPD, in the TV series Dragnet. All TV detectives have a catchphrase, and Joe was no exception. Ever since the show aired, the phrase "Just the facts, Ma'am" has been repeated and parodied thousands of times. However, Jack Webb's character never uttered the phrase. The closest he came was in one episode when he said "All we know are the facts, Ma'am", yet many people (including some who saw the show) still believe they heard him say "Just the facts". Similarly, Humphrey Bogart never said "Play it again, Sam" in the classic film Casablanca, and Darth Vader never said "Luke, I am your father" in Star Wars.

What's the point of this? It's that if speakers tell audiences something, it's their responsibility to check that (at least to the best of their ability) that they're telling the truth. Here are a few widely-used misconceptions:

1) 'We only use 10% of our brains". Untrue. This is often mis-attributed to Albert Einstein, though there's no evidence he ever said it, let alone believed it. Neurologists have long known that we use most of our brains, most of the time.

2) "Lemmings commit mass suicide by jumping off cliffs". Untrue. The phenomenon has never been seen in nature. The idea comes from the Disney film White Wilderness, when cameramen pushed lemmings over a cliff.

3) "The Vauxhall Nova sold poorly in Spain because it means 'doesn't go' in Spanish". Untrue. Thousands of Spanish speakers worked on the project, and would obviously have noticed any problem. In fact it sold well in Spain, and many other Spanish-speaking countries.

4) "NASA spent millions developing a pen that would write in space, while the Russians used a pencil" Untrue. Both the US and Russian astronauts used pencils on early missions, then both used pens designed by the Fischer company at no cost to the space programs.

I've heard all these points, and many more, used by speakers to get a message across. If they have the desired impact, does it matter if they are false? I believe it does. If an element of a speech is untrue, what is the veracity of the remainder? In years past, I have used a couple of the statements above myself, until I took the time and trouble to check them out. Now I try to verify everything I say, unless it's my opinion, when I make that clear.

So let's please try to stick to just the facts.


Mark Lee said...

Well said Alan.

The oft repeated misquote I hear all too often concerns the three elements of communication – and the so called "7%-38%-55% Rule"

I call this the Mehrabian Myth. Even Professor Mehrabian whose research is being quoted here disputes the stats.

I wrote about this on my blog some years ago and it is typically the most read item each month. Hopefully therefore the message is getting out...

Alan Stevens said...


Thanks for your comment. You are spot-on. Here's my post on the same topic from a few years ago:

Let's keep putting the truth out there!

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