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7 Lessons From 2008's Biggest Communication Blunders

By: Bill Lampton, Ph.d.

As you think back over your professional activities during 2008, you are likely to remember your most obvious communication blunders:

*You called a gatekeeper by the wrong name

*You mailed a letter to a prospective client, then learned you had sent it earlier

*You told a joke that offended a prospect

*You failed to follow up with product information you had promised

*You forgot to make a scheduled sales call

*Your Power Point presentation failed technically

It's natural that those bloopers embarrass you. However, because you kept track of major newsmakers during the year, you discovered that even people with the highest public profiles and credentials stumbled in their communication efforts, too.

Hopefully, in recapping your own faltering communication steps, you learned some lessons-and will apply them in 2009. From my steady observation of major events, here are the top 7 worst communication blunders of 2008:

1. Casey Anthony claimed innocence in her daughter Caylee's disappearance, even though Casey waited a month to report Caylee as missing from their Orlando, Florida home.

Why the blunder was so awful: Any parent knows that a delay in reporting your child's disappearance would be unthinkable for a mother. The lesson: People won't believe you if your statement or action doesn't seem logical. Aristotle called this factor logos, and said it was one of the three great tools of persuasion, with emotion and the speaker's character being the other two.

2. O.J. Simpson's five-minute courtroom speech at his December 5 sentencing in Las Vegas

Why the blunder was so awful: Even if what he said was true--that he had no idea he was harming anyone or breaking the law--his timing was very bad. The verdict had come in, and the judge had made her decision about his sentence. His statement might have had an impact during the trial, but was useless now.

The lesson: Timing your message is a must. Even the right thing said at the wrong time makes only a minimal impact.

3. The auto industry's big three leaders asking Congress for huge bailouts, yet flying to D.C. in their private corporate jets Why the blunder was so awful: Owning a private corporate jet doesn't coincide with most people's concept of financial destitution.

The lesson: Your nonverbal actions must be consistent with your spoken message. Ralph Waldo Emerson said it well: "What you are speaks so loudly, I cannot hear a word you say."

4. Vice Presidential candidate Joe Biden referred to John McCain as "McLain" during a speech in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Why the blunder was so awful: It seems ludicrous for a vice presidential candidate to forget the last name of a major opponent. Worse still, the mistake added credence to Biden's well-documented reputation for gaffes.

The lesson: Biden recovered with quick wit: "You see, I don't even recognize him any more." Keep Biden's bounce-back in mind. Tasteful, spontaneous humor can turn a blunder into a memorable advantage.

5. President Bush trying to assure TV viewers in September that the U.S. economy is sound

Why the blunder was so awful: Even while he spoke, unemployment numbers soared, companies filed for bankruptcy, and the stock market plunged hundreds of points daily.

The lesson: Even a beginning debater knows not to make a general statement that contradicts very obvious facts. Stick to what you can prove with relevant, current data.

6. Fred Thompson's listless quest for the presidential nomination

Why the blunder was so awful: Weeks of publicity and fanfare preceded his announcement, with the expectation that this accomplished actor and politician would sizzle. Instead, he fizzled, with infrequent appearances and bland statements when he did show up.

The lesson: When you start a project, you must maintain the same level of zest and enthusiasm people expect from you before the launch.

7. Hillary Clinton's claim that she had endured an ambush of  sniper fire upon her arrival in Bosnia in 1990.

Why the blunder was so awful: Almost immediately, newscasters found and broadcasted archived films of her Bosnia arrival, which portrayed the scene as quite peaceful.

The lesson: Speak the truth. And when you are caught lying, admit your mistake, rather than saying--as Senator Clinton did--that  you "misspoke." Also, don't refer to a major error as a "minor blip," when that wasn't the case.

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