Social and mainstream media were awash all weekend with shares of the video interviews with the O’Donovan brothers, the rowing duo from West Cork who clinched a silver medal, and stole the hearts, not only of their Irish supporters, but of Olympic watchers the world over.
Their disarmingly honest press interviews, delivered in a Skibbereen brogue that caused some to demand subtitling, are the stuff of sports broadcasting legend.
For those of us whose professional lives are dominated by thoughts of how to improve communication and increase engagement with audiences, they’re the best and most entertaining reminder of a few lessons that are all too easily forgotten in a corporate world where every soundbite is scrutinised for its possible impact on share price.
The O’Donovans are themselves – take them or leave them (or love them). Spokespeople all too often leave their authentic selves at the door and adopt a party line or corporate ‘Newspeak’ that audiences see through. Real people like to hear from real people.
After a minute with the O’Donovans we know they’re partial to Nutella, they’re dying for pizza, they use Snapchat, and they like more than a bit of craic. Be human, and speak in language your audience will understand. Even if you have a complex corporate story to communicate, personality makes you memorable and individual, and in a crisis, you can still show empathy.
The O’Donovans had audiences rolling with their ‘podium pants’ and their honest account of the physical inconveniences of Olympic doping control. If the occasion justifies it, then the right dose of well-judged humour can win over an audience. It’s not an open-mike night, but a relaxed tone of voice and a natural smile work wonders to bring an audience on side.
A bit of humility
The golden moment for me was the O’Donovan’s wish that they could be at home in Skibbereen with their families and friends celebrating their win, rather than in Rio. Whatever your role, whatever your achievement: it’s fine to celebrate success, but do it with humility and gratitude to the team that helped make it happen.
Of course, there’s more than a dash of flippancy here. In the business world, the glorious media naivety of the O’Donovans would be commercial suicide.
But in a climate of controlled messages, audience profiling, intensive media training and 24/7 insight, it’s worth reflecting on how authenticity impacts trust, and the risk that we take if – in our efforts to polish and prepare – we sacrifice realness and believability.