Write Like a Thought Leader, not Like a Jerk: How to Voice an Opinion Without Giving Offense
By Richelle South, Content Strategist for APAC, Hippo Thinks
“I don’t want to sound like a braggart.” “But what if I’m wrong?” “My network is small, and I can’t have potential clients getting offended.” These are just a few of the reasons my clients have told me that they are hesitant to express strong opinions in bylined pieces.
In every case, I tell them that giving into these doubts would be a mistake. Bylines are a vital component to any content marketing strategy, and the easiest way to get one published in a top-tier outlet is to take a contrarian or even controversial stance. An article that agrees with what everyone else has said on the topic simply won’t catch the eye of a publication editor who might see dozens of pitches each day.
In fact, taking a strong, provocative stand for something you believe in will help to future-proof your brand. If you can use your opinion writing to tap into values and causes that your clients care about, they’ll start to see you as a leader worth following. Plus, research has shown that customers are 8.1% more likely to purchase from a company that shares their opinions. This doesn’t mean you need to talk politics, but it does mean boldly taking stances that aligns with your company’s heart and mission.
Now, just because an opinion is strong doesn’t mean it has to be rude and tactless, or land you in the sequel to So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. You can express a confident point of view without coming off as a know-it-all or turning off potential clients. Here are five tips for writing bylines that voice strong views—and having friendly conversations about them afterwards.
1. Test out your argument. Before you put anything down in writing, talk to trusted friends and colleagues about your idea. How they react will give you a good sense of how your hypothetical readers would respond. If they’re intrigued and want to learn more, that’s a good sign! If they’re skeptical, you may need to refine and strengthen your argument before putting it in print. Hearing negative comments may be painful, but the more feedback you get at this early stage, —and the less you’ll be surprised by reader reactions. Checking out previous articles on a similar topic is another great way to judge how extreme your opinions actually are and how they might be received.
2. Use research to back up your claims. Worried that you don’t know enough or aren’t smart enough to make the argument that’s in your head? The best antidote to impostor syndrome is research, and lots of it. Backing up your intuitions with facts not only makes for a better article, it’s also often a confidence boost. In many cases, our clients find out that the views that they were so unsure of were actually backed by solid evidence all along—they just hadn’t found it yet.
For instance, our cofounder, Anna, had always felt like there was a difference between how male vs. female employees generally reacted to her authority, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on it. When our researchers dug in for her piece on the topic for Entrepreneur, they found a study showing that men act more aggressively when managed by a female boss vs. a male boss. They also found evidence that men interrupt women—even their female bosses—three times as often as they interrupt men. Now, Anna’s intuition about male vs. female employees was a scientifically backed argument. Rather than getting attacked, she ended up getting invited onto a BYU radio show to discuss her piece.
3. Write to start a discussion, not a confrontation. A lot of opinion writing on the internet is blaming, dismissive, and snarky—but there’s no law that says yours has to be. By adopting a calm and measured tone when writing your article, you can show respect for readers who disagree with you while still sticking to your own position.
A great example of this is an op-ed one of our clients published in Ad Age, “The Creative Director Role (as We Know It) Won’t Exist in 10 Years.” That’s a bold pronouncement, and one that could definitely ruffle some ad agencies’ feathers. But the author, George Penston, doesn’t play the blame game: the worst he says of creative directors themselves is that they “continue to do things as they’ve always done them,” when instead they should be preparing for a future in which technology will have a greater role in their work. The piece ended up getting more than 6,000 engagements on social media, none of it nasty and negative.
Reasonable readers will understand that you are not out to mock or put down the other side but to spark a thoughtful conversation, and they will respond in kind.
4. Think of counterarguments ahead of time. Many of my clients worry that if colleagues challenge the argument of their byline in casual conversation, they won’t be able to defend it and will end up looking foolish. If that’s your worry, my suggestion to you is: practice. Try to anticipate what a critic might say against your argument, and think up a few different ways you could respond (respectfully, of course). If you do this early on in the opinion writing process, you may be able to incorporate some of these responses into the piece itself, further strengthening your points.
Additionally, having your ideas challenged is the sign of a worthy idea. (No one’s going to bother arguing with me if I insist that the sky is green.) Reframe your thinking to see challenges as a sign that you’re doing something right—and even visionary. As writer John Butman points out, “An idea that advocates any kind of change is likely to receive some amount of negative response.”
5. If you receive criticism, take your time to respond. Of course, you can’t anticipate every possible criticism, and it’s still always possible you’ll find yourself caught off-guard. In that case, it’s totally fine to tell the person something like: “That’s interesting, I hadn’t thought about that! Let me think on it and get back to you.” After you’ve had a chance to formulate a thorough answer, you can follow up in person or over email to continue the discussion then. Even feedback that seems negative or critical can be the start of a positive discussion—and a source of important business contacts.
Photo by Freddy Castro courtesy of StockSnap.io.