Blog in 11 2012.
Do you agree with sugar-free birthday cakes at children’s parties? I don’t. There’s nothing more disappointing.
But what does turn me the colour of acai berry with rage is things that pretend to be good for your baby when they’re not. Companies who use their words to claim to be healthy and enriched with good stuff. Clever phrases such as ‘added vitamins’, ‘no added flavours or preservatives’, ‘no added salt’ – benefits deliberately highlighted to distract you from all the bad stuff they are filled with.
Take one well-known brand’s rusks for example. They have more sugar in them, per 100g, than dark chocolate digestives.*
Oh, and their creamy baby porridge? ‘Mum’s number one choice’, ‘no added salt’, ‘1/3 of baby’s vitamins and minerals’? But it’s only 40 per cent porridge oats and there are 6.7g of sugar per 100g serving.*
Not to mention that their toddlers’ mini cheese biscuits contain more saturated fat, per 100g, than a quarter pounder with cheese.*
But you’d never know to read the packaging. Eating good or bad food should be a choice. And companies should be honest about their packaging, especially for people brand new to the world.
*Stats from the Children’s Food Campaign.
At the beginning of our workshops, we often ask people to think of their favourite word. It gets them thinking about different aspects of language, notably whether it’s the meaning of a word they like (this week in San Jose we’ve had ‘gracious’, ‘serendipity’ and ‘burgundy’) or its sound (‘caboose’, ‘plethora’ and ‘onomatopoeia’).
On Friday, one of our participants said she didn’t have a favourite word, but she had one she just HATED: ‘moist’. And upon its utterance most of the room squirmed, audibly and visibly.
The funny thing is, the exact same thing has happened quite a few times. In fact, occasionally someone says they LOVE the word, yet a ripple of revulsion still passes through the rest of the crowd.
So what is it? The meaning? The sound? The slightly risqué combination of the two (or our prudish response)? Does it tap into some deep-seated reflex of disgust? Why?
Or is the idea of ‘moist’ as a disgusting word a meme? An idea that’s been talked about, passed on, and stays lurking just below the consciousness, waiting to emerge, ineluctably triggered when a writing trainer innocently asks for the exact opposite?
Either we really have discovered the most shudder-inducing word in English, or there’s something funny going on.
It’s one of those phrases: thought leadership. I mean, thought is good, right? And leadership comes in pretty handy, doesn’t it?
I’ve just been to an event where consultancies were bemoaning the time their businesses spend producing ‘thought leadership’ and the limited results they felt they were getting from it. Yet some of our clients have whole departments devoted to it.
One of the problems is the first word. From time to time, a client will ask us to help write a piece of ‘thought leadership’. ‘Of course’, we say. ‘What’s the subject?’ They tell us. ‘Great, and what are your thoughts on that subject?’, we ask. ‘Oh’, the client says, ‘we thought you’d do that.’
Thought leadership just means ‘having an opinion’. And the most interesting opinions are gleaned from years of experience, plus a little brainpower and reflection. Which means your business’s ‘thoughts’ are unlikely to appear magically out of the air of the marketing department (or their agencies). Instead they’ll come from your practitioners doing what they do best.
So this blog is thought leadership. Or, at least, it’s a thought. If you tell anyone else about it, or our competitors start using the same opinion in their pitches (it happens, trust me), then it’ll be ‘leadership’ too.
Where writers like us can help is expressing those opinions in the most compelling language possible. A good test is whether you can boil your argument down to a pithy wee phrase. One of my favourites is ‘Any company that is serious about corporate responsibility shouldn’t have a CR department’. It’s just an opinion. An intriguing one, a provocative one, but just an opinion. That’s why thought leadership doesn’t exist.
Rhetoric: the lost art of persuasion
In all my years of education refining my wordsmithery – from GSCE to Masters – nobody ever mentioned rhetoric. It wasn’t until a chat down the pub with a stonemason that it popped up.
Rhetoric gets bad press. Probably because, like an inverted Midas touch, anything a politician touches turns to mud. But rhetoric isn’t bad. It’s what the Greek philosophers used to get their ideas across. It’s about proper communication.
So I had a gander. And there’s a lot we can learn from the Greeks. They knew their stuff.
1. Prove your credibility (ethos)
Your character is extremely important.
Why should someone believe your words? Do you have experience? If you’re a professor of physics, I’m going to believe what you say about the space-time continuum. But I won’t ask you which stocks to invest in.
2. Appeal to emotion (pathos)
Your reader needs to feel.
It doesn’t matter which emotion. It might be joy. It might be nostalgia. It might be pride. But feelings keep us interested. They help us remember what you’re talking about. They let us know you’re human.
3. Give reasons (logos)
Give evidence and be logical.
It sounds so obvious. But you need reasons for everything you say. Your reader needs to follow your thought process – so they can decide if they agree with you. All claims need evidence to back them up, not just wild ones.