1. Leverage your identity
In an ideal world, your speech or editorial would be judged on the merits alone. Your identity would not shape the audience’s opinion of what you have to say. But, as you may have guessed, we don’t live in an ideal world.
Identity matters. Effective communicators leverage their identity to amplify their opinion. If you’re a successful executive, people will care about your opinion on how to run a business. If you’re a famous athlete, people will care about your opinion on sports. If you’re attractive, people will care more about what you have to say than if somebody else had said it.
It’s why ESPN hires former athletes and coaches as talking heads. It’s why Sheryl Sandberg can come out with a ghostwritten book and have people give a shit while Erin Callan doesn’t even register in the zeitgeist. Who you are is just as important as what you say. There is a limited set of topics that your identity enables you to speak with authority on. Find out what those topics are and stick to them.
2. Play to your audience and, when in doubt, simplify
You should have a pretty good idea of who your intended audience is when you give an opinion. For example, Thought Catalog’s audience is mostly female, more likely to have a college degree, and more likely to look at the website from work rather than from home or school. You can maximize the impact of your words by tailoring it to your specific audience. When in Rome.
A dialogue enables the participants to gauge each other’s knowledge on a subject, but an editorial or speech doesn’t. An effective communicator knows that it’s better to broaden the potential audience by breaking down a concept than to narrow the audience by sticking to insider jargon. Uncertainty about your audience should be resolved in favor of simplicity.
3. Newbies should stick to the script, veterans should diverge
There’s no rule that prevents people from expressing a polarizing opinion. But without proper context, some people will automatically jump to the worst conclusion possible. And the critics are almost always louder than the supporters. To make sure your editorial/speech retains its effectiveness, you need to know where you are in the newbie-veteran scale.
When you don’t have much of a track record, your opinion is judged mainly on its face. And that means the people judging the opinion are more likely to bring their own prejudice into the mix. Every time you express an opinion, you’re building out your identity. It’s important to build the broadest possible audience early on, and then build diehard support later on.
It goes back to the first concept of leveraging your identity. It becomes easier to express a polarizing opinion later on, once your audience has a good idea of who you are as a communicator. But when you do it early on, you can alienate a huge chunk of your potential audience. The goal is breadth then depth.
4. Tell a story
People love to connect the dots. They love to find trends in the data, even when none exist. We have a knack for it. Everything has to link to something else. For many, it’s all about The Big Picture, and how your opinion fits into it. It’s perfectly encapsulated in this quote: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”
It seems that most would rather be the hedgehog than the fox. We all congregate around our one big thing, linking everything else back to that central ideology, the highest truth upon which our outlook is based. In politics, it could be said that the tea party’s big thing could be summed up in one sentence: “government is the root of all problems in society”. Conversely, for progressives, that one big thing could be “inequality is the root of all problems in society”.
People love anecdotes that can be sacrificed upon the altar of higher truth. Right now, the shooting in Ferguson, MO has captured the country’s attention. Coverage of the actual shooting has long been subsumed into a larger narrative of racial injustice. For progressives, it is an anecdote that serves the higher truth, “racism is still alive in America”, which, in turn, serves the highest truth of “inequality is the root of all problems in society”. All this from an incident in which the actual truth remains unknown.
5. Pick a side
Depending on the One Big Thing that you believe in, you might have been annoyed by the preceding paragraph. One thing to constantly keep in mind is that you will never be able to reach everybody with your opinion. It may be popular with some and disliked by others. But it can never be popular with everyone. You can always find somebody who disagrees with you.
It’s important to embrace that dynamic. The person who takes no sides or endlessly waffles between two sides is consigned to irrelevancy and obscurity. If you’re not ruffling somebody’s feathers, you’re doing it wrong. The most important subjects are those where no consensus exists. And the most effective communicators usually find themselves talking about the most important subjects.