Unvarnished truth: The role of rhetoric in thought leadership

The term “rhetoric” is often used in a negative context, referring to propaganda or the spin-intensive world of politics. Yet rhetoric is really about the language of persuasion. It is as much about having something to say as it is about listening intently and thinking critically. And while the goal of rhetoric is to change people’s minds, engaging in the process means we must be open to change ourselves.

Of course, many people are hardwired to reject change. Even when faced with direct evidence that refutes a long-held belief, the more stubborn among us will dig deeper into their convictions. This tendency is known as confirmation bias, or the idea that we interpret new evidence as validation of our existing beliefs. More often than not, people will confirm biases without even realizing it.

In the world of thought leadership, a discussion and reasoning by dialectics should be the highest level of intellectual investigation. Here at Leff, we take pride in untangling complex topics, peeling away layers of obfuscation (intentional or not), and conducting research that results in some notion of truth. We ask our clients tough questions and push back when we need to—but always with the goal of improving the quality of the argument.

Above all, we believe that constructing an argument should be done in good faith. Readers don’t respond well when presented with attempts to hide weak evidence or a lack of direct experience behind tricky figures or pseudoscience. Effective thought leadership, the kind that cuts through the noise, should never try to disguise the truth. Rather, it should present insights in the clearest possible language. For example, some thought leadership relies on consultant-ese, or reductive buzzwords, to make shallow insights seem more complex. This sort of language is acceptable when writing to like-minded people but likely won’t be persuasive to a wider audience.

Genuine arguments need only present the facts and let them speak for themselves. This is especially important when conveying information that has real-world application. Overstating the case often comes across as brochureware, or language that is meant to prop up a person or institution.

Utilizing rhetoric effectively means having a strong sense of audience: knowing who you’re writing for, how much they already might know about the topic, and where you can expand upon that knowledge. It means suspending personal judgments and engaging thoughtfully with alternative points of view, even those that may seem counterintuitive. It also means encouraging authors to examine their own values and assumptions, in hopes of discovering something new.

The best thought leadership is successful when it relies on accurate data, typical experience, and firsthand industry knowledge to explain possible solutions to relevant business problems. Of course, we want the arguments made by our clients to be as honest as possible, to grab an audience’s attention, and to present readers with an airtight case.

Taking the time to listen, unpack the spin, and ask the right questions should be the first steps when seeking to change minds. Consider an argument the beginning of a conversation. After all, having something important to say should invite further dialogue, not hide from it.

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