October 4, 2022

Helping PR pros make smarter decisions

In defense of doubt.

In defense of doubt.

I’m a big fan of Amber Naslund’s blog, Altitude Branding. She’s smart, and writes very well, and consistently churns out some of the more thoughtful pieces I see in the marketing/PR/communications space. Not too long ago, she wrote a piece asking those of us who write online to “Quit Pulling Your Punches.” I have a tendency to moderate a lot of what I say, so although I come at this topic from a decidedly different perspective, I read the piece (and most of the comments) and mentally filed it.

A few days later, she penned another interesting piece (see, I told you she writes good stuff) about tactics for civil disagreement, something that is sorely lacking in the online space. Again, I read, absorbed, and mentally filed.

The two pieces have continued to bump in my brain–I feel they are directly connected. I think we hedge our statements and add qualifiers so that we don’t appear obstinate and unwilling to listen. And I’m fine with that. In fact, I’m fine with expressing doubt, I actually prefer it–if the person means it. One of my greatest annoyances about politics is the negative connotation of the charge of a politician “flip-flopping” on an issue. To me, the greater sin is steadfastly sticking to the same viewpoint, in defiance of changing information–that just shows you aren’t willing to learn, analyze, and modify based on the best existing data. To me, doubt and humility have their place. Making statements however well reasoned that appear to have an “I’m right” feel will raise hackles.

Amber’s broader point is that anything we write (unless a research piece/report) is our opinion, and that should be obvious to those reading, so it is unnecessary to couch things in such terms (by using IMHO, or “just my .02”, etc.). The problem with this point lies with the reader, not the writer. There are studies being conducted to determine how online reading comprehension differs from the printed word, but there is enough information to indicate that it is different, and not in a good way. People skim more and absorb less, so it’s far easier to be misunderstood–which goes directly to Amber’s point #4 in the civility post: “Read, read, and read again.” Couching one’s language is perhaps a way of addressing that we know most readers won’t take the time to “read, read, and read again,” so we try and get it through on the first pass. I could go on and on about reading comprehension–I feel it is becoming a lost art–but will save that for another post.

Most of us who write online content, particularly long-form (e.g., anything over 140 characters) know that our readers’ attention spans are likely not going to last long. Some write short pieces, others write controversial ones, to get readers to continue reading past the first few sentences. To me, writing pieces with “squish” language to soften words and statements falls into the “an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure.” I’d rather write a piece that doesn’t offend (but hopefully makes people think) than a piece that is perceived as too direct on which I have to spend time extinguishing fires. In short, I soften my words in hopes that I rarely have to deal with uncivil disagreement.

But that’s just my .02. 😉

(And yes, I think using emoticons falls under the same heading of softening words. And clearly I’m fine with them too, no matter what Lance Armstrong says.)

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About The Author

Jennifer Zingsheim Phillips is the Director of Marketing Communications for CARMA. She is also the founder of 4L Strategies, and has worked in communications and public affairs for more than 20 years. Her background includes work in politics, government, lobbying, public affairs PR, content creation, and digital and social communications and media analysis.

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