April 14, 2020
Want Your Voice to Stand Out in a Crisis? Be Still and Listen
To rise above the noise, just be quiet.
We’re all inundated with screaming headlines, relentless statistics and endless so-called thought leadership. Most of it, particularly the thought leadership, is shoved in our faces with little thought for what we need to know, what’s worrying us, or what questions we wish someone would answer.
Outside of global pandemics, we like to say that true thought leadership, the kind of content that builds authority, has four attributes: relevance, urgency, novelty and utility. But at this point we’ll assume that anything you’re publishing related to COVID-19 is relevant (the crisis effects everybody) and urgent (it’s a crisis). The insights that will rise above the noise during the crisis are the ones that are new and useful.
Learning From Crises Past
To a degree it’s always been that way. I was a college reporter in the days and weeks after 9/11, and an editor around the 2008 financial crisis, and I still remember the urgency we all felt to go find novel stories our readers needed to hear.
Of course, we were always looking for those stories. And on an intellectual level we understood that our reporting and editorial judgment mattered. But in the wake of global calamity, with lives and livelihoods in the balance, that understanding became visceral. You could feel the weight of the crisis in the almost-desperate search for stories that nobody else had told, in the ferocity of the conversations about what our readers needed to know.
And the only way to get at those new and useful stories was to go talk to people. And more importantly, to listen.
How to Listen Today
There are a bunch of different ways to listen, and now is a good time to employ them all. The first, most obvious and most literal is calling clients, prospects and others who’re in the audience you want to reach and just asking them what’s keeping them up at night, what questions they’re asking, what problems have them perplexed.
My guess is most practitioners are already doing that. We recently worked with an attorney to publish a smart perspective on the coming battles between businesses and their insurance companies – an article she could only write because she’d been listening to her clients.
But as valuable as that kind of listening can be, we have to tread carefully as well. We risk producing insights that are too narrow – the last person you talked to doesn’t necessarily have the same problems and questions as their peers the world over.
So it also makes sense to listen in the aggregate, using data tools to see what your audiences want to know. SEO data can help you home in on utility by telling you what questions the audience is asking. Media-research tools can show you what’s already been said, so you know where the novelty lies.
If you don’t have the tools, or don’t know how to use them, a simple Google search on the topic you want to write about can tell you how much has already been said, who’s said it and how well. If the first page of search results reveals a litany of others saying what you wanted to say, your choices are either to advance the conversation or move on and start a different one.
In the first few weeks of the COVID-19 crisis (which already feels like nine months ago), it may have made sense to just run and gun with your content, to get the insights flowing quickly, knowing your clients and prospects were desperate for information.
Now that just about everybody has done that, the flow of insights has turned into a raging, deafening river of noise. The worst thing any of us can in our communications is add to that noise.
But if we can just be still for a few moments and listen to the people we’re trying to reach, we can find out what information they need, what would help them get through this. If we can provide it, they’ll have no trouble hearing us above the noise.