I’m part of a generation of (aging) sports fans who grew up listening to Howard Cosell, the ABC broadcaster who became famous for “telling it like it is.”
In an era when sports announcers were expected to stick to just calling the games, Cosell broke the mold. Sports, he said, was about a lot more than simply balls and strikes; it was a microcosm of the broader society. And so, Cosell used the opportunity to share his opinions – and he seemingly had something to say about everything.
Some hated him. Some loved him. Few remained indifferent.
Can you say the same about most of the commentary pieces that pop up on platforms like Medium or LinkedIn? As an editor and occasional columnist for more years than I care to recall, I love to come across opinions that challenge convention or stake out a strong position. With few exceptions, however, I often encounter collections of bland talking points in search of a compelling point of view.
I don’t blame the authors as much as I blame the process.
It starts with some enterprising marketer hoping to promote their clients as “thought leaders” in their respective categories. Nothing necessarily wrong about that. If you have smart people on your teams, they should have great insight into trends and issues that affect their customers.
Unfortunately, the efforts will stall out if the authors of the opinion piece go out of their way to avoid offending anyone. And too often, that’s the result.
A PR friend with decades of experience in the trenches explained it this way:
“Anything that you see a tech CEO post on social media, is for the most part probably written by someone else,” he said. “Given today’s world, I don’t think that your average CEO would see any real upside of speaking their mind. Even if your company gets attacked by the President of the United States, most companies aren’t going to respond, because there’s way more downside. You have to think about your customers, who may agree with him.”
That mindset factors into the reticence of Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and Sundar Pichai to respond to repeated White House attacks against their companies for being biased. Why pick a fight that only invites more blowback? Indeed, outside of Box CEO Aaron Levie, few of his CEO compatriots are willing to speak frankly about anything that remotely smacks of political controversy. (Check out Levie’s Twitter feed. It’s brilliant.)
But you don’t need to blast out heat-seekers to stand apart from the crowd.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, the leaders of the computer field were more than willing to speak their minds about the future of technology. Back then the industry was in flux with few standards and so everything was up for grabs. It led to an exciting, no-holds barred competition where rivals regularly went at it – and sometimes each other – with gusto. Folks like Borland’s Philippe Kahn, Sun’s Scott McNealy and Lotus’s Jim Manzi were veritable quote machines and didn’t hesitate to speak their minds, staking out positions either in interviews or bylined commentaries.
So, what turned rowdy executives into veritable shrinking violets?
In a word, success.
During the era when Comdex was the big geek confab, tech played a relatively minor role in the economy and so industry leaders who shot from the hip rarely had to worry about blowback. Fast-forward to the present and tech is a giant industry that accounts for almost 12 million jobs and an estimated $1.8 trillion in direct economic output (or just over 10% of the national economy). This is the big time, and tech CEOs who find themselves in the spotlight must also consider the impact of their words on any number of constituents, including Wall Street, shareholders – and the millions of customers participating in the fast-emerging digital economy.
Make it Plain
The great tech conversation didn’t end with the release of Windows. Nor did it end with the introduction of the Macintosh. And it won’t end with the emergence of cloud computing, the Internet of Things and the myriad other applications unleashed by Big Data and Artificial Intelligence.
The deployment of these myriad technologies raises real societal issues that people and their governments will grapple with over the next decade and beyond. So, keep this in mind as you settle in front of the keyboard:
- If you’re planning on pushing somebody to do a thought leadership piece, start by making sure they are willing to share thoughts that are actually worth reading. Particularly strong thoughts and opinions that dare to challenge conventional assumptions.
- Don’t pull your punches and pretend that technology resides in a vacuum.
- Don’t drown the piece in clichés and tech gobbledygook. If you have something to say, say it in plain, direct language.
- You don’t need to embrace controversy for the sake of controversy. But don’t shy away from addressing sensitive issues head-on.
- Lay out the consequences of choosing particular standards or technologies and sketch out the respective technology and social implications.
Also, a little touch of Cosell won’t hurt as well.