5 Suggestions When You’re Writing About Controversy

Expressing deeply­ held values in your content can have powerful results. But what happens when the conversation becomes controversial?

There’s no shortage of sensitive, controversial topics in the public conversation today. Some of them are handled skillfully … and some aren’t.

In this 21 ­minute episode, I talk about:

  • Why you may want to consider sometimes addressing “hot button” topics in your business content
  • Playing to your communication strengths when the stakes are high
  • Why the truth is not “always in the middle”
  • How to manage conversations where values are coming into conflict
  • The danger of “rushing to kumbaya”
  • How right­handed people can learn from left­handed conversations

Note: If you have an example of a controversial or sensitive topic handled well in content, will you share it with us in the comments? It can be an example from your own work or someone else’s.


The Show Notes

For this episode, I thought I’d include some examples of powerful communication around a difficult topic.


5 Suggestions When You’re Writing About Controversy

Sonia Simone: So glad to see you again, and welcome back to CopybloggerFM, the content marketing podcast.

CopybloggerFM is about emerging content marketing trends, interesting disasters, and enduring best practices, along with the occasional rant. My name is Sonia Simone, I’m the chief content officer for Rainmaker Digital, and I hang out with the folks doing the real work over on the Copyblogger blog.

Note: See the show notes for all the links!

So, anyone who’s seen the news at all knows that the Independence Day week in the U.S. was brutally hard. We started with a pair of grave stories about African-American men killed by police, then a sniper attacked a peaceful protest and killed 5 police officers, as well as wounding other officers and civilians.

So, a week when a lot of folks had something they wanted to communicate, a lot of grieving, a lot of calls for action, and a lot of very powerful communication — sometimes at cross purposes, and sometimes very constructive.

It is not — please let me hasten to say — my intention to trivialize any of the strong conversations we’ve been having globally about these matters. It’s instead my intention to unpack how we speak, write, or film when we intend to persuade, and see if I can help more conversations fall on the “constructive” side.

For many years now on Copyblogger, we’ve talked about taking a stand on what matters to you — including in your business-oriented content. When you stand up for your values, you pull some closer to you, and push others away.

I don’t want to trivialize the conversation by leaning too hard on the business value to this — but this is a content marketing podcast, so I’ll underline the point lightly: this is a relevant topic for business-oriented content. It’s important to handle controversial points skilfully, whether those are large societal issues or controversies within your topic.

Thought #1: Know Thyself

We all have a communication style, and each of us has communication strengths.

Some people are wired to take a strong, passionate position and articulate it beautifully. There’s a great place for that. If that’s you, play to that — although I do advocate doing it with respect and keeping an eye on your own biases.

I have no idea why this is, but I’m always the person who can look at both sides and try to start finding the middle ground. I’m sure a therapist and I could work on that one for a long time. But it’s who I am.

I spoke a great deal about these events on Facebook, which for me is 100% personal, versus my Twitter account which I use as a more public presence.

To support my asssertions, I tried to look for resources that had a foot in “both sides” — in this case, for example, I looked for accounts from members of law enforcement who had a position on what needed to be improved within that community.

I know the kind of persuasion I’m good at — speaking to the middle, trying for fairness, and nudging perception rather than shoving it.

Other folks are great at mobilizing passion and motivating the most committed to take action. These are both very valid ways of addressing strong topics.

Realize that this can be tricky, and can devolve into “the truth is always somewhere in the middle.” It isn’t.

Thought #2: Beware “the truth is always in the middle”

When I was in college, my favorite history professor told us something that has always stuck with me.

If one source tells you the wall is red, and the other source tells you the wall is white, that does not mean the wall is pink.

In other words, some sources are simply unreliable.

Some scientific studies are using faked data, sloppy methodologies, or simply have never been replicated. So we can find a study to support nearly any conclusion — but we need to look for studies that are well conducted.

Some news reports are the same — they’re not fact-checking, they’re approaching the story with a preconception of what they’re going to find. So we can always find a news report that supports a particular conclusion. We need to look for the news organizations that follow good journalistic practices, and we need to look critically at what gets shared.

As the saying goes, you have the right to your own opinions, but you don’t have the right to your own facts. Make sure you’ve got a credible source for the facts.

One thing I think we fall prey to is assuming that anyone who changes their mind is somehow weak. But one of the strongest things you can do is change your mind in the face of new evidence.

Thought #3: Take a compassionate stand

We’re living in a time of unprecendented diversity.

Among other things, that means we all bump into one another’s conflicting values a lot more often than we used to.

People’s private statements are now public. Our private preconceptions get aired out. And that includes our private prejudices.

At the end of the day, I think this will prove useful. For example, one of the early tactics that the marriage equality movement used was to convince gay folks to come out — so that more straight peopel would realize they actually did have gay friends and relatives.

More awareness eventually led to more acceptance. We realize we are more alike than we had thought. But on the road to get there, it leads to a lot of conflict and tension.

It is extremely hard not to hate people who hold a belief you find abhorrent. However, I have found it helpful to try. “Hate the sin, not the sinner.”

It sometimes helps to realize that almost every human on the planet is afraid, and we are not at our best when we are afraid. If you can see that someone else is afraid too, it often helps soften up the antagonism — even if you still think their position is completely wrong.

Thought #4: Don’t rush to reconciliation

On the other hand, our timelines are full of messages along the lines of, “We’re all equal, let’s hold hands, the good people outweigh the bad,” etc.

Which are beautiful messages, but they can also be a rush to help ourselves feel less traumatized while people are still bleeding in the street.

I’ve seen this referred to as “rushing to kumbaya.”

While it’s very difficult to acknowlege pain, violence, and suffering, we can’t really get to a more peaceful and whole place as a species without recognizing those things. It isn’t very comfortable — but these are not comfortable times.

It’s a balance. Expressions of unity can also give us the courage to keep going. For me the dividing line is, Am I posting this to mask the problems, or could this encourage folks to find common ground?

Thought #5: Listen more than you talk

We all have a worldview, and we all filter everything that happens through that worldview. It’s just how your head is put together. It’s not wrong or wicked, it’s how human cognition works.

This gets tricky when something is happening to a group you aren’t part of.

So let’s say that left-handed people are having some serious issues, and you’re right-handed.

As a right-handed person, your worldview is shaping everything you see that the left-handed folks are dealing with.

So maybe it doesn’t seem that bad to you. Or maybe you think left-handed people should be handling the situation differently. Or you think if left-handed people conducted themselves better, we wouldn’t have all of this War on Left-Handed People. Or you have some left-handed friends and they seem ok.

Notice that this kind of thinking can happen on both sides of just about any debate we find ourselves in, from the trivial to the gravely serious.

My point is, if you’re a right-handed person, spend a lot of time listening to left-handed folks before you enter the conversation. Your initial, strong point of view may have a bias that is almost impossible for you to see.

The world will wait for your brilliant insights while you take the time to hone them. I realize Facebook needs you to weigh in on this, but make sure you’re seeing as clearly as you can first.

So much of this, for me, comes down to this: If you’re going to communicate about something that’s sensitive or controversial, you need to do it from a place of a lot of humility. Keep looking at the holes in your own argument. Keep looking for where your own cognitive bias is shaping what you can see.

Things get better when we can communicate clearly

Constructive communication about conflict is one of the most important things we can do as human beings.

It’s important in our families, our communities, our businesses. Again, we’ve talked quite a bit on Copyblogger about the power of expressing your values in your content — this is where we get to Hard Mode.

I’ll give you some examples I thought were well done in the show notes — and if you have something you think would be a good addition, let me know. If I agree that it’s constructive and well handled, I’ll add it to the list.

Have you ever addressed a controversial topic in your content? Was it business or personal content? Let us know in the comments …