When you take an audience by surprise, you grab their attention.
Challenging assumptions is a good way of getting your business noticed. I have a couple of caveats: be sincere in your opinions and, if they are particularly controversial, make sure you can back them up.
What follows is an example of how a conversation gave me a new angle on a subject that I thought was done and dusted: pessimism.
The chat made me re-think the topic and it’s made the MD of this particular brand-building agency stick in my mind.
And that’s what you want your content to do, isn’t it? Grab your audience’s attention and hang around afterwards.
Pessimism: the traditional view.
Pessimism has never had a great press. And the rise of positive psychology has boosted arguments about the benefits of an optimistic outlook. I’m admirer of this approach, having spent a year gathering ‘wellbeing stories’ – stories which prove how tweaks in our behaviour can improve our emotional health.
Having said that, pessimism has been part of my personal and professional DNA for decades. I grew up with a seasoned worrier (more of that in a future post). I also joined a profession – live broadcasting – which institutionalised a type of defensive pessimism.
Pessimism and Plan B.
Every broadcast we produced had to have back-up plans for a myriad of ‘what ifs’. They revolved around a fear that silence might hit the airwaves; an unscheduled hush that would fell the transmitter at Crystal Palace.
Here’s an example of an anxiety-fuelled multiple choice. Please complete at your leisure:
- What if the newsreader misjudges the time it takes to sprint from the newsroom to the studio and arrives so out of breath they can’t speak?
- What if a guest is so overcome with nerves they are struck dumb? Yes, bunny in headlights. You can’t get a peep out of them.
- What if a contributor chokes on a cough sweet?
Pessimism pre-empts a crisis.
This pessimism has a plus side. It meant we always had another interview / record / news item to go to, should the worst happen.
And, in case you’re wondering, all these things did happen at different points during my BBC career. The choking guest was fine, by the way – once I had jumped out of the presenter seat and thumped her on the back.
But in an industry that loves creativity and risk-taking, this strand of pessimism wasn’t valued. It was seen as a necessary but rather mundane exercise in contingency planning.
And I have subscribed to this view for about twenty years – until I had a conversation with Gerry Kelly, the founder and managing director of Art Department, a brand building agency with internationally recognised clients including The Famous Grouse and Macallan Whisky.
Pessimism as an art form.
Gerry is a self-declared pessimist. He says, ruefully, that he is always on the lookout for what can “bring me down”. This wariness is partly shaped by the fact that the first three companies he worked for all came to untimely ends due to a variety of reasons.
They remind me of the fairy tale fate of the first two little pigs. Let’s face it, they never had a plan B. (To be clear, Gerry wasn’t responsible for the demise of these businesses, he just witnessed them.)
So up until this point I’d always associated pessimism with unproductive fear or contingency planning. But as Gerry outlined all the things his company has done, it occurred to me that this same wariness had spurred him on to seek out new opportunities that pass other agencies by. For instance, how many brand-building consultancies do you know that have associates in China and Scandinavia?
Pessimism’s positive side.
Far from making Art Department retrench, pessimism has prompted Gerry’s company to reach out – to new countries and other creatives.
That’s vital in a design and digital sector which is always changing.
Read how Gerry has built up his company and client list over the last two decades using pessimism as a lynch-pin.
What this means for you and your company.
If the way in which you do things challenges received wisdom, don’t be afraid to talk or write about it. It will bring your readers and viewers new insights and make you – and your business – stand out in their minds.
In a competitive sector, that can only be a good thing.
See, writing about pessimism has its uses after all.