Can truth and influence coexist? My challenge for 2018.

Starting today and for at least the next year, I will focus my work on this question:

What is the evolving dynamic between truth and influence, and what should you do about it?

What do I mean by truth and influence?

Here’s how I define these terms:

Truth refers to the insights that research creates. That research might be the type that analysts or scientists perform, the work that journalists do, or the more informal insight that comes from constant contact with a market or a body of knowledge. But for me and the work I’m doing, truth means learning and describing things that most people don’t know.

Influence refers to the process of telling people what you’ve learned. Analysts have influence; so do journalists. There are now an infinite number of channels to spread influence, from podcasts to Facebook to appearances on CNN.

To make a difference, a thinker needs both truth and influence. If you know the truth but can’t get the word out, you don’t matter. If you can spread influence but don’t actually know anything, you are just a blabbermouth. People who both create truth and spread influence lead people’s thinking. They are, in the popular phrase, thought leaders.

These people can include technology analysts, financial analysts, academics, independent consultants, authors, CEOs, public speakers, bloggers, and columnists. We see and hear about them all the time and they shape our view of the world.

Key questions about truth and influence

My main worry is that the world continues to evolve in such a way as to set truth and influence at odds with each other. The quest for influence undermines truth. Identifying actual truth undermines influence. Only the most disciplined of thought leaders can balance the two. It is my goal to describe the problem, and determine how to create balance in this fundamentally unstable dynamic.

Here are some of the questions I am investigating:

  • Are influencers more likely to be wrong? Influence comes from insights that are new. These insights are more likely to be wrong. Is the current dynamic propelling wrong ideas to the forefront of the discussion?
  • Do wrong insights do harm? What damage results from people with influence who don’t care if they are wrong?
  • How does bias infect insights? What biases do thought leaders harbor, both conscious and unconscious? How can they fight bias? How can we identify it?
  • Is there a right way for a thought leader to behave? What codes of integrity must disciplined thought leaders follow?
  • What works for creating influence today? What channels work best for spreading influence? What paths exist for becoming influential? How are these channels and paths changing?
  • How is the market structure of thought leadership shifting? How is the dynamic changing among large institutional pools of influence (research firms, financial firms, think tanks, media), corporate-backed influencers (such as CEOs), and individual influencers (including authors, consultants, bloggers, and podcasters)?
  • Is truth at risk? Truth is under attack. Opponents of any truth can label it “fake news.” How will the continual erosion of truth as a concept change the role of thought leaders?

These are just a few of the questions I will investigate. If other, related questions interest you, please describe them in the comments.

How I will conduct and publish my research

I will be doing all of the following:

  • Identifying existing analysis of this market and reviewing it in light of the new developments.
  • Conducting a survey of thought leaders and analyzing the results.
  • Interviewing individual thought leaders.
  • Interviewing consumers and clients of those thought leaders.

I will describe the results of my work on this blog. Eventually, I will publish a book on this research.

I am not abandoning my work on business writing

To me, the desire to write clearly in a business setting is about identifying truth and clearly communicating it. I learned about that in a career that was capped with a 20-year stint as an influential analyst. In my mind, the questions of thought leadership with integrity and clear business writing are closely connecting. They are both about communicating important things without bullshit.

I will continue to analyze public writing and provide writing tips alongside my posts on truth and influence. As always with this blog, some posts will interest you, and some will interest others.

What’s in it for you?

If you are a thought leader, or aspire to become one, I will provide advice on how to succeed in that goal while maintaining your integrity.

If you work with thought leaders and influencers, I will help you to understand how they think.

And if you are just interested in the future of truth and influence, I will explain how the world is shifting and where it is likely to go.

I would be delighted to hear in what way I might be most valuable to you. Please leave your suggestions in the comments.

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  1. Your blog has been one of the highlights of my online reading for 2017, Josh, and I look forward to reading what you have to say about truth and influence. Thanks for doing the work you do so well.

  2. As you usually do, you have hit the nail on the head.
    The key to the Truth/Influence scale staying in balance is that that researcher/thinker/thought leader role is a special role that holds the reader/public trust. Once a thought leader falls prey to taking on “media celebrity” status or becomes a hypocrite, their value and creditably becomes zero.

  3. Josh, I am a SUPERFAN of your book on writing. I especially love the chapter on audience. As a book editor and ghostwriter, it has helped me enormously. I quote it to writers and recommend it all the time.
    Re: truth and influence. I question whether truth is only found and verified through research. Don’t you think there is such a thing as “inner” truth or “inspired” truth? I don’t mean woo-woo. I mean real understanding/knowledge gained from intuition or inner experience. I’m thinking of the works of folks like: Byron Katie and Eckart Tolle. Or even books like the AA book for recovering alcoholics.
    I edit and ghostwrite self-help books which are mostly based on an author’s experience in business, health, or personal development. Some of it, yes, is bullshit, and my job is often to make it sound like better bullshit. But some is inspired and real.
    Sally Wolfe

    1. Since spiritual truth cannot be verified, it’s outside the realm of my analysis. If you and I disagree about global warming or the level of emissions of a Volkswagen, we can take measurements and, eventually, determine the actual truth. If we disagree about inner truth, there is no way to determine who is right.

  4. Can wrong insights cause harm? Look no further than the number of children in North America who are not immunized, putting their own health and the health of those around them at risk.

    I look forward to reading your insights!

  5. Josh, my concern is that truth can no longer be developed over time because of modern society’s media hype-cycle. There was a time when smart people with insight could refine beliefs and take in feedback before finally coming to more refined “truth”. Now they are immediately given labels and discredited by people who take a dislike to them because their views don’t align.

  6. It occurs to me that many influencers are truth-neutral. There’s little concern about the basis in fact of what people claim and, indeed, there are growing fears of experts and even of basic data. The biases in human decision-making are easier and easier to exploit. So, in that way, untrue believes can be influential, even if they are negatively influential.

  7. Hi Josh, wishing you an healthy, interesting and prosperous coming year … thanks for being there and saying what you say … in oz federal government reportedly announced an enquiry into religious freedom and will allow secret submissions by the churches … mmmmmm ……. possibly payoff for accepting same sex marriage proposal resulting from a voluntary postal survey? your ‘truth & influence’ theme will be particularly relevant. best wishes, John Langford, Queensland, Australia.