How to speak truth to power

I made a career out of telling important people things they might not want to hear.

In my time as a technology analyst I spoke with CEOs, presidents, founders, and management teams at ABC, Best Buy, Cablevision, Charles Schwab, Cisco, Clear Channel, Comcast, Conde Nast, Cox, Discovery, EMI, HBO, Haier, Hearst, Home Depot, Intuit, Lifetime, Microsoft, MTV Networks, NBC, News Corp., Nielsen, Panasonic, Rogers, Samsung, Sony, Tivo, Tribune, Viacom, Vulcan Ventures, and Walmart. They paid for my time. They listened. And although my predictions weren’t always accurate, I never lied about my view of the world.

How is this possible?

Here’s one way to do it:

  • Gather information assiduously for a long time. If you want them to listen to you, you must try to know everything. That’s impossible, but it’s quite possible to gather research and knowledge every day so what you have to say is built on the broadest possible base of facts.
  • Analyze the hard problems. Opinions are cheap and worthless. Facts are ubiquitous. Analysis: that’s different. Analysis is based on assembling a theory that’s rooted in that information you gathered, and projecting its consequences as far out as possible. That’s worth paying for.
  • Publish and spread the fruits of your analysis. You might think that people who know special things should keep their ideas secret and reserve them for the powerful. The opposite is true. If your knowledge is deep and broad, you should take every opportunity to shout about it in speeches, in blogs, in videos, and in media quotes. If your truth is compelling, people will start talking about it. Powerful people will hear that, and they will want to know more.
  • Doubt everything, including yourself. People will tell you to “believe in yourself.” I say, go ahead, believe in your capability. But doubt your conclusions. Doubt what you hear. Confirm everything. Challenge your assumptions. Change what you believe when you find out you were wrong. Truth evolves; your energy should be on finding it, not defending your position from it.
  • Collaborate. No one is smart alone. Fellow researchers can help you strengthen your analysis and how you present it. Your exposure to their research makes your base of knowledge stronger. Your success is more likely to come with the help of others than at their expense. And collaborating makes friends whose help you’ll need.
  • Be broad, not just deep. Learn about the areas that connect with what you study, and the areas beyond that. If you know consumers, learn about business. If you know about finance, learn about technology. Eventually, what you know will be obsolete — you can’t pivot unless you know what it connects to.
  • Learn the difference between confidence and arrogance. Confidence is what you have when you are certain of abilities and your convictions. Arrogance is when you believe you are always right. Confidence admits change; arrogance admits nothing. It’s a hard to tread on the bright side of this line, but when you find yourself focusing more on denigrating others than talking about truth, you’ve crossed it. Yes, you know you’re right. But don’t imagine that that means that you’re always right.
  • Show respect. If you get a chance to talk to power, don’t be obsequious. Don’t strut. Focus on facts and analysis, delivered respectfully. The person you are speaking with got into a position of power by virtue of years of wisdom and effort, and their time is valuable. Act accordingly.
  • Be succinct. You have a lot to say. Say it crisply. State conclusions and reveal the facts that back them up. Don’t worry, if they want to know more, they’ll ask — and you’ll gain respect through the depth of your knowledge.
  • Listen. Yes, you’re there to talk. But you won’t get far by talking over powerful people. If they have questions, you’d better focus on answering them.
  • Be discreet. They’re going to tell you things that are confidential. Don’t share them, or you’ll never get invited back — and your reputation will suffer.
  • Don’t shade the truth. Powerful people hear from others telling them only the sunny side of the truth all day long. In my experience, the smart ones — most of them — want to hear unbiased truth based in fact, especially if it challenges them. They will listen, even if they are not convinced. Don’t be mean or argue — just tell the truth as you see it, even if it challenges their worldview. Especially if it challenges their worldview.
  • But don’t threaten people. How do you tell someone in power that they are wrong? I don’t recommend saying “You are wrong,” or even “I think you may be wrong.” Try this: “Here’s a different perspective. It’s not the way you look at things, but perhaps you should consider it.”
  • Be consistent. The truth you know must not vary based on who you speak with. Consistency is easy for you to keep track of — far easier than twisting the truth to suit the audience. They want to hear from you because of that consistent, confident truth.

Truth and analysis is worth pursuing. It pays off. It can put you close to powerful people. If you get your chance to speak truth to power, do it.

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  1. Regarding showing respect, I can only quibble with, “The person you are speaking with got into a position of power by virtue of years of wisdom and effort, and their time is valuable.” While it’s important to maintain an attitude of respect, it can be a mistake to assume that a person in power has any wisdom. Far too often I’ve met people in power mainly through privilege and lack of accountability that follows along with power. Usually, they are the most sensitive to facts that counter their magical thinking — the kind of thinking that lack of accountability reinforces. For these people, you have to have clear in your mind the distinction between respect and deference. You have to treat them as if they had hard-won wisdom, without deferring to their misguided ideas. How do you tackle these types? Convert or walk away?

    1. As I wrote that, I was thinking there were exceptions much like the one you describe. All I can tell you is, it was rare for me to get brought in front of a person who had no interest in listening to a different perspective. The more hidebound they are, the more I’d focus on data, which is tough to quibble with.

      I agree that you must be respectful but not deferential to such types. In most cases, you can win their respect. Converting them happens only over time. Typically I’d get brought in after working closely with and winning the respect of somebody just under them, a CMO or COO or product manager, for example. Such folks would often coach me on the best way to approach the CEO.