Don’t Watch Your Language. Use it.


polarizingI had a different post all written and scheduled for today. But then my girl Virginia Nussey had to go getting all “controversial” over at the Bruce Clay blog. So plans changed. Blame her. Also blame the brownies I had for breakfast. And the ones I had for dinner.

I’m so ashamed.

Over at Bruce Clay, Inc, Virginia talks about a blogging tenet that she’s never particularly agreed with. One that says that bloggers are to Be Controversial in order to get links, garner attention and attract the almighty blog comment. Virginia calmly states that she’s not so comfortable with that. She thinks bloggers should consider opposing viewpoints but be cautious of taking extremes and should be responsible with their words. She makes a lot of great points.

Personally, I think “controversial” is just the wrong word and end goal. The right one is “polarizing”.

There’s a problem with telling people “to be controversial”. The problem is that people don’t know what that means. They think “controversial” means “fighting”. They think it means being negative, being a grouch and taking unfair shots at people. That’s not a blogging plan or how attract an audience or build a community. That’s how you show people that you’re not capable of more. It’s not controversial; it’s hollow.

That said, I think being polarizing is important.

What attracted me to Virginia’s post wasn’t that she talked about how controversy fits into blogging – that’s been done. It was that she talks about language – how it should be used and the importance of respecting it. It’s vital. And I think that respecting language means not shying away from it. It means that instead of watching our language, we should be using it.

How do you use language effectively?

  • Use language to frame your argument in a way that people notice.
  • Use it to shake and challenge people.
  • Use it to tell a story (something Virginia does very well).
  • Use it to be sexy.
  • Use it to push people with trigger words.
  • Use it to teach.
  • Use it to make them confront things they weren’t ready to.
  • Use it to force them over obstacles just to prove you wrong.
  • Use it to make them feel warm and pretty and part of your community.
  • Use it to make them feel present.

Telling people to be controversial inspires bad behavior. It’s like giving people a loaded gun they haven’t even learned to aim. Don’t worry so much about being controversial, but do push your readers further than they’re comfortable going as a way of helping everyone learn (yourself included).It’s about igniting that spark so they can do their own pile on. It’s about being helpful by opening a side window when everyone else is charging the front door.

open windowIf you want to call that “creating controversy”, do so. For me, that detracts from its importance and frames things dangerously for bloggers just starting out. It’s the same as dismissing a passionate or contrarian blog post as “just link bait”. It’s not about baiting people or creating drama where there is none. It’s about using language in smart ways that get your point across and create a louder response. It’s about using your language as a tool to make people think.

If you’re not using your blog or site to make people think, even if its just to think about YOU, what are you doing?

Should you be controversial for the sake of being controversial? Of course not. Few would advocate that. Should you respect language? Yes. And should you use language in a way that makes people react? Absolutely.

I think the most successful bloggers are often the ones who are incredibly polarizing. They’re the people who push their audience into zones they’re not comfortable entering by themselves. Because when you’re uncomfortable, you’re forced to reconsider what you really believe and what you’re doing. That’s when you’re willing to change. There’s a great deal of power in getting someone to that point and it doesn’t happen lightly.

My unsolicited advice?  Don’t be controversial; be polarizing. The difference is as large as relying on what someone else killed for food and learning how to smell blood  all by yourself.

Your Comments

  • David Zemens

    Great insight as usual Lisa.

    To me, the blogger needs to bring the reader out of their comfort zone. It’s that simple. We all tend to think within a zone that we are used to. It’s warm and fuzzy in there. But in the end, make ’em a bit uncomfortable and you’ll get your comments. You highlight some great ways and techniques to do just that.

  • Virginia Nussey

    Lisa, I love the way you put this topic into a new perspective. You brought up a lot of really cool points, like the many great reasons to push people through language, expand the discourse, spark an awakening (something you do very well).

    Maybe it’s just that I’m so anti-confrontational that I get nervous when conflict erupts (or is even possible), but I have a feeling it’s not just paranoia that drives my desire to share the value of sensitivity through language.

    Maybe, as you say, the recommendation to “be controversial” could be better worded, because I agree that it’s the strong opinions that hook into the brain and don’t let go that get us to consider the situation, form our opinions, and be better off for it when all’s said and done.

    • Lisa Barone

      Your sensitivity is completely warranted and is what makes you as rare (and as awesome) as you. As Susan can vouch for, my lack of sensitivity got me in trouble for quite a few years. I think it took me some time to figure out where my “line” was. :)

      And you’re right to be wary of the “be controversial” line because I think in most cases it’s bad advice. It leads to people picking fights and acting out for attention, which is why bloggers have such AWESOME reputations. I’d much rather use language in a way that makes people think and question their established beliefs. That’s when cool things happen.

      You started a good conversation, though, so I appreciate you letting me piggyback off it. :)

  • Todd

    Awesome post, Lisa. I must admit, I’ve not been a huge fan of some of your more “polarizing” posts, but then again, they’re usually the ones that get me thinking, commenting, and later writing about (from my OWN perspective) with links back. I’ll also get over myself a few days later and be more likely to come back and read more. I’m an outspokenmedia blog addict, and it’s (more often than not) to argue with you…but I’m sure you don’t mind that… ;)

    • Lisa Barone

      Ha, yes, I know you’re not Todd. And lord knows you’re not alone in that camp. :) Thanks for mentioning that, though, because it’s really important. You’re not going to win over everyone with your more polarizing posts

      That’s a really important point though, because everyone ISN’T going to be a fan of your more polarizing posts. But that’s how you make your blog for “your people” instead of “most people”. Most people would walk over your dead body without giving it a second glance.

      • Todd

        That’s actually not really my point at all…(here we go again) ;)

        I suppose what I mean is that sometimes having people disagree with you can often lead to more interesting conversations than a bunch of “great post Lisa” comments…and then “your people” will come out and defend your perspective.

        Sometimes being a little wrong (not that you’re EVER wrong) can be better than being 100% right.

  • Lisa Barone

    haha. No, I got what you were saying, I just thought it was interesting to note that you’re going to piss people off sometimes. But, of course. Having a conversation is always more interesting when people haven’t been consuming the same kool-aid. :)

  • Derek Bullard

    I think being controversial and being polarizing go hand in hand but I do agree you have to be very careful with how you engage.

  • Nathan Hangen

    I really think it boils down to taking a stand and not just repeating what everyone else is saying. People love honesty and there is far too little of it. Instead, the blogosphere has become a land of rainbows and unicorns. Sounds great. Feels great. Kind of boring though.

  • Geoff Koehler

    I’m a PR student taking a social media class and we’ve all begun different blogs.

    The importance of using language for the purposes you mention is something I will definitely consider more. So far I’ve only been writing coldly as it was being looked at by my instructor.

    This was a helpful post for a very new blogger writing for student, rather than professional or personal, reasons.

    I’m going to work on writing with language that will make my reader(s) react.

  • Daniel

    Nicely written!

    Got called in from a tweet by Glenn. Thumbed this post up on StumbleUpon. :)

  • Data Entry Services

    I’m glad to say I have found your blog to be intelligent and polarizing and I have never been offended by your language. I have read some blogs that were better left unwritten by others however. They were obviously of the opinion that the more offensive, the more attention they would get. Not from me.

    I’m a bit obsessive so I do have one small style critique for you. Commas and periods always go inside the quote (Websters New World Secretarial Handbook – 1974).

  • John

    Very strong and valid argument!