Don’t Watch Your Language. Use it.

November 6, 2009
By Lisa Barone in Content Strategy

I 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.

If 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.

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