Every client I work with quickly reveals their safe words.
No, not like that. Not “pineapples.”
At first, my clients use these safe words to mean: this content angle we’re developing is probably too risky. It’s tickling a tripwire for their audiences.
The safe words say: Let’s find another angle. Let’s add some sugar to the strong medicine of our insights. Or: Let’s back off.
Eventually, after we’ve worked together for a few months, the safe words actually become an affirmative signal. Now they say: This content is right where I need to be on this issue. We need to say it this way to get the most impact.
“It’s edgy.” That’s the safe phrase for one of my long-standing clients.
If they follow that with “I like it,” then we both know the content is in the sweet spot. We’re not being unnecessarily provocative. We’re taking the risks necessary to capture white space and position their expertise and argument cleanly. The client will be comfortable standing behind this content. In fact, they’ll be energized anticipating the audience’s reaction to it. Some people will dig it, some definitely won’t, but everyone my client needs to have talking about it will be talking about it.
“It’s edgy — I like it” doesn’t happen by accident. We don’t get there by throwing darts at a wall and hoping for a bullseye, or by just diving into content development. It’s a process of calibration over months of groundwork through which we clearly articulate:
- Your audience (usually with a base of actual names);
- Who you are and can be to that audience — how your current identity and brand and expertise roll up into authority for that audience;
- How you might develop more authority with them, drawing on your unique blend of insights, arguments, paradigms, solutions and POV;
- How content can also serve your business objectives — increased funding, reaching more prospects if you’re running a for-profit, or reaching more collaborators for research partnerships and collaborations; and finally
- A content plan and stack — formats and platforms, hooks, timing, follow-up convenings, your organization’s messaging and systems, how it all works together, and how we’ll measure that impact.
Turning research expertise into authority isn’t just about having good ideas about interesting content. It’s about laying a strategy first. Without one, you’re just playing Battleship. You’re throwing bombs instead of creating virtuous disturbances in their current field of vision. Without strategy, you can’t measure success and build confidence. Without strategy, every criticism becomes a disaster. You can’t weight it properly or learn actionable lessons from it.
“It’s edgy. I like it” means we’re pushing the audience and we know why and what we expect will happen.
The process redefines risk. “Risky” is now a wild idea that doesn’t fit within our strategy. “Edgy” is strategic. Edgy becomes safe. You want to play on the edge, instead of back on the usual territory where everyone else strolls.
That’s not research communications as it’s usually practiced.
It is how you create research-driven content that works.