How to Use speech acts for dynamic thought leadership

Is being a thought leader more about proving your expertise or having a real influence on the way things are done in your industry? A quick Google search brings up an array of definitions that have different implications for the content you create. For most brands, creating marketing content is a way to showcase what they know in order to establish authority or otherwise dazzle their ideal clients into working with them. But I think those who achieve the thought leadership results they are looking for—keynote speaking engagements, press-worthy opinion pieces or a loyal following on social media—are thinking a bit bigger than themselves. 

Dynamic thought leadership content goes beyond “knowing your audience” and arguing, justifying or educating in their general direction. How do you introduce ideas that go against the grain of conventional thought? Where does power in your industry come from, and what have you proven to be effective in your day-to-day practice? How do you get people to see things the way you do and even change their behavior or take specific actions? 

What are Speech Acts?

Woman talking with group gesturing forward

Being a language junkie and dyed-in-the-wool English major, I’d like to demystify the power of words just a bit to explore some of the ways you can do incredible things with words on a linguistic level. I think most would agree that actions outweigh words almost every time, but there’s a significant grey area in-between where words have power. Think about setting a boundary, claiming something as your own or double-dog daring someone to lick a cold flagpole. It’s not something we always like to admit: think “sticks and stones” or “that’s easy for you to say.” It’s a lot easier to deceive with words than with actions, and one who can push the boundary by speaking conditions or events into reality might be accused of witchcraft. 

Here’s the linguistic jargon explanation for these phenomena: it’s a tiny branch of semantics called Speech Act Theory, which was created to name and talk about utterances that perform an action, exploring the often critical differences between the literal meaning of the words we use, their contextual meaning in the situation and the effect on a reader or listener. 

According to speech act theorist John Searle, there are 5 categories of speech acts

  • Assertives: representing how things are in the world
  • Directives: making an attempt to get hearers to do something
  • Commissives: committing yourself to doing something
  • Expressives: expressing your attitudes about objects and facts of the world
  • Declarations: doing things in the world at the moment of utterance solely by virtue of saying that you do

If we apply this theory to content marketing strategy, speech acts are a way to exercise your agency as an expert in a particular field while building your thought leadership brand. If you stick with me to the end, you’ll have some new strategies for generating content that builds relationships, ruffles feathers and inspires action. 

What Can I Do with Speech Acts?

Looking at a piece of content as a speech act can make the difference between merely explaining and asserting. You’re not writing just to fill up space on your blog: you’re showing that you have skin in the game. You recognize that you and your audience are three-dimensional, dynamic beings in an environment with choices to make, power of your own and a certain degree of influence. 

And don’t forget that great content is useful, actionable and unique. So what can you do besides delivering “the goods,” the useful, actionable information your audience is seeking out? You might build rapport with your readers by meeting them on their level before diving in. Conversely, after you size up your ideological surroundings, your question might be “How can I make a valuable contribution?” In a written speech act, the text itself becomes secondary to the purposes it serves. 

Man at computer, hands raised in frustration

1. Speaking in Context

At the highest level, we can determine what media are most appropriate for a speech act, or vice-versa, if a certain speech act is appropriate for the circumstances at hand. For example, you might engage in questioning accepted ideas before presenting your own in a fireside chat with your peers but fully denounce those same ideas in a video for your clients. You’ve probably seen some bad examples of speech acts made in the wrong context, like the infamous Notes App apologies on Instagram.

Speech acts can also create persuasive or moral leverage with the weight of your identity, reputation or “personal brand,” just like open letters and op-eds. Thinking in terms of speech acts can be a powerful way to generate content in your unique voice. Ask yourself: “If so-and-so is listening, what kind of interaction do I want to have? What do I want to make them feel?” And “What occasions might require me to speak up and say or do something?”

2. Navigate Between Personal, Professional, Political and Cultural

Particularly in fields like mental health and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), thought leaders deal with topics that have effects on both a personal and political level. When you’re dealing with complex and heavy issues, speech acts can be an effective tool for acknowledging certain realities without doing a lot of verbal acrobatics and tiresome explaining. For instance, with the knowledge that a wide range of people may read your article on creating a supportive culture for those grieving in the workplace, you might make a personal appeal that transcends workplace roles while encouraging employers to take the initiative and open up conversations with their teams. 

Thought leaders make a statement knowing that their solution or point of view isn’t the only one out there. It may take a combination of several speech acts addressed to different groups to fully establish your vision of how your work fits into the systems around it, why it’s needed and what change you’d like to make. In addition to making strong assertions or claims, are there situations when you might have to do some pleading, make a confession or ask for help? Some might worry that these acts weaken their position, but when used carefully, they can humanize you and show your integrity. It’s rare, but in the right context, you may decide that making a lighthearted jab or a serious rebuke could be the right thing to do.

3. Put some Energy in Your Emails

For short, to-the-point communications like emails, viewing the entire message as one speech act can inject a shot of energy and motivation. Think about the differences between a congratulation and a thank-you. The tones and emotional dynamics are completely different, but coming up with the right words for these short greetings can be a pain. I find I can write them a lot faster when I tap into the specific speech act I’m making and only add as much detail as I need to connect, do the thing and then make a graceful exit.

Two women talking, hands facing up and out
Just hand them the sandwich.

4. Check Your Authenticity

Of course, the speech acts you make in your content should align with who you are and what you do in “real life.” The more you deviate from your own reality, the more your speech acts become a performance. You lose a sense of earnest intent. Before you put new content out into the world, it’s important to re-read it (or have a friend read it) to see if it rings true. Use these questions as a guide: How will my audience know this is not just a performance? What have I done, or what can I do, to align my actions with this message? Will it take any follow-up to see this through?

I thought about speech acts a lot when I was working on a collection of poems for my master’s thesis. I asked myself questions like: Do I want to recreate and study the ways I’ve seen words used in the past: to manipulate, exercise control, show love and affection, endorse, punish or affirm? Or do I want to focus on my own agency to do stuff with words? What do I want to happen as a result of others reading these poems? What might my decisions say about who I am and how much authority I have to say anything at all?

Speak truth to power!

Woman looking confident with rainbow flag

This popular slogan for social movements was coined by Bayard Rustin, a Black Civil Rights leader and a Quaker who championed socialism, nonviolence and gay rights. He stated in a 1942 letter that the role of a religious group is to “speak the truth to power,” a phrase he says he adapted from a saying by the Prophet Muhammad. Other groups have used the slogan to advocate for various causes, probably because it’s a beautifully simple way to accomplish a lot using only words. Speaking truth to power is an act that can simultaneously raise awareness, expose corruption and light a proverbial fire to create positive change. 

As a thought leader, you may think it’s your role to be a powerful force of influence. But when you forget that there are other authorities, influences and sources of power out there, you may be limiting yourself from making the greatest possible impact. So as you consider what speech acts you might make, recognize that you’re part of a larger landscape: ask yourself who else has power and how they might use it to help or hurt your cause. When you shift the focus away from yourself, you can cross the threshold from proving yourself into becoming influential. 

What do you want to do with your words? If you got any great ideas from this article, I’d love to hear them! Send me a message and let me know what you came up with.

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