Joseph Chaney | September 15th, 2021

Ah yes, ‘emotion’ – it’s a loaded word in the business world.

Peruse a few business publications, and you just may conclude that some business leaders are emotionless robots that don’t laugh or sneeze or bleed like normal human beings.

Readers are often confronted with messy word salads, rather than plainspoken wisdom. These word salads are often peppered with tired corporate jargon: Move the needle; retarget the touchpoints; and the grandaddy of them all, leverage the synergies.

Alas, it seems that ‘emotion’ – apart from enthusiasm for trendy business concepts – is generally unwelcome in the B2B business media.

And yet, interestingly, so much of corporate marketing – especially B2C marketing – is about understanding the emotional drivers behind consumer behaviour. I’ll even go out on a limb and say that grasping the essence of human emotions – from vanity to status anxiety to fear of death – is foundational to B2C marketing.

To be sure, there is evidence that the B2B world also understands the importance of human emotion, which perhaps explains why Warren Buffet – who deliberately communicates in a folksy manner -- is known as the ‘Oracle of Omaha’. In other words, the business community seems to agree that there is real wisdom in Mr Buffet’s emphasis on simplicity and genuine human emotion – and, importantly, his willingness as a billionaire to speak like a normal human being while resisting the urge to make things seem more profound than they really are.

Once, when asked about Berkshire Hathaway’s investment in Wrigley’s, he simply said: “I don't think the Internet is going to change the way people chew gum." That about sums it up, doesn’t it? Short and sweet - and no need for jargon. He's also known for writing the Berkshire Hathaway annual letter to shareholders as if he's writing to his sisters.

If many of us see the wisdom in speaking in plain, meaningful language, why are so many B2B thought leadership publications written in a language that neither inspires nor connects on a genuine emotional level?

One theory is that emotionless jargon is an easy way for those of us in the business world to give simple motivations (i.e., profit-seeking) a near scientific sheen of sophistication. Perhaps our egos prefer to believe we “leveraged synergies” during the workday. “I worked with colleagues to achieve our desired outcome” just doesn’t have the same zing to it.

Second is the idea that using robotic language is low risk. When we speak in this dry manner, we insure ourselves against the risk of giving offense. Have you ever worked with a colleague in a large organisation who plays politics and uses the latest jargon but says nothing of substance – and still, voilà – gets promoted? You have? Yeah, me too.

OK, enough with the analysis. What can be done? How should you handle ‘emotion’ when it comes to your thought leadership efforts? Here are a few foundational principles you can use to get started.

  1. Consider how much room your topic has for ‘emotion’: It goes without saying that certain industries or subjects are more emotionally charged than others. For example, writing about healthcare naturally lends itself more toward more emotion-based writing. The fear of death is as real as real gets. But that’s not the case with, say, middle-office outsourcing or bond valuation methodologies. (Then again, unreliable bond ratings systems – which expose investors to all sorts of hidden risks – is certainly an emotionally charged topic!).

  2. Let your ideas (rather than you) do the talking: This one would appear to be common sense. But it’s surprising how often thought leadership campaigns begin with some version of: We are experts on this matter and that’s why you should continue reading. Such an approach will struggle to connect. It’s the equivalent of meeting a new person who introduces themselves by saying: Don’t worry. I’m a nice guy. It’s immediately off-putting.

  3. Remember: some emotions are more valuable than others: Another no-brainer. Yes, it’s true: Some emotions are appealing, but many aren’t. Genuine expressions of interest, curiosity, doubt, and scepticism work well. Wild expressions of rage and resentment, or – on the flipside -- exuberant enthusiasm that you can’t support with data or credible information? Not so much.

  4. Like most other aspects of marketing, it’s all about balance. On this point, think of bad films you’ve seen. Why are they bad? Often, it’s because the characters aren’t balanced. If the villain is too evil and has zero redeeming qualities, s/he’s unbelievable. And, if the hero is too good and has no flaws, his or her story arc is also unrelatable. You need balance – because within every emotion is some element of its opposite.

At the end of the day, B2B thought leadership isn’t high art. No one expects you to make a grand, visceral statement about the human condition on par with Michelangelo or Van Gogh. But thought leadership that is lacking in all emotion is dull and likely dead-on arrival – it’s minor in every way.

There is no harm in communicating like a mortal human.

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