Escape the Spiral of Silence

Do you have an opinion?

Every content creator with an opinion has one thing in common: Fear.

I know I have it. Everybody who offers opinions on the world – politicians, business leaders, copywriters, journalists, content marketers, consultants, or student – has experienced what I call the three fears of expression.

The first is commitment. The “hover.” You know what I’m talking about. You’ve written an opinionated article, social post, thought leadership article, or email that’s about to go out to thousands. And you hover over the publish button. You pause. You hover. You fear. So, you go back and review it for the hundredth time.

Then, somehow, you find the nerve to push Publish. You feel great. For a moment.

Then comes the second fear: the “instant regret.” Your content is live to the world, but there’s been no response yet. If you’re like me, you go back again and reread your own words or watch or listen to your piece again. This time in context. It looks great – but you have self-doubt. You start remembering the words you didn’t use, the arguments or objections you should have addressed. You want to edit it now. But it’s too late. The first reviews and comments are coming in.

That brings the third fear: “ownership.” Once your opinion is out in the public, it’s easy to confuse the nature of ownership. We don’t say to ourselves, “I like what I did,” or “I am happy with this. Rather, we fear that everyone’s critique has the same (or more) validity as ours. There may only be one troll – but we assume everybody agrees with that troll.

All three fears are irrational. But that doesn’t stop anyone from having them, does it? And, interestingly, all three fears combined can stop us from putting out any opinion at all. Over time, these fears can put us into what researchers call a “spiral of silence.”

The spiral of silence is, at a macro level, a social science theory that defines how a dominant, majority opinion can silence a minority over time. Dominant opinions are spread primarily through mass media and begin to threaten isolation to anyone with minority opinions.

At a human level, the level of fear we have at each of the three points of content creation is correlated with our assessment of how controversial or unpopular our opinion might be.

We have such a deep-seated fear of being isolated and attacked by the herd, that we shy away from expressing opinions we believe are not in the majority.

This phenomenon is prominent in the echo chambers of social media.

But I see this all the time in thought leadership in business, too. As organizations develop a brand voice, there’s an inherent fear of expressing anything perceived to be controversial or  minority opinion. This fear is especially heightened when it comes to emotional or societal issues.

Ironically, that’s exactly what we as content practitioners are tasked to do. We have to differentiate. We have to develop our unique point of view on the world. We have to take a stand on issues.

This one of the thorniest challenges content creators face. What can we do about it? I think the most important thing is to operate from the heart.

First, we must truly believe in what we’re saying. That helps relieve the commitment fear. Collaborating more and building consensus among leaders, colleagues, and partners can help alleviate the instant regret. Finally, believing that to be right for some, we will be wrong for others can begin to mitigate the fear of ownership.

Sometimes consensus forms because the argument is settled. And some opinions aren’t just unpopular, they’re just wrong. But, consider this: most meaningful, positive changes in history started as an unpopular opinion.

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