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Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2007

The Would-be Guru: Inspiring Online Credibility (Part 2)

By Jeff Sexton
October 23rd, 2007


Ponder that word for a minute. Better yet, think of a field-specific guru whose views you value and ask yourself this: What distinguishes your Guru from just another professional in that field?

What causes one to inspire so much more credibility than another?

The ancient Greeks had a word for that trait: thumos. Want cult-of-personality-like persuasive ethos and credibility? Create thumos through your web copy. (In my last article, The Aristotle Code, I warned you that I was on a high-brow kick, so bear with me. This is actionable stuff.)

The secret to creating thumos is quietly revealed in Jonathan Shay’s one-page essay, Aristotle’s Rhetoric as a Handbook of Leadership. Dr. Shay is a psychiatrist, a recent MacArthur Foundation Fellow (aka “genius award”) honoree, and author of the acclaimed Achilles in Vietnam. Here’s what he writes about thumos and credibility:

. . . I want to connect the old Homeric word thumos to what I now want to say about character. This word is most often translated by the single word “spirit.” In modern times this has become rarified [sic] and if you forgive the play on words, spiritualized, so that we lose the sense that is still preserved when we speak of a horse as spirited or an argument as spirited … I want you to listen to Aristotle’s explanation of thumos … He says, “Thymos is the faculty of our souls which issues in love and friendship … It is also the source … of any power of commanding and any feeling for freedom.”

The spirited self-respect that Homer called thumós becomes particularly critical to leadership in a combat situation. To trust the leader, the troops need to feel that the leader is his or her “own person,” not a slave. In combat, trust goes to the leaders who give critical obedience, rather than blind obedience, to their own bosses.[3] A leader giving blind obedience to a militarily irrational or illegal order gets the troops killed without purpose ["wasted"] or irretrievably tainted by commission of atrocities.

Now consider this in terms of thought (rather than combat) leadership, and substitute “conventional wisdom” for “bosses.” Here’s my re-interpretation:

Online visitors need to feel that the company is its “own person,” and not a slave to conventional wisdom or textbook answers. In purchasing situations, trust goes to the company whose website gives critical analysis, rather than blind obedience, to industry or conventional wisdom.

In short, a Guru sings her own songs; she doesn’t perform Karaoke to someone else’s. She teaches her own stuff, and, even if her material originated elsewhere, she’ll have made it her own through experimentation, reflection, and practical experience; she’ll have her own “take” on a given subject. This is what creates thumos for a thought leader.

So, how do you inspire thumos with web copy?

First, you needn’t establish entirely new methodologies or procedures. It’s enough to have…

  • Unique explanations for otherwise common material. A sticky explanation for a well-known principle or phenomenon can turn you into the quoted expert when others seek to communicate it.
  • Specific and unique tricks and techniques for implementing common procedures. Everyone and their brother might know the procedure, but offering unique and practical how-to advice provides evidence that you’ve internalized/mastered the procedure and made your own
  • At least one or two “takes” or unique perspectives that clash with the conventional wisdom in your profession or industry.

The fist two points establish credibility for your expertise, but the last one leverages that expertise into guru territory. Engaging in this kind of “spirited argument” reveals your thumos by:

  • Showcasing your critical (vs. blind) obedience to the conventional wisdom in your industry or profession.
  • Raising you closer to the level of the big wigs (at least in the reader’s mind) by allowing you to contend with, and hold your own against, them and their orthodoxy.

Find some tidbit of common wisdom that you disagree with, then publicly set the record straight. It even works when you agree with the original wisdom but quibble with a now-common interpretation of it. Here’s how to really make that work:

1) Find a polarity that’s charged but not worked to death. Two examples I’ve used are Pain vs. Gain and Logic vs. Emotion.

2) Carefully consider the merits and advantages of each side rather than coming down on one side or the other. Note in which contexts one side works and in which situations it fails, then do the same for the other side. Find examples. Make some of your own conclusions, and do your best to distill them into actionable guidelines.

3) Explain your insights and conclusions to your potential audience. Obviously, where you can best do this will vary, but here are some options to consider: Write it up to be published in an industry journal, then refer to that published piece in your web copy; Post it on your blog; or, Work it into the web copy directly, either in some “how to” pieces created for customers earlier in their buying process or in other persuasive pages.

4) Name the sources of the positions you are challenging or amending. And do them the courtesy of notifying them – send them your piece and invite comments. As long as you have legitimate insight to add to the discussion and you are honest in your dialog, your invitation stands a solid chance of being accepted.

Voilà. You’re now engaging in dialog with some of the heavies in your industry. And even if you’re not actually exchanging with them directly, you’ll have created the appearance of dialog. Get other followers to hear you out and the gurus may be forced to respond.

[Author's Note: Short of actually being a guru, those are the best of the best ways to create thumos in your web copy. The other two are: 1) Writing copy that attracts the relational customer; and 2) Weaving an over-riding passion into your copy that speaks to the visitor's character and aspirations. But don't worry, I'll provide you with a solid how-to for these other techniques in my next post.]

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Comments (4)

  1. Jeff, I really enjoyed reading this post. I think the “thumos” concept could also be interpreted as “passion” or even “guts”.

    For brand messaging this is the right stuff. Applied to direct marketing/lead generation, web copy and especially in PPC ad copy, words are relatively cheap. A new way of explaining something, a different “voice”, all can be quickly adopted by 2nd movers once conversion rates are measured and evident.

  2. Paul,

    I definitely agree with you on passion – in fact, it’s an essential part of what I called the third factor for creating thumos:

    Weaving an over-riding passion into your copy that addresses your visitor’s goals, aspirations, and character. However, this leads directly into your other point: for the ease of copying a style. Anyone can create passionate copy. And many do, but what they end up sounding like is a passionate Karaoke artist, or a passionate parrot. Think of a wanna-be Tony Robins.

    This is why I covered the “thought leadership” aspect of thumos first. Once you have made it clear to the reader that you have your own unique and compelling “take” on your domain of expertise, then that passion comes through while you’re singing your own, unique song. You have to have genuine thought leadership before the passion will help you. But stay tuned for more on this ; )


  3. [...] a guru, let's examine two other essential methods of creating thumos (see my last post for definition), and then use that insight to figure it [...]

  4. [...] Once you've taken a look at that, I humbly suggest you look at my series on Inspiring Online [...]

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Jeff is a Persuasion Architect, Web copywriter, blogger, and instructor of FutureNow's Persuasive Online Copywriting workshop. Follow Jeff Sexton on twitter

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