The power of writing about hard truths

As a consultant, you often have to share hard truths with your clients — truths about the underlying cause of a problem they are struggling with or how they are exacerbating it. Sometimes, the client already knows the hard truth but doesn’t want to face it. But sometimes, you catch them off guard, and they must wrestle with your observations and recommendations. If you’ve been in business for a few years, you’ve probably gotten quite good at sharing hard truths with your clients.

Why is it, then, that so many consultants struggle to write about hard truths?

Articles that tackle hard truths directly and unflinchingly are extremely popular with readers and editors alike. Why? Because these types of articles, by their very nature, add to the conversation instead of the noise. They spark discussion and encourage people to think more deeply.

Many consultants want to avoid courting controversy by writing about a hard truth for fear of hurting the feelings of a current client or turning off a prospective client. Stating a hard truth in writing feels uncomfortable, so many equivocate and over-explain to soften the blow. But doing so simply dilutes the message.

When you share your observations boldly, you will provoke a negative response from those who benefit from the status quo. Sometimes, they will respond publicly and attack not only your argument but also your credibility.

But if you want to work with clients who value your perspective and are willing to work with you to tackle the challenges they face, writing about hard truths will enhance your reputation and directly benefit your business.

Hard truths are born of hard experience.

Your clients hire you to solve problems. Even before you start a new project, you ask questions about the problems your client is facing, what they have done to try to solve them, and where they think the source of the problem lies. This phase of a prospective project gives you a good deal of information — only some of which is accurate.

Once the project starts, you can observe your client in action. Your observations and further questioning help you understand how your client operates and what might be contributing to the problem they hired you to solve. You may also discover problems your client wasn’t even aware of that need to be solved. This process of inquiry and observation is crucial. Only after you understand the challenges at play can you diagnose and treat the problem.

This diagnosis and treatment often require hard conversations with your client.

Years ago, when I worked for a boutique nonprofit consulting firm, we were conducting a feasibility study for a capital campaign. As we spent more and more time with the board and staff, we realized that the executive director’s poor leadership was one of the organization’s biggest challenges. The staff did not trust him (with good reason). Neither did several influential community members. While these community members did intend to maintain their membership, they had no intentions of making a more significant gift so long as the current executive director ran the organization.

My colleague and I had to break the news to the board. Not only was a capital campaign to the tune of several million dollars not feasible, but the organization was at risk of losing several valued staff members and even more of its donor base if they didn’t take action. Quickly.

These difficult conversations took place in private meetings, but they brought to light several challenges faced by nonprofit organizations throughout the United States. And we wrote about those challenges publicly. Through our blog and articles written for the Association of Fundraising Professionals, we clarified the purpose of a feasibility study. We stated that if a study revealed a successful capital campaign was not feasible, we let our clients know. Even though it means we lost the opportunity to manage a capital campaign. Moreover, we gave them recommendations that, if followed, would strengthen their organization and put all the pieces in place so they could launch a successful capital campaign.

The benefits of writing about hard truths.

When you write about hard truths, your colleagues, prospective clients, and partners get a ringside seat to your thinking, approach, and willingness to say what needs to be said.

Writing about hard truths also differentiates you from your peers. You will attract attention if you write about challenges in your industry that few people address publicly. That is a crucial first step to building your business and positioning yourself as the obvious choice for specific types of projects.

By being bold enough to say what others want to ignore, prospective clients and partners who value your perspective will identify themselves. They will also feel validated and understood, which will help them see you as someone they can trust, someone who has similar values to their own.

Those with no interest in tackling complex issues honestly, who are unwilling to have a hard conversation or do the work required to address challenges within their organization, will distance themselves from you. And that’s great because you want to work with the people who value you, your approach, and your perspective. You don’t want to work with people who frustrate you.

How to write about hard truths.

As an established consultant, your experience-based expertise is invaluable. But your perspective can only enhance your reputation and help you build your business if you share it. But how? Here are five concepts to keep in mind to help you write about hard truths without damaging your reputation:

  • Be you. You aren’t trying to provoke the reader. Instead, you are writing about a challenging situation you see regularly and offering your insights. You don’t need to use inflammatory language if that isn’t your style, nor do you need to cushion your message. Show up on the page as you show up at your client’s office.
  • Bring the receipts. Back up your statements with research, facts, and illustrative examples whenever possible. When that is not possible (and there are plenty of times when that is the case), appeal to reason. Help the reader understand your perspective without making it personal.
  • Show empathy. Demonstrate that you understand how people came to be dealing with the challenge they are facing. Consider incorporating your experiences, and don’t be afraid to dive into the nuances. Exploring the nuances is a great way to show that you understand their challenges are complicated. Let your readers know that they aren’t alone.
  • Be bold. While it is essential to show empathy, you don’t want to shy away from the truth. Be clear, definitive, and respectful. If you try to soften the blow, your message may be lost (and that doesn’t help anyone).
  • Offer actionable insights. Don’t simply point out the problem. Offer a solution or tools the reader can use to start addressing the problem. You might provide a diagnostic tool, a list of questions to ask, or a script. You want your reader to be able to take action toward a resolution, even if the action is small.

To serve your readers, you need to be clear and offer up the hard truths with a dose of empathy and some practical advice. While you might turn some readers off, you will also fire some readers up. Those who agree with your perspective will appreciate that you were bold enough to address the hard truths and go against prevailing wisdom (or the current fad). These readers will see themselves in you and want to engage with you further.