Reading the room

or, a tale of too much authenticity

Hey everybody - welcome back to The Story Is The Strategy. This week we’re going to try out a slightly new format. We’ll be applying a marketing and communications lens to things happening in tech, business, and politics.

Don’t worry - we’re still going to write our long form posts on specific techniques you can employ to become a better communicator at work, but hopefully this will be useful too. Let us know what you think.

Anyway, onto the post.

If you care about crypto, tech, or are generally active on Twitter, you may have seen Brian Armstrong (co-founder and CEO of Coinbase) reprising one of his regular performances last week — looking tone deaf and seemingly annoying everyone at the same time. 

This is saying something since Armstrong’s communication style is already pretty famously controversial. 

First, there was his manifesto about not bringing politics to work (which he seems more than happy to ignore when his own views are in question). This led to 5% of his team leaving and calls that he was either racist or standing up to a woke mob, depending who you ask. 

Then, he dueled with the SEC (is this building in public?) and got ratio’ed for not knowing what a security product was. 

The latest thread was a Randian take on how America doesn’t celebrate CEOs enough and is going to lose some imaginary, zero-sum battle for entrepreneurs to another country. I can only imagine what his marketing and communications teams think.

What worked? 

Though I can’t figure out his motivation, Armstrong has a gift that is incensing or exciting depending on your politics, point of view, and personality. 

He says what he thinks in a way that suggests he doesn’t really care about the consequences. Like other tech billionaires (cough *Elon* cough), it’s sometimes hard to tell if he revels in the chaos or is two moves ahead of everyone else.

It can be maddening for journalists, exciting for fanbois, confounding for policymakers, and just odd for everyone else. But it is exceedingly on brand (and definitely never boring). And that in itself is a power we’ve talked about before — authenticity.

Even if you ignore the policy misstep in this thread (a newly-minted billionaire CEO calling for people to be nicer to him and his peers after he publicly dragged his own regulator is a choice), it’s the latest attempt by Armstrong to thread a very narrow needle on authenticity. 

What didn’t?

Authenticity is a good thing in communications, provided we allow for ambiguity when we don’t have all the answers and give room for the perspectives of others. If you read the thread (and the replies), it’s clear Armstrong didn’t do this.

The other tricky thing about authenticity is that you can never please everyone. If you’re authentic (and not a typical CEO trying to placate the public and spin their way around a straight answer), you can end up digging your own grave. Who pushes you in depends on the topic.

Sometimes directness is helpful because it points direction and attention at an issue that matters to you (take Armstrong’s earlier jabs at the SEC for example). Other times it may be viewed as necessary by an individual (remember Armstrong’s posts on Coinbase’s mission?), but broadly divisive. And sometimes it doesn’t matter to most, but the speaker’s point of view can make them stumble over their own feet and score an own goal.

What’s the lesson?

Whether you agree with his politics or not, Armstrong says what he thinks — for better or worse. And while authenticity can be a superpower, it doesn’t mean shooting from the hip and saying whatever you think, whenever you feel like it. Let’s look at some examples.

Do you need to draw broader attention to something you care about? Be honest and share your relationship to the topic.

Do you feel you need to speak up about something at work but you’re sure it will be divisive? Try drafting your thoughts first, waiting a few days, and then sharing with a few people in the spirit of inviting feedback and building consensus — even if you know it won’t please everyone.

Do you want to fire from the hip about a topic you feel strongly about but it isn’t necessarily germane to your day to day? Voice your opinion if you must, but recognize that your authenticity in a situation like this doesn’t elevate your communications.

Make sure to embrace authenticity in your communications at work, but do so in a way that preserves you more leeway if you don’t get it quite right the first time. Construct your own framework for when it’s worth employing it in your communication.