Have you read the open letter from The Future of Life Institute?
This call to pause AI experiments more powerful than GPT-4 appeared a few weeks ago, and more than 6,000 academics and business leaders have signed it.
This fascinating read offers a takeaway that has nothing to do with AI. The letter shows how a team of well-meaning and even learned communicators can sabotage their message.
Let me explain.
Do not create weak and toothless content
Business writer and former Forrester analyst Josh Bernoff called the letter weak and toothlessfilled with “passive vocal statements about things that should happen, with no indication of who should do it”.
I agree. For example, the authors write:
Powerful AI systems should only be developed once we are confident that their effects will be positive and their risks manageable. This confidence must be well justified and increase with the magnitude of the potential effects of a system.
In simpler terms: developers should only do things that they are sure will produce a positive result with manageable risks.
No one could argue that opinion or have a different point of view. But this statement does not explain what must happen.
The rest of the letter is equally vague and unnecessary. In fact, the actual verbiage asking for a break sounds so surprisingly confident that it seems like a last-minute addition:
(W)We call on all AI labs to immediately suspend the training of AI systems more powerful than GPT-4 for at least 6 months. This break should be public and verifiable, and include all key players. If such a pause cannot be enacted quickly, governments should step in and institute a moratorium.
Therefore, the single specific CTA stands out in a bad way. As the only actionable piece of the letter, it doesn’t elicit a broader response – something every piece of thought leadership should be asking: what’s best next? experience for the reader?
The authors have sabotaged themselves. To have the next best experience, readers must agree or disagree with the requested break on giant AI experiments. Was this what the authors hoped readers would do? Did they want the pause to be the only action taken after reading the letter (seems to be given the resulting cover)? Or did they want readers to take action to address the complex and important challenges raised by the authors?
Writers have fallen into a common trap faced by B2B white paper publishers – their thought leadership is just a series of general benefit statements. I recently read a white paper from a telecommunications company in which the authors made the main point in the introduction:
Fiber optic cabling is the best choice for modern commercial buildings because today’s modern infrastructure must be managed efficiently and in a way that meets the needs of new technologies..
These common generic catches in business often occur when multiple subject matter experts contribute to the piece. SMEs may want to present a point of view, but they do not want customers or other SMEs to disagree with the content. In other words, they position things that are generally right, so they are unlikely to be specifically wrong.
Questions to arouse your specificity
It is not a goal to be the best, a strategy to be the best, an intention to be the best, a plan to be the best. It’s an understanding of what you can be best at. The distinction is absolutely crucial.
Marketers should apply this thinking to thought leadership. A VP of content marketing at a tech company recently shared his program’s extraordinary turnaround. They discovered an area of content that none of their competitors covered. “We got specific, prescriptive and went out of our way to talk about it because we knew we could be the best in the world at it,” they told me.
As you develop your thought leadership program, ask these questions to avoid the trap the AI-pause writers found themselves in:
- What is our organization deeply passionate about? This answer seems obvious because your organization’s passion needs to fuel the content engine. But, as the AI suspension letter shows, expressing this passion in thought leadership can get tricky. The word “passion” suggests that you have a distinct point of view and are not equivocal about things. This means that to the extent that you are willing to be generally right for some people, you are also willing to be specifically wrong for others.
- What can we be the best in the world to lead? Where can you be specifically prescriptive? As my colleague, Joe Pulizzi, says, “No successful media company sets out to be the fifth-best magazine or the third-best news network.” Just because your company has skills in a vertical doesn’t mean you can or should provide thought leadership in that area. As Collins suggests, a critical distinction exists between asking yourself where you can be the best versus plotting where you should be the best.
- What is the best next experience for our audience? If your audience is getting great value from your content, what do you want them to do next? How could they “pay” you for this content? Could they raise their hands as active prospects? Could they stay on your service longer? Could they be better served and lower your service costs? Could they provide you with such rich and accurate data that you could better target your advertising and reduce your costs? Could they literally pay you for this content?
Combined, these three questions form a sort of Venn diagram. Your thought leadership agenda is where your answers overlap.
How much better could this AI letter from the Future of Life Institute have been if, instead of asking for a break, the authors gathered their community, aligned themselves with a “manifesto” and presented the changes that are strong, achievable and they claim to bring do you want to see in the world of AI?
If they had followed that up with a call to action for an event (I hear Paris is lovely in April) to discuss and finalize this manifesto as a normative blueprint made achievable only by taking a break from developing AI, I think that would have made for a more solid and interesting discussion.
The more detailed CTA might have met so many objections, but at least they would discuss the good stuff.
It’s your story. Say it well.
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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute