The style vs substance debate

Nov 02, 2023
The style vs substance debate

Find Your Superpower newsletter 032

Read time: 5 minutes

Topics covered: Communication, style versus substance, public speaking


I believe I found my “voice” when I was studying for my PhD degree in Boston.

For one semester, I decided to attend a class at the MIT Sloan School of Management called “Managing in Adversity.” Graduate students can take pass-fail classes in other schools if they ballot for it and get accepted.

Every week, we would get a new guest lecturer—a successful CEO or entrepreneur who would share with us the biggest adversity they had encountered in their professional career.

Throughout the class, the professor would call on students to answer questions and I noticed that everyone would raise their hand on demand.

Even more fascinating for me was how confident they would sound, regardless of whether they gave the right or wrong answer.

It reminded me that I almost never raised my hand as a student growing up in Singapore.

Even at Cambridge University, where I completed my undergraduate degree, it was somewhat of a rarity as well.


Teaching our students how to speak

It is probably also relevant to bring up a YouTube lecture by the late MIT professor Patrick Winston, in which he talked about the three skills that we need to equip our students with before they graduate from college:

✅ how to speak

✅ how to write

✅ new ideas and technical knowledge associated with their degree

It struck me that where I was raised, we provide a similar guidance, but in the reverse order: technical knowledge, followed by how to write, then how to speak.

I shared both of these stories with fellow LinkedIn Top Voice Crystal Lim-Lange when I made a guest appearance on her super popular Comfort & Growth podcast.

I'm pleased to share that Episode 13 - Building your Personal Brand with an Abundance Mindset, is now out on Spotify.

Watch our lucky-13 episode now!


When change is hard, immediately find an objection to it!

Inevitably, we would find a torrent of objections as part of the never-ending style vs substance debate.

❌ But I’m not a vain person, I don’t need everyone to hear from me!

❌ I think my work will speak for itself. I am not the frivolous type.

❌ I don’t have the time to humble-brag on social media. I am busy as it is.

And at the end of the day, I think all of these objections disguise and bury a much deeper and more troubling root cause.

Here are some possibilities for why people stay quiet on social media:

🤔 Could this individual in reality be terrified of public speaking? Because like me, their entire formal education could be focused on technical knowledge transfer and so their communication skills remain underdeveloped. Instead of trying to learn a new life skill, they throw shade at it at every opportunity they can so that they don't have to face up to a skills deficit in their skills portfolio.

🤔 Could this individual have tried sharing their thoughts and ideas in the past by tweeting or writing posts on LinkedIn, only to get no affection and crickets in return? What this failed episode taught them is they are not good at storytelling and speaking, and so there’s no benefit to keep trying as it is discomforting and stressful to be rejected regularly.

🤔 Could this individual have an imposter syndrome about their achievements and abilities, and feel like they are a fraud who is unworthy of praise and public accolade? By amplifying their ideas on a public platform, they will only bring about more attention which could expose their vulnerabilities and lead to public disgrace and embarrassment.


Dorie Clark sets the record straight

As I shared on Crystal's podcast, it is not even a debate about either/or. We need both style AND substance, because the combination is unstoppable.

When we possess a combination of technical and communication skills, we shift from being a (highly replaceable) commodity at work to someone highly valuable—a straight-up technician can be replaced fairly simply, but someone with some degree of soft skills in empathy, leadership, communication, teamwork, public speaking, persuasion and influence is much harder to find on the talent market.

At the end of the day, I’d like to defer to professional branding expert Dorie Clark on matters like this. Dorie explains why we should share our ideas publicly, either via speaking or writing, on the Selling with Love podcast:

“The way I like to think about it and position it for folks who may feel a little nervous about it, it is not so much that we need to be our own independent media companies which feels large and amorphous and intimidating for a large percent of people.

Rather, if you do not share your ideas publicly, no one will know what your ideas are. That is pretty basic, and most people can appreciate that. The truth is, if people don’t know what your ideas are, you’re never gonna be recognized for them. It’s not like someone comes out of the sky and says “You know, whoa, we’ve never heard anything from you, but really, tell us what you think!”

We have to be the ones putting the light out. We have to be the beacon so that other people who are like-minded can find us. Otherwise, they’re not gonna ask, they’re not gonna be sort of digging around and begging us, “Oh please tell us what you think!”

If you are going to win the lottery, you’re at least going to have to buy the lottery ticket. At least that’s what it is about, in one form of another, sharing your ideas publicly.”

Guys, listen to Dorie. Buy the lottery ticket.  



Download the introduction chapter hereeaster egg inside! 🥚

I am pleased to share with you a free introduction chapter of my recently launched The LinkedIn Success Mindset e-book and video course.

Professor Kishore Mahbubani, former Singapore ambassador to the UN, has kindly written me a foreword. LinkedIn's Frank Koo and LinkedIn Top Voices David Wee, Chris Do, Chuen Chuen Yeo and Amanda Cua have all written me generous reviews here.

Course buyers will be invited to attend my LinkedIn Storytelling Secrets workshop and Q&A session on 23 November, 11AM-12PM (GMT+8). Soft book your calendars please.

Join hundreds of other people just like you who want to apply the three laws of success—the law of abundance, the law of attraction, and the law of reciprocity—onto LinkedIn for professional and career success!






Thanks for reading issue 032 of my weekly Find Your Superpower newsletter.

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