Three reasons great strategists think more about style than substance

“The world doesn’t reward the people with the best ideas. It rewards the people who are best at communicating ideas.” – David Perrell

We all know that ideas (and strategies) are worth nothing, and execution is everything.  This is obvious, or should be anyway.

But the notion above?

This is more subtle, and I think in many ways more profound.  It suggests – if we take it to its extreme – that style is more important than substance.  And based on my experience as a “dealer of ideas” I find this to be more true with every passing day.

If it is true, then the gravity of the notion is pretty seismic:

  1. On a personal level, it means we all should be dedicating far more energy and attention to our communication style; indeed it should be our central focus, not the optional “add on” it’s generally seen to be.
  2. On a societal level, it means history belongs to best communicated idea, not the truest or most virtuous. To be honest I have thought this many times when reading certain books which I felt contained essential but poorly communicated insights.

Big stuff!

So, to that end, let me give you the three reasons I think that Perrell is right, and that communication skill trumps all.

I. Results are random(ish)

I wouldn’t go quite so far as to say that there is no such thing as a “good” or “bad” idea, however this is more true than people commonly think.

The fact is that the impact of ideas when unleashed on the world is pretty random and unpredictable – unpredictable enough for us to question whether we can really call anything a “good idea” until after it’s been executed.

For example, one thing that has always amazed me is how bad the initial business ideas were of my most successful clients.  I look back on the thought which inspired them to give up their day job and start building something, and invariably my first reaction is “I would never have bothered with that!”.

However the reason they are successful founders is the fact that they did bother, and saw their mediocre ideas evolve into fantastic businesses – just going to show that my judgement is pretty meaningless.

Therefore, if we can accept that it’s pretty hard to judge a good idea from a bad one on the strength of concept alone, how can we tell them apart?

The answer of course is communication style.  “Good ideas” are those which are skilfully communicated, “bad ideas” are those which aren’t, and whatever happens afterwards is in the hands of fate.

We may not want to accept this, but I think we can all agree there’s a worrying plausibility to it nevertheless.

II. Style stirs action

Returning now to the more commonplace “execution is more important than ideas” truism, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that if this is true, then it must also be true to say that “communication is more important than ideas”.


Because if you want something to be executed, it must first be communicated – preferably with passion and verve.

I talk all the time about the importance of charisma in strategy, and this is why, because charismatic ideas get made whilst, “correct” ideas gather dust in a desk drawer.  Of course charismatic people matter too, which is a little harder to control, but the ideas themselves have their own identity and weight which you must nurture if you aren’t able to rely solely on your force of personality.

Was communism a good idea?  Errrm, debatable.

But was (and is) communism a charismatic idea?  Damn right.  And that will always give it the purchase to punch far above its weight on the global political scene – regardless of what it actually “achieves” in the real world.

In the same manner, you must see yourself as a propagandist for your idea.  You must manipulate, distort, and “sloganeer” if you want it to live.  And if you’re uncomfortable with this?  That’s cool – but your idea will die.

III. Accessibility is everything

Why do people read this newsletter?

It’s not because I have amazing original ideas.  Perhaps I have none.  Worse, perhaps I actually have terrible ideas that lead you astray.  All possible.  But that’s by the by, because the real thing people are tuning in for is this:

The inaccessible made accessible.

Strategy is seen as inaccessible.  I make it accessible.  And this means that, for thousands of people, I control what strategy IS – which is insane when you think about it, but that’s how ideas work!  Whole topics are owned by the person who makes them accessible, not the person who is necessarily right.

Heck our whole society is built on accessible (but not necessarily right) ideas like this.

Take for instance the concept of “progress” – the idea that human civilisation is advancing “forwards” with every passing year.  This has huge bodies of highly convincing literature to refute it.  But as an idea it makes intuitive sense.  It’s accessible.  Everyone “gets it”.  So it has become part of our default assumptions on a global level – “can’t stand in the way of progress” after all!

(Note I’m not saying it’s wrong, I’m just illustrating how an intuitively accessible idea can become embedded “truth” even when it’s actually hotly contested)


None of this is the way it’s “supposed” to be.

But “supposed” has got nothing to do with it.  This is the way it is.  A strategist is a stylist – and the ones that aren’t are the ones who gripe about nobody listening to their advice (which is to say the vast majority).

Rhythm, rhetoric, poetry, aesthetics, memes, cadence, repetition, storytelling – there’s a reason this stuff was the very foundation of education in classical times.

And if you want to know what to study next to improve your strategy skills, well, it’s a pretty good place to start.

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