Deliberate Provocation Can Get Your Message Across

by Paul Sloane

We live in a society where people are quick to take offense so we are encouraged to be polite and correct. But sometimes the best way to gain attention for your creative idea is to be outrageously provocative.

The Reverend Jonathan Swift was an eminent Irish author and satirist. He is best known for writing Gulliver’s Travels. In 1729 he published a short book entitled A Modest Proposal in which he suggested that poor people should sell their children to be eaten by rich people. He wrote, ‘A young healthy child is a most delicious, nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked or boiled.’ He went on to list the economic and social advantages of his suggestion.

Many people on hearing the idea were deeply offended though some took it seriously.

Only later in the book did it become apparent that he was being intentionally provocative. Swift then laid out his proposed reforms to improve the plight of the poor and starving in society.

Rod Judkins in The Art of Creative Thinking argues that Swift’s outrageous provocation was justified. He says, ‘Swift’s book had a profound impact. A sober and conventional proposal of reforms could have gone unnoticed. Swift wanted something to happen. He wanted to change things quickly. He took a chance. He walked along the edge of a precipice. It could have backfired badly but it did not.’

The Punk Rock movement in the 1970s deliberately rejected the conventions and approaches of contemporary pop and rock music. “No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones”, declared The Clash in their song “1977”. The Ramones, the Sex Pistols, the Clash and the Damned were groups which were purposefully offensive in their lyrics, dress and actions. This rebel movement had a major impact on popular culture and ironically became mainstream.

In a world where so many excellent but conventional musical performers go unnoticed, Madonna, Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga have all used deliberate provocation to draw attention to their acts. The TV cartoon show South Park offends many sensitive people by provocatively tackling taboo subjects but it has garnered a large following of loyal fans.

If other methods fail to get your creative message noticed then maybe you should try being annoying, irritating or even offensive. It is a risk. But innovators have to be risk takers.

Dare you walk the precipice?

image credit: bigstockphoto.com


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Paul SloanePaul Sloane writes, speaks and leads workshops on creativity, innovation and leadership. He is the author of The Innovative Leader and editor of A Guide to Open Innovation and Crowdsourcing, published both published by Kogan-Page. Follow him @PaulSloane

One comment

  1. Great post – pushing the envelope is great – you just need to factor in corporate culture – pushing say a bank would be different from pushing the edge in a startup. If you think about it, directors get some of the best performances out of their actors when they push them out of their comfort zone – is it the same for everyone?

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