Speak softly because you carry a big stick

So far, I’ve mostly talked about enforcement, codes of conduct, and how to improve communications as a member of a community. This time, I want to talk about the challenge of communicating when you are a community manager or other person of authority in a community. The challenges come mainly from the fact that many people aren’t used to speaking from a position of authority and don’t know how people comport themselves differently in that situation. So I’ll summarize here some of the techniques I use when crafting a message to post.


The big stick

For those that aren’t familiar with the quote, “Speak softly and carry a big stick”, it is a reference to US President Theodore Roosevelt’s foreign policy. The idea was that one should negotiate peacefully but also have a strong military in case negotiations should fall through. My version of the quote is intended to point out that, as a community manager or someone else of authority in a community, you are, in essence, carrying a big stick simply by virtue of having that power of position. It’s not that you necessarily intend to coerce people to your will or your point of view but that people are more likely to listen to you, your views or opinions, or even just do what you say because of that position you hold. So being mindful of that power disparity between you and your audience can help make interactions go more smoothly.


Suggest rather than command

The first thing I learned was to recommend instead of instruct. I’ll say, “You may want to …” or, “You might consider …” instead of something more direct like, “Do …”, or even “I would …”. Some people react negatively to authority. Others blindly follow what they perceive as instructions from someone they believe more knowledgeable than them, ignoring the greater perspective they have or their own better judgement. By advising someone of alternatives in this way, it still leaves the ultimate choice of what to do up to them, to follow your advice or not. This respects their independence and helps them consider what you’ve said more deeply.


Ask instead of state

Another way to reduce the possibility of unduly influencing others is to ask questions rather than making statements. Rather than saying, “This is a better solution because …,” or “I believe this to be a better solution because …,” you could say, “Is this a better solution because … ?” This still lets people know what you’re thinking but, again, it leaves the final conclusion up to the person or people to whom you’re speaking. Asking questions also tends to invite more people or more ideas into the conversation, which is generally a good thing in an online community.


Prefer reticence

The voice of authority can also tend to end conversations because, especially in technical communities, you may be seen as “the person who has all the answers” or at least the definitive or official answers. Many people only care about the official or “best” answer to a question or idea. So if, as a person of authority, you speak upon some subject, even if it is truly only a matter of opinion, some people may perceive the discussion to be over at that point. Because of this, not participating could be the best thing for the conversation, to get a more diverse set of ideas out there, to fuel the fires of creative thought, or simply for others to relax without “Big Brother” watching over them.



When you are in a position of power, authority, or privilege, it is very helpful to think about how that position affects others and how they react to what you say. These are some of the techniques I’ve picked up in my time moderating online communities. What sorts of things have you noticed while in a leadership position or have you appreciated in the leaders that you’ve interacted with? Let us know in the comments :sunny: