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Style vs. Substance


Explanations > Preferences > Style vs. Substance

Style | Substance | Discussion | So what?


There are two approaches in life that both oppose and complement one another. Some people prefer one and some prefer the other. Whichever we choose reflects and shapes our approach to life.


In the style approach, we are less concerned with what is done, being more concerned with appearance. This can include visual appearance but is more focused on the impressions other people gain, including what they think and feel.

Style thinking is more aligned with the principles of brand, and thinking typically starts with desired perception and works back to what must be done to create this.

From a substance perspective, a style approach seems shallow and false, yet, if we are honest, much of what we do takes careful account of what others may think of us. We socially construct our selves and our reality, seeing ourselves through the eyes of others and guessing what they are thinking. The fact that this mind-reading is often wildly wrong is largely treated as being immaterial as many of us pay attention to style, even if it is not our major concern.

In changing minds, the style approach expects to deceive as the end is allowed to justify the means. It works on looking and sounding good and is associated with charismatic leadership and 'selling the sizzle not the sausage'. A danger is overconfidence and a leaking duper's delight that runs the risk of amplifying outrage.


In the substance approach, we are less concerned with appearances as we assume that actions will speak louder than words, and achievements will always trump ineffective action.

Substance thinking is closely aligned with the principles of value, where what is achieved adds benefit for other people, with the size of the benefit and numbers of beneficiaries acting as multipliers.

From a style perspective, this may seem crass and primitive. Those with a style perspective may also feel a bit guilty and envious of the substantial value creation. At the same time, those who focus on substance may envy the slick communications of the stylist.

In changing minds, the substance approach focuses on functional value creation, pointing to action rather than talk and tangible benefits before beauty. It is associated with a management style that emphasizes solid delivery, and a sales approach that majors on value-creating features rather than aesthetics.


In practice many of us use both style and substance, though in different amounts and in different circumstances. In many ways the best position is to have both strong style and strong substance. Appearances do matter and of course it is important to act as well as talk.

Where people focus mostly on one side, those who emphasize style tend to succeed in the short term while those who just go for substance are more likely to succeed in the longer term. It would seem that for continued social survival substance is essential as the vacuous stylist is eventually found out, yet our often overwhelming concern for the present and the attractiveness of style means we easily forget the real value of substance.

From a needs viewpoint, the stylist gets their sense of identity by saying 'I am how I appear' and basking in the admiration of others. They also get a sense of control when they convince others by their deception (well-meaning or otherwise). The person of substance gets their sense of identity by saying 'I am what I do' and basking in the gratitude of others. They get a sense of control when they confirm their skill in using resources to create things.

So what?

When seeking to persuade, differentiate between people who are all about appearances from those who care more about what they do and deliver. Also note your own approach. Start by aligning your discussion with their preference rather than fighting your own corner. It is so easy to be contemptuous of others who see life differently.

See also

Control-Identity types

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