Back when I was a freelance journalist, I had to source all my articles properly. This meant getting objective proof of facts and assertions, typically by interview or with reference to government or company publications. I try to carry this attitude through into my corporate work.

Proper sourcing is important because it:

  1. Adds credibility. Clients trust recommendations and content based on hard evidence.

  2. Avoids waffling. Lots of marketing copy enthusiastically chases its own tail because it has nothing more substantial to bite down on. A sentence with a quote or a fact beats a paragraph of pious verbiage.

  3. Inspires new ideas. Some of the best ideas I have ever had and some of the best lines I have ever come up with were inspired by something I read or heard; usually in combination with something else. I like to gather my research and interview transcript and read through it all before I start writing and this is usually the time when inspiration strikes. No sources, no inspiration.

  4. Gives protection. Occasionally a client will ask for the source of some fact or assertion and usually many months after I've written something. I have some habits that help me track sources through the research, drafting and writing process which make it easy to go back to the sources if I have to. Besides reassuring clients, it is also helpful in giving me some legal protection in relation to my professional indemnity obligations.

  5. Makes me look clever and well-informed. I have developed pretty good research and interview skills over the last eight years and I think/hope that this comes out in my work and differentiates it.

Having said all that, I was running through a carefully-sourced presentation for a client today and I got to the slide with my recommendations on it. Every other slide had a footnote with source references. This slide didn't. Someone asked "what's the source for this?" I said "my brain."

It got a good laugh but there's a bigger issue. Sometimes people pay me for research, sometimes for content and sometimes they pay me to think hard. The question of sourcing touches on the question of value. Data is only as good as the use you make of it.


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Columnist Matthew Stibbe is Writer-in-chief for Articulate Marketing, a specialist copywriting agency. His clients include Microsoft, the British Government and leading magazines like Wired and Popular Science. Matthew also writes a blog called Bad Language. Click here to read more articles by Matthew Stibbe.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday February 10th 2009, 4:12 PM
Comment by: omer S. (Cardiff United Kingdom)
As English student I enjoy reading this artical

Omer
Sunday February 22nd 2009, 12:19 AM
Comment by: Harry H (Melbourne Australia)
Matthew, thanks for sharings your thoughts with us about the relevance of providing sources - it's great advice!
Monday August 10th 2009, 10:30 PM
Comment by: Homer M. (Princeton, NJ)
Good article but I was looking for something else. A professional speaker once asked me what I thought of her presentation. Essentially, I told her that when speaking in public there are some words I try to avoid simply because I think they are a bit brash. A specific example would be the word, "lie," as in, "the man is lying." I would probably use a euphamism like "stretching the truth." My friend couldn't relate to what I said. I looked but have never found any articles or comment on it. I guess it's a matter of personal taste. Just hearing that term makes me a little uneasy, and wanting my audience to feel relaxed, I suppose I transferred my feelings on to them and chose the least offensive word. Apparently, most people don't react the way I do at the sound of that word and that's why they don't relate.

Homer M.
Princeton

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