How to Write Thought Leadership That's Actually Thoughtful
By Chris Gillespie, founder of Find A Way Media
What you say can, and will, be held against you
As an executive ghostwriter, I've seen some good writing. Some. The majority, however, is quite bad.
It's the kind of writing that lacks in substance, tosses around unsupportable claims and jargon like party favors, and reads like a thinly veiled press release.
Bad writing is more than just a waste of time: it can damage your reputation. What you publish online becomes your digital business card. Consider United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz's assertion that security guards were justified in beating a passenger — that's now in print. Forever.
But good thought leadership? That can spark real discussions. It can lift brand awareness and drive meaningful traffic.
You may have ideas, but you have to find the right way to convey them. Here's how to distill your thoughts into crisp, engaging articles.
5 tips to write better thought leadership content:
1. First, see what's already been said
Before I begin writing, I always check to see what's already been written on the topic. Without research, I risk sounding uninformed, like someone barging into a conversation late. For example, if I wrote today about how consumers want to be understood by companies and I didn’t mention Pepsi’s recent tone-deaf ad, I’d sound just as out of touch as my subject.
For my due diligence, I always perform searches on Google, Google Scholar, and publications related to my topic such as Fast Company, Forbes, Inc, Entrepreneur, and the big national newspapers. I'll read through the articles I find and take careful notes.
2. Add to the conversation
Next, I try to figure out my spin on the topic. If everyone is writing about how influencer marketing is the hottest new thing, I’ll find angles that haven't been covered. For example, whether the strategy is a fit for a particular industry, how I’m concerned about whether it can scale, or about how looming FCC regulations might impact it.
When in doubt, always write for a niche. Many executive authors make the mistake of thinking that they’re casting a global net they really only want to influence a handful of people. Broad, all-encompassing articles are more difficult to write, come off as cryptic, and are often missing the semantic keywords that will make your article show up in searches. Remember: If you write for everyone it will appeal to no one.
3. Use the statement-example-analysis format
Follow my writing and you’ll notice a pattern: I make a statement, often supported by a statistic or fact, provide a concrete example, and then analyze why it matters. This example sandwich is a great method (albeit one of many) for conveying information to audiences because it answers the questions that naturally arise as they read:
- What’s this article all about, then?
- Interesting. How does it affect me?
- Oh wow. What are the implications?
This format can keep your writing from sounding too academic because it forces you to be specific and incorporate examples.
4. Have a powerful “What’s in it for me?" (WIIFM) statement
“What’s in it for me?” or “WIIFM,” for short, is what your customers are constantly thinking while they’re reading your article. If you’re not up-front and consistent about the value that you offer, you’ll lose them. But, be careful not to give it all away at once. You want to create some intrigue.
To do this, use what’s referred to as the empty-suitcase method for headlines and value propositions: Give readers everything except the answer. Just tell them the benefits.
For an example, just reference the title of this article. Note that it’s “How to write thought leadership that’s actually thoughtful,” and not “The way to write thought leadership is to be prepared, pointed, and concise.”
The former version headline keeps readers guessing whereas the latter gives them no reason to click. To keep people interested in your article, tout the benefits and leave breadcrumbs as you go.
5. Edit with a chainsaw
Finally, be courageous and kill your darlings. While you should begin by writing down everything that comes to mind, come back to hack away all those self-indulgent digressions, histrionic jabs at competitors, and clever turns of phrase that you find yourself having to explain to your proofreader. Clip them all, and edit your piece to within an inch of its life.
After your first edit, set your work aside and return to it with the goal of making it another 30% shorter. Most people balk at this advice. It always seems impossible, at first. Yet it will transform an okay article into an unforgettable one. When demand that each and every word earn its keep, you find that all that’s left is a concise and powerful point.
Now you’re ready to go forth and write thought leadership that’s actually, well, thoughtful.
Want more writing tips? Check out our other writing resources.