How to Write Thought Leadership That's Actually Thoughtful
By Chris Gillespie, Co-Founder, Find A Way Media
The Perils of Writing Poorly
As an executive ghostwriter, I see a lot of bad writing from otherwise great people who aspire to thought leadership. The issue isn’t their ideas: It’s a mixture of poor process and pretentious prose. They make unsupportable claims, lack substance, and peddle products like it’s a press release, and so their writing fails to capture anyone’s attention — and worse.
Bad writing can damage your reputation. What you publish online becomes your digital calling card. Consider United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz's assertion that security guards were justified in beating a passenger — that's now in print. Forever.
According to a Edelman-LinkedIn study, 45 percent of B2B decision makers actually lost respect for companies based on their writing, and many removed them from their list of potential vendors.
To help and not harm, thought leadership must combine original ideas and research with carefully selected words. Only then can it spark a real discussion, raise awareness, and drive organic traffic.
How To Write Thought leadership:
1. First, research
Before I begin writing, I always check to see what's already been written on the topic. Without research, I risk sounding like someone barging into a conversation late. For instance, if I wrote today about how consumers want to feel understood by companies and I didn’t mention Pepsi’s recent tone-deaf ad, I too would sound out of touch.
For 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 and take careful notes.
2. Find your unique angle
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 across as unsupportable and 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. Write a WIIFM statement
“What’s in it for me?” or “WIIFM,” for short, is what your audience is thinking while 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 propel readers through the article, 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, consider how I’ve titled 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 first headline keeps readers guessing. The latter gives them no reason to click. To keep people interested in your article, tout the benefits and leave breadcrumbs as you go, always alluding that there’s more to come.
4. Write an outline
Write an outline with an introduction, body, and conclusion, and then fill it in with bullet points. Draw from your research and add points you plan to make, quotes, and statistics.
5. Fill it in with 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. It answers the questions that naturally arise as your audience reads:
What is this about?
How does it affect me?
What can I do about it?
This format can keep your writing from sounding too academic because it forces you to be specific and incorporate examples.
6. Edit with a chainsaw
Do as great writers do 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 puns you find yourself having to explain to proofreaders. 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 you demand that each word earn its keep, you find that all that’s left are your most powerful points.
How should you end your thought leadership article? Abruptly, and with an expansive statement or question that forces readers to relate it all back to their own experience. For example,
If your team where to accept that good design matters, how might it change how you think about customer support?
At this point, you’re ready to publish. But, if you have the luxury of time, shop the article around to trusted colleagues. Does it make sense to them? Would they click the headline? Testing can help you refine it even further and give it the best chance of being accepted by a publication, and of having its intended effect of building trust with readers — not burning it down.
What are the benefits to being a thought leader?
Build an audience who’ll share your news
Amplify the reach of your marketing content
Secure funding more easily
Earn more credibility when selling and marketing