How to be a thought leader
Updated: Dec 23, 2020
Thought leadership is about presenting big ideas in a way that will capture the imagination of the audience. It's one way for companies to differentiate themselves from their competitors. We covered this recently in a chat for our public relations podcast. Let us know if it got you thinking!
Thought-leadership strategy starts with the writing -- and editing
“I don't want to give out too many back rubs here, but generally speaking somebody who's been successful in business, to the degree where they're hiring public relations -- believe it or not, in my experience those people are almost always interesting. They’re doing very dynamic, creative stuff all day long -- which isn’t to say they’re able to construct a sentence with an actual subjunctive clause in it. You can be a very sharp, very smart, very interesting person who just can't write for toffee -- so editing is one of the services tech PR has to provide. As you say, we strongly discourage actual ghostwriting, so you’ve got to take a busy person who's got important things to say, and coax a kind of performance out of them that’s going to meet the needs of editors -- and, in the end, of readers.”
A tip for assisting thought leaders in developing a piece: you can often flesh out a good idea faster in a three-minute phone chat than over a time-consuming back-and-forth via email or Slack. It’s surprising how often someone whose prose is awkward or laboured has an incisive, punchy way of speaking. In many cases, transcription plus a light edit results in better thought-leadership writing than starting from scratch.
In developing thought-leadership articles, it’s important to keep adding information in every section, every paragraph if you can -- remember, useful knowledge is what people read these articles for. Consider how Brian Solis brings data point after useful data point to the table in his writing. If a thought leader has just provided a framework, your rewrite should incorporate more research and fresh news on her chosen themes.
The production side of thought-leadership strategy
“How do you write technology thought leadership? Different PR agencies will handle this in different ways. It can run the gamut from editing a draft that a founder or a leader -- a captain of industry as I like to call ‘em -- has already jotted down in some Google doc, and as a communication specialist you have to sort their thoughts out, in a way that is true to what they're trying to get across. But you know, these people are not full-time communications people. They’re people who build companies, build and change entire industries, so they have they simply don't have the time to to do this entirely on their own.
“So it can be editing, or it can be, for some agencies, full-on ghost writing. We've been
lucky in our clients -- well, actually we choose clients who are, number one, doing innovative things using cool leading-edge technologies, and we look for companies that have at least one -- but often more -- stakeholders at the top who can speak to different subject matter in an expert way. So in a sense we're really just channeling their ideas, it's just basically an editing job for us to make sure it conforms to a certain format that editors will find palatable for certain publications.”
Another key component of thought-leadership writing is research -- not just for the article itself, but for getting it placed in the media for maximal impact (if you’re not posting on internal channels).
This means employing the PR technique called ‘newsjacking’ - researching what’s in the news and the headlines, and relating it to the article’s theme. Where is the topic trending? What can you add to discussions that are already happening in the media world? How can you differentiate what your thought leader wants to say?
Then there’s research for the piece itself. You want to avoid making unsubstantiated claims, and use links and data to back up your thought leader’s statements. For most of a typical thought-leadership story, you’ll need to have a deep understanding of the company’s operations -- its founding, its mission, its products and positioning.
Good research leads to good storytelling in this niche, and will often aim to leave readers satisfied they’ve gotten a peek behind the curtain, so to speak.
Ideas as differentiation in thought-leadership strategy
"You have to say something original to stand out, or else why are you even talking? Thought leadership is a space to say something interesting, something original, something contentious. That said, you don’t want to be edgy and argumentative just for the sake of being a jerk -- you don't want to come in nihilistic or nasty. This is a fine line to walk -- but you definitely want some ideas that are controversial in the sense that they're actually worth talking about.”
There are a lot of fine lines in technology thought leadership writing, to be honest. This kind of writing is definitely a component of marketing - and yet people don’t read it for a lot of sales-y talk about how wonderful a company’s product is. You don’t want to say things on your subject that have already been said, and said again -- if you cross the line into mere rehashed jargon, many potential readers will simply tune out.
The key word to keep in mind for thought-leadership writing is actionable. The thought leader’s potential audience is not reading this kind of content for pleasure (although, sure, it should be a pleasant read). For example, readers might want to know how to scale up a SaaS business, so thought-leadership on the matter might let them know their billing will be complicated by Generally Accepted Accounting Principles. Or if a reader can’t get his IT and marketing teams to play nice together, a thought leader might advise regularly scheduled face time for the CIO and CMO.
Thought-leadership audiences are looking for serious business advice, from an expert who’s been there, that they can apply to their own enterprises. 70% of respondents to a survey on the subject affirmed that they expect thought leadership to provide substantial advice and useable ideas.
Technology thought leadership audiences may come to the genre for an interesting read -- but they stay for the news they can use.
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