Why thought leadership should be like a conversation: Part one

Too often, we see companies develop their thought leadership as if they are the only ones talking. It’s not hard to understand why. So much content is inspired by conversations they have with executives who are grappling with a business issue—for example, what impact will AI have on my industry? What are the possible applications at my company? Does my organization have the right capabilities and talent to benefit significantly from AI?

When we’re working with clients on content—be it an article, infographic, or video—one of the first questions we ask is, “What’s new and distinctive about your insights?” Their answer is important because, on any given topic, they are far from the lone voice weighing in. And with many issues, such as the impact of digital technologies, they must find a way to rise above the multitude of experts to be seen as a truly authoritative voice.

To put the challenge another way, we’ve all been in conversations where one participant feels compelled to share opinions but has absolutely nothing to add to the discussion. That happens all the time in thought leadership, especially on trending topics from the Fourth Industrial Revolution to blockchain.

Recently, we performed a content audit for a client that wanted to know what its competitors were publishing on a certain industry and whether they were doing a good job of it. Beyond the huge variance in quality, one of the more striking findings was that many companies are creating thought leadership without a new or distinctive perspective.

That means they haven’t bothered to understand where the conversation is or felt pressure to publish on a topic even though they had nothing new to say.

I’ve seen professional services firms do both regularly, and I understand their rationale: they feel it’s better to be in the conversation than on the sidelines. And when it comes to relationship-based business development, they may be right. Still, publishing a “me-too” piece isn’t without risk, particularly if your main competitors get there first.

So how can companies be sure they are staking out a distinctive position? A few steps are critical:

Do your research. Any editor you work with should come to the table with a thorough understanding of the topic or industry and help you find a provocative angle. Even a cursory Google search can help to ensure you’re not just retracing someone else’s steps. It can also highlight a position that goes against conventional wisdom.

Draw on firsthand experience. Good thought leadership is not a synthesis of other people’s ideas or research (though these elements can help to draw a sharp contrast). Instead, use the knowledge you have gained serving clients to frame the issue.

Include concrete, actionable recommendations. Remember that your audience—current and prospective clients—has specific questions. Good thought leadership provides specific answers, and in the process showcases your expertise and why you might be the one to steer your clients down a better path.

If you’re motivated to develop effective thought leadership, be sure you can satisfy these three steps. The reward will be content that furthers the conversation and makes your clients want to hear more from you.

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In a subsequent blog, I’ll share how thought leadership supports the ongoing conversations that are part of any successful business development effort.

Scott Leff

Scott is the founder of Leff. He's spent his career helping executives and subject matter experts tell their story in a compelling way. In the process, he's had the opportunity to work with C-suite executives, politicians, academics, and Olympians, not to mention dozens of talented writers, editors, and designers in the business world. Scott developed the concept of "lean content creation" as a cost-effective way to support comprehensive, integrated communication strategies.

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