Emerging tech is juicy. It’s catnip both to people who want to establish a public record of their expertise and to those people’s target audiences. Consider: not everyone is sure of what a given technology can do yet. Senior decision makers likely want to get an understanding of it, and if, by chance, you make an incorrect prediction based on solid analysis of the most current information available, who can fault you? Who’s even going to remember your mistake? (One of the Leff editors, maybe. But I digress.)
To be clear, there are still pitfalls in talking or writing about emerging technology (for our purposes, technology whose commercial applications are starting to come into focus). A few best practices can help you maximize your credibility.
Address a specific audience
These thought leadership materials—whether a traditional report or a podcast episode—should be clearly for a specific audience, given that this will dictate what level of depth and technicality is appropriate. Reports targeting senior decision makers may be somewhat technical if the technical information is important context for the discussion of business implications. For example, a discussion of competing computing paradigms may require some discussion of technical tradeoffs. One version of the technology may be technically superior but require expensive infrastructure. Another may be more developed but come with technical limitations.
Meanwhile, much thought leadership aims to be more relevant for anyone who may want to learn about the topic. These materials might just be cool. Look at this explanation of blockchain. It’s a frickin’ experience. You’re learning something, and you feel like you’re in a bootleg version of Tron. The audience should dictate the message and the medium.
Choose your words wisely
Offering a clear-eyed discussion of emerging technology can be linguistically tricky. One place to start is your own biases. If you have any, you should state them up front. Many savvy readers and listeners will see them even if you don’t. At high-profile organizations that may inadvertently move markets, stakeholders who have a risk orientation—not just the risk function—can help make sure that its thought leadership does not go too far in either the positive or negative direction.
First, the positive bias. If a technology holds promise, avoid sounding like a fan or proselytizing. Thought leadership is not the place to be a tech evangelist. If you are positively biased for a technology, you may say something like, “Of course, our experiences with [a related technology or project] makes us more optimistic than some about the technical and commercial potential of [the technology in question].”
Conversely, don’t spend on-page real estate or run time panning a technology. Instead, explain why it may be worth being skeptical. One approach is to channel the arguments for and against it. The Ezra Klein Podcast did a version of this when they produced episodes with a crypto optimist and a crypto skeptic. Helpfully, he also calls out his skepticism about crypto in the episode title (“A Crypto Optimist Meets a Crypto Skeptic”).
Demonstrate business acumen
Counterintuitively, it’s often not ideal to use thought leadership to demonstrate technical expertise. That is, you should not be showing off that you know almost as much about something as an academic researcher in the field. Any technical information should appear in the context of discussions of applications of the technology and their implications for the world outside of academia.
This means demonstrating your business acumen, perhaps by surfacing the risks associated with the technology in a matter-of-fact way and how it could affect organizations. A sampling of questions to answer might be:
1. What could derail the development of this technology or its use cases?
2. What is the timeline for this technology’s development? How certain is it?
3. If and when the technology is applied to a business context, what kinds of investments will organizations have to make, and what kinds of changes will they have to prepare for and adjust to?
4. Is this technology inevitable? (Of course it’s not.) A classic five-forces analysis might help here. In particular, are there any technologies that might displace this one? Think about the MiniTel, an early application of the internet that failed to take off in the United States. Soon after, people went nuts for shrieky dial-up internet, the ancestor of the consumer internet we have today.
So hold forth about emerging technology. Just acknowledge the (many) sources of ambiguity while you’re at it.