What thought leaders can learn from journalism

Journalism—especially the newspaper variety—has no shortage of snappy aphorisms. While “if it bleeds, it leads” may not apply to the world of business-to-business writing (or content marketing more generally, we hope), there are a couple of common journalism sayings I find myself using with colleagues and clients.

The first is “write what it’s worth.” This is essentially a demand to stay true to what you have. Clients often agonize over how to pull together a 2,000-word article, when the reality is they just don’t have the material. An experienced writer or editor could help them figure out pretty quickly what they do have. Maybe it’s enough insight for an interesting, distinctive 800-word blog post. If you’re writing what it’s worth, write the interesting, distinctive 800-word blog post.

By extension, “write what it’s worth” also demands conciseness. You don’t have to feverishly delete the word “that” on 99 percent of occasions (because, yes, it’s simply not needed 99 percent of the time. I’ll go to my grave on that one), but you do have to question whether each word has earned its place.

This isn’t to deny how wrenching it can be to let go of a word or turn of phrase you really like. But in the days of hot metal typesetting (look it up, kids) and limited column inches (look this up too), every character was precious. Just because the noodly interweb can handle unlimited text and images and charts and all that doesn’t mean it should—or the reader wants it to.

This leads to the second, deeply interconnected saying, “The content determines the format.” While it’s tempting to view this as essentially the other side of the “write what it’s worth” coin, it’s not quite the same. Yes, writing what something’s worth means you’re kind of self-selecting a format. Even in the narrow world of print, content options are plentiful. Will that interview be a news article? A feature? An opinion piece? Maybe it’s fodder for a gossip column or something to file away for inclusion in a more robust piece down the road.

When it comes to thought leadership, the options expand. Would the material for that 800-word blog post, for instance, be more effective as a two-minute video? Or if you’ve conducted an interview, does it work best as an edited, Q&A-style transcript? An article with embedded quotes? A first-person essay? An op-ed? A blog post? Maybe it could inform an infographic or make a killer data point in another piece of content.

The best situation is one where the material lends itself to everything and the kitchen sink: a great article or report complemented by a video, a podcast, an infographic, social-media assets, blog posts, and anything in between. It rarely happens. Usually, the nature of the content lends itself to a format that’s most effective, and the decision becomes more obvious when you take the intended audience into account. A TikTok video for deep insight into a C-suite priority? Maybe not.

I confess part of me likes using these phrases because I have ink in my veins, and I’ve long struggled with the term “thought leadership.” For me, it’s “explanatory journalism”: taking important and impactful but complex issues and conveying them in ways the audience can quickly grasp and apply.

The nature of this is obviously changing. I enjoyed the dying light of the golden days of journalism, when there was no filing to the website or continually updating during the day or Tweeting incessantly or posting selfie videos. It was a life of long lunches and covert conversations, frantically bashing out a couple of articles before the 8pm deadline, then waking to see your name in print and the stories you covered setting the agenda for the day ahead.

But just as those days are gone, so too is the era when a 3,000-word, slightly academic “thought leadership” article did the trick. Audiences want distinctive, actionable insights when, where, and how it works best for them. A good start? Take the material you have, accept its strengths and limitations, and maximize its potential accordingly.

Luke Collins

Luke is a dad and—in his spare time—the SVP of content innovation at LEFF. A journalist in a past life, he escaped the world of increasingly large companies to do what makes him happiest: helping clients tell stories that are engaging, compelling, useful, and (every now and then) a little inspiring. He plays tennis (well) and bass guitar (barely), and he is living proof that Australians are not genetically wired to surf.

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