Thought Leadership: A Primer for New Leaders

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One of the privileges of leadership is that, with an executive title comes an executive platform—a reason and a place to establish yourself as a thought leader in your field.

Whether you’re writing a corporate blog post or an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, you’re suddenly expected to share your perspective and insights. Why? Because a strong foundation of thought leadership helps build your organization’s reputation—and your own, as its leader—as a credible expert in a competitive field. Prospective customers have countless choices for any service or product they could possibly want to purchase, and they want to know their vendor is knowledgeable, ready to meet their needs, and on the cutting edge of innovation.

So how do you go about it?

4 Keys to Great Thought Leadership

We’ve created this brief primer as a tool to help you conceptualize and create written thought leadership that positions you and your organization in the best light—and encourages readers to become customers.

1.   Preparation

The first step in kicking off a thought leadership initiative is, of course, planning. Before you even put pen to paper, you need to home in on your ideal audience. Who are they, what are their biggest pain points, and how can your insights help them solve those problems? Your organization’s marketing team will be ready to help with this first step, using buyer personas for your business’s target customers, but you can also read more here about why and how to put your audience first.

Once you know who you’re talking to, it’s time to zero in on what you’re talking about. Whatever your expertise—whether it’s artificial intelligence or small business growth or pet care—it’s likely a very broad scope, so you’ll need to identify more specific topics within that expertise. As you brainstorm, start with this question: what do you want your audience to learn?

2.   Clarity

When you start writing, it can be tempting to show off your hard-earned expertise through complex theories and explanations. But the most important thing to remember is that, for your blog post or article to be effective, it must be clear. If you can recall a high school teacher or college professor who was brilliant but struggled to simplify concepts for students, you’ll understand what I’m talking about. You can—and should—be eager to show off what you know, but you have to be sure to do it in a way that is accessible for your readers.

When we talk about clear language at Quantified Communications, we’re talking about its structure: clear communication uses fewer words per sentence and fewer syllables per word, and it lays out a defined path of cause and effect. One of the simplest ways to get a sense of whether you’re communicating clearly is through the Flesch-Kincaid score, which measures reading ease and comprehension difficulty, breaking a text down into its grade-level score. (For context, this blog post is written at a tenth-grade reading level.)

You can learn more about the ins-and-outs of clear communication here. And as you’re writing, ask yourself whether you’re taking the time to break down complicated topics and ideas into clear, crisp language your audience will be able to follow and understand.

3.   Authenticity

Another tendency when we’re setting out to craft thought leadership is to put on an “expert” voice, and you may be tempted to add a level of formality to your writing that you wouldn’t use in other communication situations.

Readers—and potential customers—today are looking for authentic connections with the people behind the brands, and not only do they want to read your real voice, but they’ll be able to tell right away if you’re putting on airs.

So when you’re writing your thought leadership, try to write like you speak. Obviously, you’ll use better grammar and syntax on paper than you do in real life—we all do—but take care to craft a writing voice that sounds like you, and not like some other, contrived version of you.

(Learn more about the importance of authenticity in communication.)

4.   Storytelling

Finally, great thought leaders structure their insights into a package that keeps their audience engaged, emotionally invested, and excited to keep reading. To do that, we recommend incorporating as much storytelling language into your thought leadership as possible.

Why? Because storytelling makes your message exponentially more memorable. Straight data and facts are important to establish the logic behind your message, but when you add color to the details, giving readers a hero to root for and obstacles to overcome, they’re more likely to focus, internalize, recall, and share what you have to say. So what does storytelling look like? In a Politico article on how storytelling decided the 2016 election, Mark McKinnon (of Showtime’s The Circus), outlines it like this:

Identify a threat and/or an opportunity. Establish victims of the threat or denied opportunity. Suggest villains that impose the threat or deny the opportunity. Propose solutions. Reveal the hero.

Your next corporate blog post may not be the next New York Times bestselling novel, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make a point to incorporate storytelling techniques. Your readers will thank you.

Building a reputation as a thought leader is highly rewarding, but it can certainly be daunting when you’re setting out. But if you find out who you’re talking to, and you talk to them in a way that’s clear, authentic, and engaging, you’ll be off to a powerful start.