Thought Leadership’s Key Question, and Why You Must Answer It

I’ll never forget my first job interview at a small newspaper in Southern California shortly after graduating from journalism school. I was sitting in a conference room, wearing my new business suit, feeling quite confident.

The editor who sat across from me scanning my resume was straight out of central casting. Middle-aged and graying with an “I don’t believe you” glare. He looked like he would probably smoke and sip bourbon while editing stories on deadline, yelling questions to reporters across the newsroom.

“So, I see you went to Columbia University and had an internship at The San Diego Union-Tribune,” he said, fixing his gaze on me. “But what do you know?”

What did I know?

“What do you mean?” I sputtered.

“I mean, what could you do for this paper that is different than any other reporter?” he said. “What story ideas do you have?”

In other words, You think you’re special? Prove it.

It was a fair question and one that anyone asking for anything in a business setting — a job, a special assignment, work from a current or prospective client — should be able to answer. I sure wish I had. (Spoiler alert: I didn’t get the job.)

You might work at a big-name consulting firm and have impressive credentials but that’s not always enough to land the business you want. It may get you in the door, but once you’re there, sitting in that conference room, you’ll need to answer that question:

“What can you do for me that’s different?”

That’s where thought leadership comes in. In my previous role writing and editing research reports for a global law firm, I was struck by how often our lawyers and business development professionals threw around the term “thought leadership” without understanding what it really was.

So, let’s start with what it’s not:

  • Apps
  • Brochures
  • Capability statements
  • Client alerts
  • Forecasts
  • Guidebooks
  • Handbooks
  • Newsletters

I remember conversations with some of the chairs of our practice groups who were hesitant to invest money in thought leadership research because they wanted to “leverage all the thought leadership materials we already have.” When I asked them what those materials were, they would point to one of their handbooks about cross-border M&A rules or data privacy laws around the world.

I would gulp, take a deep breath, and say, “That’s not thought leadership.”

I would explain that thought leadership has a crucial ingredient: a strong point of view. Compiling merger control laws in 50 different countries may be a helpful resource for clients executing international transactions, but it’s not thought leadership.

Why? Because thought leadership not only has a strong point of view, it must also provide guidance for the target audience on what to do. So much of what is called “thought leadership” simply summarizes an issue or explains a problem with quotes from experts designed to make them look smart and insightful.

Thought leadership will make you look smart and insightful; that’s what it’s designed to do. But only if you have a solution and illustrate it with examples that will get the attention of the C-suite — the audience that so many of these campaigns aim to reach. These are busy people. They want answers, not history.

It helps me to think about it like this: Say you’re a new parent with a baby who won’t sleep through the night. You’ve tried swaddling, pacifiers, and adding rice cereal to their bottle. You’ve done a hundred laps around the house. Exhausted and stressed, you turn to a sleep training book. But the book just explains infant sleep patterns and lists all the reasons parents have trouble getting their children to sleep.

How helpful is that?

Of course, no sleep training book without proven get-the-kid-to-sleep strategies would ever make it to market. But much business writing stops with the problem statement. Yes, it’s important to demonstrate your understanding of the root causes of an issue because it provides the context for your solution. But do so briefly. (Think of the tired parents!)

To be a thought leader, providing a superior, proven way to solve a business problem is essential. It’s how your global handbook on cross-border M&A becomes, “Five ways the best companies approach acquisitions in Brazil.” It is the secret sauce. It tells your client you are different, that you can do something for him or her.

Which brings us to the next issue. Many new Rhetoriq clients are apprehensive about being too detailed about their approach to addressing a particular challenge for fear that their target audience could use that information to solve the problem themselves.

Many of the lawyers who attended my workshops on how to write effective client alerts had the same concern. During the training, I would tell them that if they wanted clients to read their alerts on legal developments, they needed to focus on what the clients should do. And their advice needed to be more detailed than, “Review your corporate policy to make sure it complies with the new law” or, “consult your legal counsel early.”

“But if I provide more detail, they’ll have no reason to call me,” the lawyers would say.

To which I would answer, “Most of the issues you are writing about are too complex to be solved by reading three to five bullet points. By providing your clients with actual solutions you are demonstrating how helpful you’ll be if they hire you.”

You’re showing them you’re different. You’re demonstrating that you can do something for them.

People who understand thought leadership appreciate the value of what my colleague Tim Parker called giving away the family silver. This is not just something I advocate, but something I’ve experienced firsthand. In the 10 years I’ve been sharing my biggest writing secrets in workshops and blog posts for business professionals, it only has solidified my standing as an expert and led to more invitations to speak.

Today, I’d have a better answer to that editor’s question: “What do you know? What can you do for me that’s different?”

Today, I like to think I’d get that job.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Contact Us
Scroll to Top
Send this to a friend