The Beginning Is the Hardest Part of Thought Leadership

I once wrote about why developing and writing thought leadership content is harder than many people think. I explained that one of the reasons it’s so hard is that the source of a firm’s insights – its consultants and experts – are almost by definition an inch wide and a mile deep in their chosen specialization. Working at the bleeding edge of current practices, they generally don’t have a good picture of the larger landscape in which their work sits, so their insights will tend to be narrow, abstruse and not easily communicated. Just as often, if they are doing good, solid repeatable work that generates great client results, it is likely similar to work their peers at a dozen other companies are doing. In either case, publishable thought leadership will not readily be forthcoming.

That however, is only the intellectual challenge facing the content developer. There’s an emotional one, too, which we confront every time we start work with a new author, who is usually senior in his firm and possesses a large and not undeserved ego. Consequently, not only does he often think that his insights are worthy of an HBR article, he believes he’s an excellent writer, too. After all, he writes proposals and reports all the time. He just can’t write this specific article at this particular time. He is, after all, quite busy.

So when you reach out to help him, he tends to think that your role is to do what he perceives as the grunt work he doesn’t have time for. Your job, in his view, is to weave a web of words that will adorn his insights for the great unwashed (i.e., readers who are not currently paying clients). But, in fact, your job is to work with him to develop and provide a foundation, a broader context for his ideas, as well as to express them in a jargon-free way that readers can understand.

Some authors and experts are happy to collaborate. Most people who have published previously will; they know that a story is developed, not dictated, and there’s an art and a process to it. Others will never accept any real help, and their chance of publishing a good article will suffer for it. Most people are somewhere in-between – ready either to collaborate on a great story or dictate to you a bad one. Which way they go depends (as so much of life does) on how you begin.

There are three things you should establish as soon as you can:

  • That you are a thought leadership development expert, not just a writer.
  • That you know his field well enough to discuss it intelligently.
  • A rapport.

If you position yourself as purely and simply a writer, you invite the author to tell you what to write and how to write it. (After all, you’re just a writer; what do you know?) If a writer is all he thinks you are, it will be almost impossible ever to persuade him to veer from his preconception of the ideal article, and the result – if you get to one – will not be as good as it could have been.

If, however, you position yourself as a thought leadership content development expert (or however you choose to describe it), you will convey the message that you have skills and knowledge he does not. That sets you up as a collaborator, not someone who’s doing some simple, mindless labor for him because he doesn’t have time to do it himself.

Of course, if you don’t know his field well enough to discuss it intelligently then:

  • Why would he be inclined to view you as a collaborator?
  • You won’t, in truth, be able to tell the difference between insight and pabulum.
  • The author will be justified in thinking that he should tell you what to write.

But if you can establish your expertise and your knowledge, you have a very good chance of establishing a rapport by the end of the first meeting or call. And then you will have a much better chance of together producing an excellent article.

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