One of the most common problems we see with drafts of thought leadership material is they aren’t properly structured. In many instances, 80 percent of the article is about a problem, followed by a few throwaway lines about a solution. In some cases, the article’s sections march along in no obvious or logical order.
Getting the structure of a thought leadership piece right can consume a lot of time and effort if you don’t begin with a framework or template. We use practically the same one for every piece we develop, whether it’s a 500-word blog post, a white paper, or a 50,000-word research report. It saves us from reinventing the wheel, and it helps us get our clients’ work published in prestigious journals.
Here is our seven-part framework, the major sections, and their approximate proportions:
- Statement of problem (10%)
- Why current approaches fall short (10%)
- High-level solution (10%)
- Key elements of the solution including examples (40%)
- Benefits of adopting the solution (10%)
- Key barriers and how to overcome them (10%)
- Call to action (10%)
- Why this order and why these proportions? Because…
1. Statement of problem (10%)
To hook an executive reader, an article has to address a problem or opportunity she cares about – one that’s complex and unresolved. She already knows what the problem is, so you shouldn’t belabor it. But you should use enough data or examples to establish that it really is a problem and a significant one that needs addressing. Naming the problem is the obvious place for a thought leadership article to begin.
Exhibit #1: In this article written by Rob Sher and published on HBR.org, the problem is that a single toxic executive can destroy an entire midsized firm.
2. Why current approaches fall short (10%)
This should follow right after the problem statement because some readers already will be handling the problem or think they have a plan in place should the problem arise in their own business. You, of course, have a newer, better way of dealing with it, so you need to point out why old, conventional approaches – the actions your reader presumably is taking or plans to take – either don’t work or don’t work as well as yours.
Exhibit #2: In this article, the authors explain why covering up a Foreign Corrupt Practices Act infringement is worse than coming clean and taking steps to fix it.
3. High-level solution (10%)
Now we’re only a few hundred words into the article or white paper and we need to tell the reader that there will be an ROI to continuing. So you state (at a high level) what your excellent solution is. This alerts the reader that if she keeps reading, she’s going to get an answer to her problem, and a better one than she’s heard before.
Exhibit #3: Here, the author explains how businesses can benefit from working with anti-industry activists if they can demonstrate that making a profit and doing the socially responsible thing are not incompatible.
4. The solution in detail including examples (40%)
How do you convince the reader that your solution is real, effective, and not merely theoretical? How do you demonstrate that you have the expertise to make it worthwhile for a reader to call you? You describe your solution in detail. For a typical 2,000 article, this description should constitute nearly half the piece. You needn’t provide an operating manual, but you should provide enough detail that the reader at least could begin thinking about implementing your solution based on the information you’ve supplied. This is always the hardest part. First, the question arises of how much of the family silver you want to give away. If you supply the reader with everything they need to solve the problem, why should he call you? Sometimes, you’ll want to describe the whole solution at a higher level and then go into greater depth on a few of its more interesting elements. And, of course, you must illustrate your prescriptions with examples of companies that have done what you recommend and have derived benefits from doing so. This way, the reader knows your solution works and you’re not just peddling promises and fairy dust.
Exhibit #4: In this article, the author explains how to defeat product counterfeiters by targeting the weak points in their supply chains — such as printers and shipping companies — rather than trying to sweep products and dealers off the streets. And the author illustrates his recommendations with examples of several firms that have succeeded by targeting the counterfeiting supply chain.
5. Benefits of adopting the solution (10%)
You will have illustrated the benefits in the preceding section, but often it pays to reinforce them by summarizing the benefits that companies generally get from taking your approach. This drives the lesson home and reinforces the sense that you’re providing value.
Exhibit #5: In this article, the author explains that patients that have advance end-of-life planning conversations with their families and physicians take greater advantage of palliative and hospice care and avoid the more aggressive interventions associated with poor quality of life and death.
6. Key barriers and how to overcome them (10%)
Sometimes there are obvious objections to a new approach that will make your reader conclude that your solution is unworkable for his business. As you are writing an article and not engaging in a conversation, there is no opportunity for the reader to raise his objections or for you to respond. So you have to raise and dispose of them yourself or risk being thought uninformed or unrealistic.
Exhibit #6: In this article, the author explains that the learning curve is steep for companies contemplating using data visualization as a marketing tool for describing their products. Then he allows that it may not be useful for all companies and describes what kind of companies can best benefit from attempting to make the climb, as well as explaining what they’ll need to do so (mostly time, specialized skills, and money).
7. Call to action (10%)
It’s tempting to end an article with a conclusion. All too often, that conclusion is nothing more than a recap of what you’ve already said. But telling an intelligent reader what you’ve just told him is annoying and boring. Instead, end your article with a statement that emphasizes why your message is important and why the reader should do something about it Monday morning.
Exhibit #7: At the conclusion of this article, the author makes it clear that having the right Investor Relations Officer directly correlates to higher profits. What should the reader do Monday morning? Take a hard look at whether her IRO is up to the job.
If you consider the publications that have published the pieces I’ve used as exhibits (Forbes, HBR, McKnights, CFO, etc.), you’ll see it’s a framework the editors of business publications embrace, presuming, of course, that the content is well-written and worthy. And if you look closely, you’ll see the piece you’re reading right now is constructed according to the seven-step structure I’ve just described.
Building an article this way demands thought; it requires research and reporting and a good deal of belief in the validity of what you’re suggesting. And if you don’t want to invest the time, that’s your decision. It’s rarely easy to produce something of value. But writing to this structure will separate your article or white paper from innumerable others on the same topic, whatever that topic may be. And as these exhibits demonstrate, articles structured in this fashion will rise above others written on the same topic and capture an editor’s attention when she’s looking for content for her site. And that’s what you want when the editor opens his Inbox Monday morning.