How to elevate your content from mundane to positional
“Thought leadership” has become such an overworn word that I cringe as I type it.
When I cast my mind to “thought leaders,” I think of people whose thinking has changed the course of history: philosophers, scientists, social activists, artists.
And yet we live in an age when marketing gurus encourage every coach, consultant, and CEO to aspire to “thought leadership.” How many cerebral giants can the world really sustain? How much thought-power can the Internet handle before its circuits burn up?
Fortunately, there’s little risk of the world exploding due to an overload of intellectual activity since most “thought leadership” content tends to be light on thought of any substance. It takes more than a 2,300-word post or a seven-minute video, no matter how cleverly presented, to shift a paradigm.
Let’s stop fooling ourselves that anyone with a complex product or service should be producing “thought leadership.” Instead, let’s start aiming for positional content—content that takes a stance on a topic and shares helpful, personal insights from that perspective.
Creating positional content requires humility and curiosity, not posing as a so-called “expert.” These marks of genuineness will set you apart from the crowd of thought-leadership pretenders while enabling you to develop a clear, compelling voice for your brand.
Here, from my personal perspective, are five suggestions to help you elevate your content from ordinary to extraordinary simply by taking a position.
1. Look for controversy
What issues do professionals in your field disagree about? What topics do your customers or clients get confused about?
Drawing on your experience, how can you provide a straight path through the controversy to a resolution? How can you simplify the complex and de-tangle the tangled?
As you consider the opportunities a controversy offers, make sure you’re approaching the issue well-armed with logic and evidence. Merely stating an opinion or citing vague references won’t be enough to earn your audience’s trust. Myth-busting calls for an armory of examples, quotations, and data points to validate the new truth you’re asserting.
For example, let’s say you want to write an article challenging the belief that a four-day work week will increase employee productivity. You might start with some personal observations based on two years’ of experience in a multinational based in France, but that won’t be enough to build a convincing case. You’ll also want to draw on reputable journalism, academic research, and other sources to provide a solid rationale for your position.
2. Explore your frustrations
What about your audience’s world frustrates you? Channel that frustration into curiosity and you may be surprised to see what you discover.
A frustration isn’t a gigantic problem, the kind of dilemma you’d need to write an encyclopedia about. It’s more like a niggling concern, the kind of intellectual ear worm that comes to mind over and over again in various situations, even though others don’t seem to notice it.
The fact that other people overlook your frustration is key. A frustration that’s ripe for you to explore feels personal. It bothers you because it connects somehow with something in your background. That intimate connection gives you a unique vantage point from which to offer personal insights.
For example, let’s say you’re CEO of a company selling state-of-the-art POS (point of sale) machines to beauty salons. Let’s also say that you worked your way through university as a server, and one of your pet peeves is people who don’t tip, even when the service is outstanding. Tapping into your personal experience could give you a ground-level perspective on your technology that your audience may not expect and could find intriguing.
3. Admit the limits of your expertise
So much of the advice about “how to become a thought leader” urges us to own and flaunt our expertise. But, as published academics know, the true expert recognizes the margins of their expertise.
Whenever I deliver a workshop on how to write an academic article, I’m sure to get a few raised eyebrows when I tell students how important it is to point out the limitations of their findings. In the academic world, a strong argument acknowledges the possibility of a counterargument. The perspicacious researcher points out potential flaws in their assumptions, methods, and results. By so doing, they demonstrate critical thinking. By pointing out weaknesses in their position, they strengthen their credibility.
Take this scholarly approach into the business world, and you’ll find it liberating. No more suffering from impostor syndrome because you don’t need to be a know-it-all. You can confidently own the small slice of the field or issue you want to speak about, and admit that the larger landscape is beyond your ken. Being transparent about the boundaries of your knowledge will make you honest and human in your audience’s eyes, increasing your likeability and fostering trust.
For example, let’s say you’ve had a 20-year career in the automotive industry, and you’re now selling a new additive manufacturing technology. While your technology could benefit many different industries, there’s no need to pretend that you have expertise in all of them. As you consider possible topics for articles, start with what you know—automotive—and use that as a springboard into issues with broad relevance. Respect the boundaries of what you know for certain, and use them to raise questions about what you don’t yet know.
4. Raise questions
As an undergraduate student, I was incredibly shy. Terrified might be the better word.
Most of my English classes were seminars, which meant that students were expected to speak up and contribute to the conversation. As an introvert, I seldom had much to say, and I was awed by students who were quick to volunteer a clever comment.
When the professor called on me, I’d break out in a cold sweat because, I couldn’t muster any bold statement. All that occurred to me were questions about comments the clever students had made.
Eventually, however, I discovered that my stumbling questions would change the course of the conversation. Over time, my Shakespeare professor seemed to depend on me for this. Past the midway point of the class, when the conversation was starting to lag, he’d turn to me and ask, “Dawn, what do you think?” And my answer almost always took the form of a question, which sparked other questions, reinvigorated the discussion, and engaged other students.
Questions drive conversation, and conversation drives business. So rather than trying to answer all the questions, consider questions you can raise. Establish your position on the topic as an interrogative one. Demonstrate your expertise not through the breadth of your knowledge but through the depth of your probing.
This also is a classic move from academia. A strong research paper concludes by suggesting opportunities for follow-on research. A true expert sees knowledge not as so much information packed into a sealed container but rather as a window through which we can glimpse future discoveries.
If you find it hard to formulate questions, check out A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas by Warren Berger.
5. Try a little play
One of my biggest complaints against “thought leadership” content is its deadly seriousness.
Any genuine expert I’ve ever met has brought a playfulness to their work. Einstein, for instance, supposedly said that “Play is the highest form of research.”
Play is by nature anti-authoritarian. It revels in surprise and absurdity. No wonder that so many would-be thought leaders avoid it.
If you’re preoccupied with asserting your authority, then your writing style will tend to the pompous or the grim. You’ll find yourself trading a good old everyday word like “think” for “cogitate” or “engage in cognitive processes.” You’ll avoid contractions (a hallmark of a conversational style) and follow grammatical conventions to the letter, even when they don’t sound right to the ear. And you’ll lose track of your audience, addressing them obliquely as “persons” or “users” rather than speaking to them directly as “you.”
Rather than trying to nail down an idea, try toying with it. Turn it around in your mind as if you were revolving it in the palm of your hand. What would it look like if you turned it upside down or inside out? If you put it next to a contrary idea? If you time-traveled with it into the future or the past?
For example, imagine you’re writing an article arguing for the benefits of using underwater autonomous vehicles to reduce the number of diving accidents in the oil and gas industry. What if you stepped outside the boundaries of science to indulge in a bit of science fiction? Could you play with the idea of a fully autonomous oil and gas industry? How much safer would that be than today’s industry? What new possibilities for improving safety might your sci-fi vision uncover?
Play can also offer a way to engage with intellectual opponents in a friendly way. Disarm them with your charm, and experiment with adding a bit of humor to temper your arguments. The more genuine, humble, and likeable you are, the harder it will be for people to dispute your position.
Position first, perfection later
Generating thoughtful content requires more than just taking a position. But in my 20-plus years of coaching students and professionals, I’ve found that the failure to take a stance is the number one reason for limp, lackluster writing.
Dig into the personal perspective that grounds your knowledge and exploit it. Use its limitations to help you frame content that does more than restate facts or make a predictable argument. Establish yourself as an authority not by presenting yourself as a know-it-all but by daring to ask hard questions and play with unconventional viewpoints.
Once you’ve found your position, then you can worry about some of the issues that can undermine persuasive writing, such as trouble with structure, logic, depth of thought, and written expression. Those are all aspects of “content” you can perfect—but without a clear, personal position, you really have little to write about.
Looking for a sounding board to help you elevate your content? Book a free consult.
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