Safe, trivial, and boring. That’s how many run-of-the-mill thought leadership posts feel these days. Too often “My predictions for 2030” turn out to be a plagiarised Wired article and “An unpopular opinion on X” — just a boring rant that reads like a GPT-3 parsing of an /AskReddit thread.
It surely passes the bar for 'content' (what doesn’t?), but thought leadership? I have my doubts.
Thought leadership has little to do with quoting Harvard Business Review studies and weighing the pros and cons of workations for your readers. Thought leadership is about not just having your own opinion but having a different, even radical opinion. An opinion that’s backed not just by the things you’ve read but also by your personal experience and observations, successes and failures.
If people wanted to read an anecdote about Steve Jobs, they’d be reading his biography. If readers are giving their time and attention to you, it’s your story they’re after. They’ve heard about you in the media or found you through mutual connections. They want to discover your take on things. And you can do better than most founders-cum-bloggers by… being yourself.
If people wanted to read an anecdote about Steve Jobs, they’d be reading his biography.
The Medium post drinking game
But to get to good writing, let’s first understand what bad writing is. Open the last thought leadership piece you read or, if you’re feeling brave enough, one of your own. Pour yourself some tequila and take a shot every time you come across one of the following:
- Outlandish stats pulled from an obscure source (“by 2045, 99% of tap water will be sparkling”, “84% of millennials want to buy a fancy watch, a survey by the Fancy Watch Foundation finds”)
- Overly creative segues (“To conclude, wine sales are down in the region. Speaking of wine, we have just opened an office in Cork.”)
- Advice Animals-style inspirational quotes (extra shot if they’re presented on a meme template)
- Any reference to Mark Cuban, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk or Richard Branson
- Any mention of the Pareto principle, the 10,000 hours rule, System 1 thinking or Sapiens (anything that makes you sound well-read)
- Shameless product plug (extra shot if found in the second paragraph)
- Lifestyle flexes (“last morning... oh have I mentioned I always wake up at 5am?”)
After the tequila leaves your body, feel free to use this drinking game as a checklist for your future piece. Most of the flaws I’ve mentioned come from misinterpreted advice. “Base your statements on facts” becomes “find any source that backs my claims”. “Don’t be too self-promotional” becomes “I’ll just bury the thing I’m promoting two paragraphs down”. And so on. Here’s the advice you should have been given instead.
Be mindful of the things you observe, the conversations you have, the Jerry Seinfeld moments of your life. Commit them to paper. Tell us about how you see the world, its issues and problems because your perspective is something that no one else has. Sure, add stats and well-known examples where relevant, but make sure there’s enough of 'you' in the piece for it not to read like an academic essay.
Don’t take yourself too seriously
We all want to sound smart, but that often comes at the expense of clear writing. Let yourself be conversational.
Find an opinionated columnist you like and read everything they have out there.
Learn the craft by imitating
A ghostwriter might be just a Fiverr request away, but writing is a very transferable skill. The best way of learning it is through reading some good stuff. Find an opinionated columnist you like, and read everything they have out there. There’s no shame in mimicking the way they craft their arguments, poke fun at peers and use personal examples, as long as the story you’re telling is yours.
Unless your writing is absolutely horrible, most likely, no one will say a bad word about it online. On places like LinkedIn and Medium where you will likely be sharing content, everyone tries to be polite for their own gains. If you want to get better at sharing your thoughts and making an impact, turn to people in your closest circle.
Show them that latest 700-word piece on “Why blockchain is dead” or “PS5 vs. Xbox for employee motivation” and ask for their honest opinion. If you want them to be sincere, start off by saying “I’m not sure I like it” or even tell them it was written by someone else. You’ll be surprised by the level of criticism people show when granted a carte blanche.
Finally, don’t get stuck with a narrow understanding of what thought leadership is. Rather than view it as a series of forgettable blog posts, think of it as the sum total of your public output on a certain topic.
From Twitter threads to 10k-word newsletters, there’s a format for everyone’s style. The basic pitfalls to avoid and guidelines to follow will be similar across platforms. The most important thing is having something to say and having something to stand by. Everything else is a matter of practice.