Thought leadership is old school

Dare to share, but differently.

As a 30-plus year PR/Marcom professional, “thought leadership” has been a part of nearly every PR program I have known. It makes sense, right? Every client wants to show others (employees, customers, competitors) how much they know and be a recognized leader in their category. Unfortunately, this can very quickly dip into ‘snoresville’ — an intellectual work/family-trip slideshow that is just … boring.

Really, isn’t it less about impressing your audience and more about making them think about something in a different way? Admit it, there is no more exciting moment than the mental illusion of thinking about something or someone in a completely different way. Unless it’s actually bad news, everybody loves a mind-blown moment. (Is this where I admit that I couldn’t believe that the same actor was Jess on Gilmore Girls and Jack Pearson on This Is Us? Mind is blown.)

While thought leadership can still be important and engaging work, the concept itself suffers from a desperate need for rebranding — as many concepts in my line of work do. Instead of thought leadership, I like to call mind-blowing behavior-shaping intellectual content “think pieces” instead.

Why a “think piece”? Easy. The No. 1 thing we want to do is make people think. We need to translate our subject matter expertise in a way that will help people connect the dots for their own “aha” moment. And that is what will endear your audience to your brand or company.

Here are five of my top tips to make this happen:

Translate subject matter expertise.

Most thought leadership is based on a magic combination of science, experience, and opinion. The author is writing because they have deep or different knowledge on a specific topic. Never assume your audience knows what you know, and make sure your knowledge is translated into real life. Use real stories to prove your points. You are a subject matter expert on certain subjects because you love them. Get good at getting others to see the spark you provide, and once they’re fully on board — once you’ve gained the emotional currency required to hold your audience in place — you can begin the process of sharing deeper-level information.

Teach your audience, don’t just present to them.

Readers will get bored and stop reading if they aren’t entertained or inspired. Be engaging and pull them in with thought-provoking questions or challenge them to make them think. Leave them with a gift or two that will inspire their fast action.

Be provocative.

Tension will help break through distractions. Use real language and embrace the tension. One of our most engaging BR marketing think-pieces had the title: “A kitchen magnet changed my life.” Personally, I’ve always wanted to write a piece about change management titled: “How to make change your b*tch.” I mean, you’d read that, right?

But stay in character.

You need to be a bit disruptive but genuine to who you are, or it’s all worthless. Our chairman wrote an awesome piece about leadership during extreme change. My title above would not have worked for him. Let yourself be vulnerable and share something less comfortable — an insight or lesson learned. It will help your audience trust you. As a new mom and young professional in my 30s, I did a blog. I was one of BlogHer’s first “mom bloggers” — I did it to learn the platform but also record for posterity. The most engaging posts were always the ones that exposed me a bit in the process. Everyone loves a vulnerable, real, engaged, and genuine leader.

Keep it as short as you can.

No matter how brilliant you think you are, people just can’t (or won’t) focus long enough.

 

About the author

 

Allison Madell’s career has specialized in food communications, with a focus on food commodities and producer marketing programs. She has created strategic integrated marketing campaigns for high-profile commodity accounts, including The Incredible Edible Egg, The Pork Board, The Mushroom Council and Got Milk?  ​

At Bader Rutter, Allison led the teams that developed breakthrough content for Corteva Corporate Communications, including the millennial moms blog, Platewise, and the popular podcast, “The Growing Debate.” Bringing narratives to life through dimensionalized and differentiated content is what makes her happiest.​

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