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I create and curate a wealth of valuable content at Schneider Electric, and when I tell people what I do for a living, they say some . . . interesting things. Their comments typically fall into one of the three following areas:
“My company has a lot of excellent thought leadership content, but it just sits there.”
“You know, I have interesting things to say. I’m like a thought leader.”
“I’m in your field but that thought leadership stuff is technical or boring, it’s not fun to read.”
The surprise of hearing comments like this has worn off and now I have an opportunity to say what I have always wanted to say in reply: “I couldn’t disagree with you more.”
Addressing each comment one at a time, here is why.
If no one cares about it, it’s not thought leadership.
Hard truth #1: You can create all the content in the world but if it isn’t compelling, relevant, timely, or presented properly, it will go unnoticed.
When people say, “My company has a lot of excellent thought leadership content, but it just sits there,” it reminds me of when I was a public relations director for an advertising agency. Clients would expect whatever was happening at their company to be front page news instead of in a company newsletter where it belonged. And they didn’t want the front page of their local newspaper, they wanted the front page of The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal.
Sometimes the attention was warranted, but about 95% of the time, I would inevitably have to ask, “Why?” as in “Why is it newsworthy?” and “Why should people care about it?”
So, when people tell me their company has lots of excellent thought leadership content that just sits there, I agree they probably have lots of content. I would wager money it might not be presented in the most appropriate way or located where potential readers can find it. And most importantly, I might ask: Is it thought leadership – full of innovative thinking, insights, or potential inspiration that will motivate readers to consider a topic in a new way?
Thought leaders put in the work you don’t see.
Hard truth #2: Thought leaders have original ideas and work hard – plowing through multiple rounds of revisions and rewrites and practice presentations – to create the finished product.
When people say things like, “You know, I have interesting things to say. I’m like a thought leader,” I think of a scene in Nora Ephron’s classic romcom When Harry Met Sally. Carrie Fisher and Bruno Kirby’s characters are fighting over a “stupid, wagon wheel, Roy Rogers, garage sale coffee table” and she says, “Everybody thinks they have good taste and a sense of humor but they couldn’t possibly all have good taste.”
So, you are an expert in your industry and you have interesting thoughts. That’s fantastic. Now comes the challenging part. The thought leaders I am lucky to work at Schneider Electric with have vision. Not only do they see the future of the industry, but they also see the far-off future. They know where we need to go and are figuring out how to get us there.
They share that vision through content in many formats – one of which is presentations at major events. These are presentations that take months to prepare so when attendees and journalists hear it for the first time, it’s what we like to call “baked.” That 20-minute presentation has been through hundreds of hours of revisions, every question that can be thought of has been answered, and the images have gone from hand-scrawled to professionally created. But keep in mind that thought leaders never see the finished product as perfect or even finished for that matter. It is a jumping off point that will be continually improved upon because thought leaders motivate people to think about things in a new light and they want feedback.
A bunch of words or a compelling sentence?
Hard truth #3: Leading content with a human connection can get someone interested and keep them reading until the last word.
When folks say, “I’m in your field but that thought leadership stuff is technical or boring, it’s not fun to read,” I feel compelled to point out that with all writing, creativity is the key to transforming a bunch of words into a compelling sentence. After all Jane Austen started Pride and Prejudice with: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Some people don’t enjoy reading the classics, but even they have to admit Jane nailed the lead – it sets up the story you are about to read and reveals plenty about the society she inhabited. With a wink and a smile, she is inviting you into that world and she will proceed to make you question everything you thought you knew about it.
When it comes to topics that pertain to our high-tech, all-digital, always-on world, I am the first one to admit they can be challenging to tackle and creativity is essential. I believe the human connection is often what is missing and one could argue it has never been more essential. That is where the behind-the-scenes work that I just talked about comes into play. A thought leadership topic might deal with the most technical subjects but crafting it happens at the keyboard in a very human way, trying to figure out the best approach to reach people and lure them into your world, hopefully until the final word.
Future thought leader? Go for it!
If you aspire to be a thought leader, I encourage you to go for it. Put in the time and do the hard work. Then, get your ideas and opinions out there where people who might be interested can see them and comment or ask questions. Consider publishing a by-lined article or presenting at an industry event. If you haven’t yet, a blog on your company blog site or a LinkedIn article might be a good place to start. Share your vision and start building your credibility –ask for feedback and see what happens.
To help get you started, here are links to some of my favorite thought leadership pieces from Schneider Electric executives.