Over a year ago, CB Insights ran a poll on Twitter about bio descriptions that backfire.
As you can see from the votes, there’s not much love going around for the term “thought leader” (at least, not when it’s self-proclaimed):
When I see someone describe themselves as a __________ on LinkedIn or Twitter bio, they immediately lose credibility
— CB Insights (@CBinsights) October 28, 2018
So whenever we work on content plans for clients at With Content, I’m careful with using the term “thought leadership”. I’ll say we’re writing a thought leadership blog post only if it really qualifies as one.
So, what does qualify?
A thought leadership article is one that questions, inspires, provokes, advocates, or influences. It positions the writer as an opinion leader in their field or industry. By publishing thought leadership articles, people and companies can create buzz and start conversations around their fields of expertise.
Consider some of the most popular thinkers of our time:
- Guy Kawasaki, of Apple and Silicon Valley stock, now Canva’s chief evangelist, whose Art of the Start book is seen as an indispensable guide for anyone who wants to start a business
- Arriana Huffington, co-founder of The Huffington Post, who as editor-in-chief, led the publication to win a Pulitzer Prize. Now founder of Thrive Global and on a mission to end the burnout epidemic
- Susan Cain, whose research and viral TED Talk gave introverts a powerful advocate “in a world that can’t stop talking”
- Sir Ken Robinson, whose irreverent humor and frank opinions made his talk, Do Schools Kill Creativity?, one of the most popular TED Talks of all time
- Bill Gates, who needs no introduction. The spotlight on this guy has been shining ever brighter recently, thanks to a talk he gave in 2015 about “the next pandemic” (hello, Miss Rona)
These popular figures each have a speciality—entrepreneurship, creativity, introversion, and so on. They draw from professional experience, original research, and their own philosophy and worldview to present their theses convincingly. They share personal anecdotes and cite data and analyses. They’re all prolific producers of content, be they in the form of books, podcasts, or keynote speeches.
And yes, they each have their own blog.
Yet, none of them professes to be a “thought leader” in their LinkedIn or Twitter bio. They didn’t have to.
I’m no Bill or Arriana. How can I be a thought leader?
Ah, the million-dollar question.
Let me ask you a couple in return.
Have you mastered (or are at least close to mastering) a subject, skill, or niche?
Have you done much research and deep thinking about a subject, and do you now have something to say about it that will add value to people or give them a fresh perspective?
If you answered yes, then there’s a potential thought leader in you.
The next step is to build your thought leadership profile by producing credible, influential, and memorable content.
For the purposes of this blog post, we’ll focus on articles as a means to do that.
How to write a thought leadership article
1. Identify your actual expertise
Your area of thought leadership should be the industry in which you operate, and the niche you occupy within that industry.
That’s if you’re writing a thought leadership article for your own business or a company you work for. If you’re writing for your personal brand, your expertise could be a hobby, sport, or a subject you’re deeply interested in.
Either way, you simply can’t be a thought leader on a subject you haven’t done much thinking about.
For that reason, if you’re working with your marketing team, a freelancer, or an agency to write your content, make sure you spare time to share your thoughts with the writer. Ideally, the writer should interview you at least once. You could also choose an agency that specializes in your field (e.g., travel, logistics, B2B tech, etc.).
Stick with your area of expertise when you approach a topic.
At the height of the WeWork IPO fiasco, for instance, lots of articles came out talking about the dangers of overvaluing companies and giving a CEO too much free reign over crucial business decisions.
Spenmo, a spend management platform, took a different approach based on its specialization within the financial software industry. While they couldn’t weigh in on IPOs, venture funding, and the like, they were in the right position to glean lessons on spend management from the WeWork issue.
The very first sentence of the article makes this perspective clear:
At the time of writing, WeWork is close to becoming a textbook case—in how not to handle company resources.
The article goes on to share spend management lessons for SMEs based on WeWork’s experiences. It talks about managing invisible spend, tracking expenses, and standardizing the procurement process.
These are all things that Spenmo’s platform and credit card can help with. This specialization helped Spenmo craft their own angle amid the deluge of content being written about WeWork at the time.
2. Take a stand and express it in a thesis statement
Many companies prefer to adopt an almost-neutral tone in their content marketing. We understand why—their words might entangle them in legal liabilities. Their opinions or predictions might be proven wrong. They might alienate some readers.
If you share these fears, you have two choices.
One, play it safe and stick with educational articles and feature stories. Nothing wrong with that; these types of content can still be useful and interesting.
The path less trodden is to take a stand and share it through your thought leadership articles. You don’t have to be controversial, but you do need to have an opinion.
We did this early on for our own blog. Instead of simply explaining what content marketing is about, we took a strong position, which was that if content marketing isn’t working for you, that’s because you’re doing it wrong and are treating it like PR or advertising—just like many businesses in Southeast Asia.
Some readers might take one look, turn their noses up, and exclaim: “Not for me. Thank you, next!”
And that’s perfectly fine with us, because we know that there will be companies in this region who relate to the title—they’re the ones we want to work with.
They’ll agree with our claim that a lot of us have gotten content marketing all wrong—“especially when it comes to the selling bit”. They will want to understand why their efforts have failed, and to see what effective content marketing looks like.
To make sure your article presents your position clearly, write a thesis statement before you begin the article.
A thesis statement condenses your ideas into one to two sentences. It describes the topic and your position on it. If you’re advocating for something, the thesis statement should reflect this.
Try to include this thesis statement in your introduction so readers will know how you plan to approach a topic.
In the article example above, you’ll find our thesis statement at the end of the first sub-section:
3. Write for a specific audience
One of the best writing tips I’ve ever received was to imagine the reader asking: “So what?”
If there’s no good answer to that question, that means you’re not adding anything fresh or valuable to the conversation.
The first step to answering that question is to understand who will be asking it. You have to know why readers would care about the topic.
In this article by Xero, the headline and blurb make the target audience clear: SMEs in Hong Kong.
The first paragraphs discuss the stakes for Hong Kong SMEs amid the US-China trade war. But Xero doesn’t just explain the situation. The article also proposes a way forward—a pivot towards business opportunities in ASEAN or in the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Greater Bay Area.
If I were an SME owner in Hong Kong, my question, “So what if the US-China trade war is intensifying?”, would have been answered in the intro. I should care about this piece because it tells me where and how I can look for new business opportunities to mitigate the effects of the trade war.
4. Back up your statements with data and examples
A thought leadership article doesn’t just present facts. It influences. But you can’t achieve that if you don’t back up your arguments with solid evidence.
In this article, ScanTrust doesn’t just tell their readers what digitalization is. It presents arguments for businesses to digitize their products.
Different parts of the article address specific audience segments to convince them of the advantages to digitizing products. And ScanTrust backs up its arguments with hard evidence and credible data.
For example, it cites PwC research that predicts percentages of efficiency gains and revenue increases through digitalization. It describes how digitalization helped Colgate-Palmolive improve asset utilization by 10 points. And it ends by sharing practical steps supply chain managers and brand & marketing managers can take.
5. Use clear language
Writing a thought leadership article is not the time to mince words. Avoid vague language, hedging, and neutrality. If you’re unsure or insincere, it will show in your words, and your readers will sniff it out.
“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity,” wrote George Orwell in his famous essay, Politics and the English Language. You could consider this a thought leadership article in his day.
In this article on the challenges to applying AI for good, SGInnovate talks straight, without vagueness or insincerity:
Let’s look at these sentences. The first paragraph shown above says: “While eager to sing the praises of AI, most executives don’t actually understand what’s happening behind the scenes.”
A weaker, roundabout way to say this would be to change the phrase “don’t actually understand” to:
- “lack some understanding of”
- “could improve their understanding of”
- “might not fully understand”
- “require more in-depth understanding of”
- “would benefit by learning more about”
Do these techniques sound familiar? They’re the stuff of dishonest PR. They obfuscate. They reduce the impact of negative phrases. They make the reader so busy trying to decipher their meaning, that in the end, the intended meaning is lost.
Orwell railed against such techniques, writing: “When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.”
Take a leaf out of Orwell’s book and state your ideas with conviction. A colorful simile or metaphor won’t hurt, either.
6. Establish your credibility
Why should your audience give you their time? Why should your opinions carry weight? You can answer these by establishing your credibility.
The dictionary defines credibility as “the quality or power of inspiring belief”. Some ways to do this in a thought leadership article include:
- Sharing your credentials. Explain who you are and why you’re qualified to talk about the topic. Avoid a hard-sell, though. You can do this by offering a friendly introduction, having a brief writer’s bio below your byline, or narrating experiences that help describe who you are.
- Citing information from credible sources. Provide information and supplementary analysis to back up your statements. Make sure they come from trusted sources like think tanks, official documents, verified news accounts, and other thought leaders. And remember to link to these sources!
- Discussing your experiences. Maybe you did first-hand investigation, original research, or product development. You may have gathered data through your work. These are experiences that show you can provide reliable information. Don’t be shy to talk about them.
Again, no hard-sell here—content at this stage isn’t about the company, but about the readers’ problems and passions. That’s not to say you can’t mention your own products or services. You can draw from your experiences to make your point. And if those experiences involve how you developed a product or provided a service, that’s totally fine.
The title and author description share his credentials. They tell you who he is and why he’s in a position to advise you on the topic of pitching.
The article is peppered with information and anecdotes, complete with hyperlinks to their sources. It quotes credible people like Guy Kawasaki. It comes with interesting facts that support Benjamin’s thesis, like this one:
“A Chapman University survey found that glossophobia, or the fear of public speaking, was a major fear of 26.2 percent of respondents, surpassing even kidnapping (25.1 percent), The Devil (23.1 percent), and murder by someone you know (21 percent).”
And the piece is structured around his experiences of witnessing founders’ mistakes at pitching events.
7. Tap your teammates
Look around your company for people who could share lessons, opinions, and advice on certain topics. This works especially well for large organizations.
IBM, for example, likes to discuss innovation across different industries by featuring the stories of project leaders.
One story focused on Matthias Biniok, a Lead Architect for the AI assistant IBM Watson, and his experience in helping to bring AI to the International Space Station. Another had Executive Creative Director Mike Abbink discuss why typefaces matter and how fonts and their development evolved throughout IBM’s history.
These articles reflect two entirely different areas of expertise. It makes sense to interview the people who know the innovative projects best, or even have them write the article themselves.
Questions to ask to come up with a topic for a thought leadership article
There are so many things you could talk about if you’re an expert on a subject. If at a loss for a thought leadership article topic, try answering any of these questions with a thesis statement.
Push your fears aside
Producing content will help widen your circle of influence and elevate you from being a subject matter expert to a thought leader. Dig through your past experiences to find stories you can tell and fresh perspectives you can present.
Most importantly, don’t be afraid to state your opinion. This means you won’t please everyone. Some readers are bound to disagree, and that’s OK, since you’ll still be moving the conversation forward. No one will be interested in a self-proclaimed thought leader who refuses to take a stand.
So move out of your comfort zone and put your thoughts out there. Study these tips and try your hand at writing a thought leadership article.
But don’t touch that LinkedIn bio just yet. In time, your thought leadership portfolio will speak for itself.