Thought leadership is a popular type of content that many organisations want to develop to help their talent establish credibility and expertise in their industry. If you’ve read sponsored or contributed articles or opinion pieces on websites and in magazines, organisational blogs or articles on LinkedIn, you’ve come across thought leadership – it can take many forms. I write quite a bit of thought leadership these days, covering marketing, innovation, design principles and lots more.
TL might come in many forms, but the aim is usually fairly similar. It can be used a form of public relations and even sponsored advertising because it helps get the person’s name and the organisation’s brand out there along with a certain PoV (point of view) on a subject.
However, thought leadership is not just for businesses to spruik their message or advance a certain agenda. Research institutions, universities, think tanks, NGOs, professional bodies and member organisations will all from time to time want to put their perspective or specialist knowledge on display. The aim is to not just leave debates and ideas to be owned by those with commercial or other interests, the loudest media voice or even the deepest advertising pockets.
The University of New South Wales, for example, first says that thought leadership must be in the public interest – not surprising and fitting for an educational institution. It must also apply critical thinking or evidence-based assertions that can persuade new ways of thinking, promote an effective or principled approach to something or encourage others to think differently about something.
While obviously not all thought leadership will be guided by these principles and incorporate the same sort of rigour, it’s nonetheless a useful reference when developing any kind of thought leadership – business or professional.
Here I’m going to put forward the four Cs of excelling at thought leadership – curiosity, content, credibility, criticality – that can guide the best type of thought leadership, whether it’s commercial or academic or otherwise. And read to the end for the bonus fifth C.
Work to build credibility
TL at its best should establish the writer or the organisation as a voice of credibility on the topic. Even when it’s commercially oriented, sponsored articles should use credible research and establish a firm basis for arguments using realiable statistics, surveys and other sources when making the point. Even if the solution is a commercial product or services, it helps to bolster the argument by having good sources of information.
Don’t be afraid to be critical, but don’t overlook being constructive
TL shouldn’t set up straw men arguments to make a point that stretches credulity. Member organisations, for example, will naturally take a position on somewhat that suits the interests of the group, but this doesn’t mean something shouldn’t apply a critical stance to the topic. It might be harder with some forms of commercial or organisational TL to be critical because of the sensitivities of stakeholders and customers, but these decisions around how to critical in a constructive way should depend on the topic and the context. Any article should still attempt to present the arguments in a way that can at least acknowledge if not tackle some of the other PoVs on the subject. Think of the tech platforms that will come out in favour of or in defence against proposed government policies. There is a need to be critical in some situations.
Choose to be curious in thought and writing
All forms of writing benefits from a writer who adopts a mindset of curiosity. It helps make the writing more energetic and engaging because they have done some of the work for the reader in exploring many angles and the potential impacts and effects of something. Just because of piece of writing is meant to be persuasive, whether it’s commercial or academic, shouldn’t mean that this key element of exploring a topic fully is overlooked. There are many business leaders who can expand on a topic beyond their narrow role and it can provide a useful and insightful perspective for the reader.
Align with a guiding content strategy
A content strategy tends to be something that commercial organisations have, but other places like universities and member organisations can still have a mission statement that acts as the same thing. A content strategy is the guiding light for the message the organisation wants to put forward and the customers (or members, readers or other academics) it wants to connect and engage with.
What is the bonus 5th C?
I’ll also add a fifth c – coffee. Highly recommended as brain fuel before undertaking an exercise in capturing one’s thoughts in the written form and providing some unique, insightful material to the world that moves along the discussions and understanding of things.
Hopefully this gives you some food for thought on things to consider when approaching writing that needs to advance any argument or establish a POV effectively.
Main image: Photo by Dustin Tramel on Unsplash