Is your thought leadership structurally sound?

Sep 20, 2017

Originally published by Rachel Ainsworth, Head of Thought Leadership Strategies and Solutions at Source Global Research 

When London’s Millennium Bridge opened in June 2000 there was much fanfare celebrating the first new river crossing to be built in the city for more than 100 years. People quickly swarmed to the “blade of light”, as it had been dubbed by its promoters, to try the new crossing between Tate Modern and St Paul’s Cathedral for themselves.

Unfortunately, that’s where the problems started. Within three days the bridge had been closed to the public again, following concerns that it had started to sway alarmingly when people walked on it. The blade of light quickly became known as the “wobbly bridge”, and remained closed for more than 18 months while structural improvements were made to allow it to function as a bridge rather than a folly.

 Structure matters. And we think it matters in thought leadership just as much as it does in bridges. But we’ve always suspected that quite a lot of thought leadership displays the structural integrity of a wobbly bridge, and, having separated structure from writing style in our recent methodology update, we now have the data to prove it.

Twenty-nine percent of the pieces we reviewed (and we only review more significant pieces for our quality ratings so there is no “it-was-only-a-short-article” get out clause here) show no sign of a meaningful structure. That matters because structure allows people to read thought leadership in much the same way that it allows people to walk across bridges. Without it, people steer clear. And that means that almost three in ten pieces of thought leadership are likely to be unfit for purpose.

 Thankfully 71% of pieces do better. Even so, there is room for improvement in many cases. The 53% of pieces scoring 3/5 employ what this US public radio (NPR) training article Understanding story structure in 4 drawings describes as “The flatline story”. Lots of elements are presented. Each element works on its own. But the structure is not used to hook the audience and keep them hooked. As the article summarises, “It has a beginning and an end, but gives us little reason to keep (reading).”

To score 5/5 in our methodology, we are looking for more. The structure needs to be obvious from the outset and to make sense, and it needs to be easy to find key sections (for those readers who aren’t going to settle down with your publication as if it’s a novel highly recommended by a good friend). In fact it needs to go further than that: the structure must lead the audience through an engaging story. Pieces that do this well typically set up a big question and take the reader on an engaging route to the answer with, like all good stories, ups and downs along the way.

Telling a good story, without losing your reader along the way, is not an easy skill to master. And in our experience, most people need the services of an experienced editor and their red pen to figure out how to pull their draft apart and rebuild it into something more structurally sound. However, if you want your thought leadership to be read and remembered–or your bridge to be walked on–getting the structure right is a great investment.