The questions you’ve got to ask before thought leadership gets going

Mar 7, 2018

Message for marketers needing to publish new thought leadership: Make sure your authors have their ducks in a row.

Chances are you’ve got only part of the information you need to start the article or report. The authors – your subject-matter experts – have more of that info in their heads. If you don’t get it into your head too, how can you properly assign the work? At best, you’ll waste tons of time in to-and-fro communications loops; at worst, you’ll kick off the project with a bunch of misfit expectations on all sides.

So ask your authors lots of questions to scope out what they want to say and who they want to reach. Don’t assume they have a story that’s finely crafted and ready to go. Push to find out just how thought-through and how ready the story is. Then use the answers to prioritize your thought-leadership pipeline and the resources you need.

Here are the kinds of questions that will streamline things wonderfully:

The storyline:

  • What exactly is your central argument?
    • How would you explain it very simply to a stranger?
    • How would you sum it up for a target reader during a 30-second elevator ride?
  • Which of your competitors has published most on this topic?
    • So how is your argument different – and stronger?
  • What data do you have to defend your argument?
  • What examples/stories can you cite to bring the story to life – to make it hard to put down?
  • Why do you want to publish this now?
    • Why not last year? Or next year?

The format:

  • How long should the piece be? (Words or pages)
  • How much longer or shorter can it be?
  • What exhibits/charts should there be?
  • Online only? Pdf? Print? All of the above?
  • Self-published? External media placement?

The call to action:

  • What are the specific actions you want your audience to take after reading the piece (what, by whom, and how soon)?

The metrics:

  • What are the primary measures of success for this piece?

The timeline:

  • When do you need the first draft?
  • How hard is the final deadline for the piece?
  • Is there a specific event (a conference or meeting or other milestone) for which the piece must be available?

The process:

  • Who’s the target audience?
  • What are the inputs for the report?
    • Will the writer be handed a slide deck or will he/she be able to interview your subject-matter experts?
    • Will the SMEs write bulleted outlines? Or will they even produce rough drafts?
  • How “baked” is the SMEs’ idea? In other words, would the writer start with a carefully thought-out and final storyline or is there some “story shaping” that needs to be done?
  • To what extent can we leverage any preexisting content?


  • Who will be the corresponding author?
  • Who will ensure adherence to publishing best practices?
  • Who is accountable for the factual accuracy of all of the data in the piece?
  • Will there be late-stage reviews by others beyond the author team?

If you don’t get good answers to these questions, it’s not yet a “live” story. You’ve got to spend time fleshing it out (OK, getting the authors to flesh it out) before assigning writers and editors and designers and social media specialists.

By the way, your authors should be happy to get this kind of questioning. Having to think through their answers will help them produce a better product. And it shows them the company’s resources are being used wisely.

Of course, you do have an alternative to launching your own inquisition. You can hire story doctors – super-writers who can get blood from stones – to handle everything for you. They excel at efficiently scoping things out and nailing down answers to the laundry list of questions above.

You could use a shorter “to do” list, right?