Why Great Thought Leadership Isn’t About The Clever Words

Jul 16, 2019

Not long ago, I read a long, l-o-n-g piece by Tom Wolfe – a fascinating article on Robert Noyce, one of the cofounders of Intel Corp. It was – is – a brilliant piece of writing, a real page-turner; the celebrated writer made you care about the characters and the places.

But he didn’t even mention Noyce by name until he was hundreds of words into the story. That just won’t work in today’s world of business writing, when you have, oh, about 12 seconds to grab the attention of your time-starved target reader.

So today I want to kill off the myth that all it takes is a great writer to create killer strategic content for businesses. The truth is, you could hire the world’s best writer from any era and they would probably fail in our line of work.

Pick a name: Tom Wolfe, Barbara Kingsolver, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Louisa May Alcott. Or name your favorite novelist or essayist or columnist. Chances are Shakespeare himself would have flamed out if he’d had to craft meaningful thought leadership content for businesses.

That’s because with most business writing, the actual words matter far less than the bedside manner of the writer.

The words and combinations of words the writer chooses are nowhere near as important as truly helping authors convey the thoughts they want to communicate. For a writer to accomplish that, it takes the following:

  • Recognizing that it’s the client’s story – not the writer’s story.
  • Acknowledging that strategic content is a very minor part of the subject-matter expert’s overall responsibilities.
  • Understanding the business intent of the messaging the client has in mind.
  • Understanding the topic well enough to have lots of questions ready for subject-matter expert(s) or authors ahead of the kick-off call with them.
  • Listening (hard) to what those expert authors are saying.
  • Confirming that they’ve been heard by playing back what they’re saying.
  • Acknowledging the work that (in most cases) the experts have already put into thinking about their topic and its presentation angle.
  • Pressure-testing the experts’ arguments – but doing so politely and respectfully.
  • Pushing for examples and supporting data – again, respectfully.
  • Communicating expectations about the editorial process itself.

I could add lots more examples of good bedside manner, but you get the point. Here are a few scenarios in which that manner matters a whole lot:


  • “I’ve got a great idea for an article.” The challenge in this case is for the writer to tease the idea out of the author (good questions mandatory) and then for the marketer to gauge the relevance of the idea to his or her campaign plans. That’s not all. If the author’s idea doesn’t fit with the pertinent marketing direction or it’s not different enough from what’s been published already, it may be necessary to turn it down – without turning off the author for good.


  • “The idea is coming together but my colleagues and I are still talking.” This is an especially tricky scenario, in which it’s crucial for the writer to establish good governance at the outset. Meaning, cat-herding is avoided by identifying one single corresponding author to be the expert who can speak and make editorial decisions for the whole author team. Not just that, but making it clear that the “R&D” approach to strategic content – using the editorial process to actually process and develop the idea – is much slower and more costly than “content development as assembly line,” in which each editorial stage builds smoothly on the last one.

Look, I’m not trying to diminish the value of great writing for its own sake, or to devalue the importance of a large vocabulary and a way with words.

The best business writers excel at taking ambiguous or inchoate ideas and shaping them into powerful, engaging articles or reports. And they are superb at strengthening and sharpening even the best-written drafts from authors.

What I’m trying to do is put those attributes into perspective – to put them into the reference framework that the client requires.

No clients are looking for a mystery thriller or a tear-jerker. They want a solid exposition of a new business idea, or a robust case study, or an insightful, data-driven research report. They need it to get to the point quickly and with impact, without frills and without laboriously admiring the business problem.

Sorry, all you Writers of the Next Great Novel: do not apply.