Man sitting at desk writing a thought leadership article

Thought Leadership Strategy for Total Beginners

Picture this: it’s 2 AM, you have a self-imposed blog deadline the next day, and here you are, down a rabbit hole on Google, desperately trying to figure out how to get started writing thought leadership for the first time. You’ve heard that putting your ideas out there is the key to attracting investors, impressing potential clients, and earning respect from industry insiders—but what kinds of ideas? How do you generate them? And how do you package them to catch the attention of your desired audience?

While there’s plenty of advice about thought leadership online, the strategies out there—post ten times a week on LinkedIn, and also network and befriend an editor at Forbes!—can feel a bit overwhelming when you’re just starting out. What you need is a strategy for tapping into your own thought leadership genius.

Here are five steps you can use to get started writing influential thought leadership articles today.

Step one: do a quick brainstorm

Stop thinking about LinkedIn and Forbes and placement and social media numbers for now. And definitely stop thinking about how best to market your company. Your starting point, ironically, isn’t strategy at all. It’s time to generate ideas.

Take a step back and muse over the following questions: What’s an article about your industry you completely disagreed with? Why? What’s one thing everyone in your industry seems to think with that you know isn’t true? What’s one thing outsiders get wrong about your industry? (Hint: writing longhand often seems to increase creativity and help with ideation.)

Let’s say you run a successful food service consultancy, and you’ve noticed that very few of your clients are thinking about how the restaurant industry could be impacted by the Internet of Things (IoT). Pots that notify you when your tagliatelle is al dente! Sensors that tell you when the pantry’s low on almond flour! An oven that coordinates cooking times with the stovetop! Sure, these innovations don’t exist yet—but maybe you think they’re coming soon. And when they do, they’ll entirely transform how a kitchen is run, in particular how it is staffed. Once you’ve articulated a couple of ideas like that, it’s time to move on.

Step two: formulate an opinion

Bad thought leadership is wishy-washy. It’s afraid to take a stand. It doesn’t contain any new ideas.

But taking a stand is exactly what you should be doing right about now. With the ideation you’ve already completed, start forming powerful opinions about the area(s) of your expertise. Editors love titles like “The One Thing Everyone Gets Wrong About X,” or “Why We’re All Missing the Point of Z.” Don’t be needlessly contrarian, but make sure your stance is firm. You’re writing an op-ed, not a journalistic piece: it’s understood that you’re bringing some subjectivity to the table.

Your IoT opinion, in headline form, might look something like this: “Technological Disruption is Coming for the Restaurant Industry—and No One is Talking About It.” Strong? Yes. Clickable? Definitely.

Step three: write a powerful intro

You can certainly go to sleep now that you’ve done a great late night’s work. But if you want to get a little writing done while you’re on a roll, try writing the first paragraph of your thought leadership piece. Open with a vivid anecdote, a compelling real-world example, or a shocking statement (“In five to ten years, many restaurants will be cutting their kitchen staffs in half.”).

To flesh out the rest of the initial paragraph, you want to present the central question that the article will answer, and show what’s at stake for the reader—i.e., why they should bother reading on to paragraph two. Try to make it clear what’s at stake if the issue you’re writing about goes unresolved. (“Restaurateurs who don’t prepare for AI’s inevitable takeover of the kitchen now stand to lose business—or even go out of business—in the future.”)

Step four: back up your argument

Hold up: staff cuts do sound scary, but are restaurateurs actually so ignorant of tech innovations in their own industry? Or is that just an unsubstantiated assumption you have, despite your food-service expertise?

Not backing up its argument is where lots of thought leadership goes wrong. Sure, thought leadership isn’t the same as in-depth reported journalism—it is, at its core, part of the op-ed genre. But that doesn’t mean you can just throw around claims and expect editors and readers to accept them. If you can produce facts, stats, percentages, or proprietary research—say your company conducted a survey of restaurateurs and found that 80% haven’t given technological disruption much thought—your argument will soar above the competition.

Step five: rinse and repeat

Now that you have the core of a great thought leadership article, the best thing you can do for your thought leadership career is to do it all over again. It’s not just that practice makes perfect, but that good thought leadership requires a type of mindset, and practice will develop that mindset. You’ll learn to keep an eye out for compelling problems in your industry, and you’ll begin to think of things in terms of arguments-you-could-make-about-them. Don’t just write one article and call it a day. Your real strategy begins now: write the second one.

Want to learn more about writing great thought leadership, including how to pitch to publications like Forbes and Fast Company? Sign up for Hippo’s thought leadership bootcamp here.

Image by Matthew Henry courtesy of Stocksnap.io.

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