Thought leadership? Don't put us to sleep

As chief executives hear plans from their comms teams, they should remember the basics, says Christine Armstrong.

by Christine Armstrong
Last Updated: 06 Jan 2020

This month, CEOs are returning to their desks and putting their minds to their thought leadership plans for the year: they are right to worry. According to recent research by Edelman and LinkedIn, 46 per cent of decision makers have lost respect for an organisation because of its poor thought leadership. On the upside, decision makers are consuming more content than ever before and 61 per cent said that good thought leadership made them more likely to work with an organisation. 

As leaders mull on the ideas presented to them, here are seven thoughts to help planning.  

1. Know who it’s for 

Most organisations don’t think enough about who the thought leadership is for. Are you trying to win new clients? Grow existing clients? Build credibility or be more premium? If you are incredibly specific – about the buyers, the numbers and your goals -  and take the time to ask your audience what they are interested in, then the decisions are easier and better.

2. Keep it to your core business

If you are a bank then doing some work on resilience may be interesting (it may not, we’ll come to that). But it may not add to what people know about you and what you offer. And if there is no action or take away it’ll just be words on a pdf that’s not that easy to read. Your thought leadership shouldn’t be an add-on to what you do: it should demonstrate your core expertise and add value. 

3. Be different

But maybe resilience is your number one value and you have something to share. If so, then what are you going to say about resilience that we will all read and think, ‘gosh, I didn’t know that but am glad I do now’? Google gives 203 million links for resilience: what it is, examples of it, how to get it, how to keep it, how to build it, I’m already yawning. 

What is your take that is really different? In this instance, I’d start by asking ‘what if resilience isn’t as important as we’ve all been told?’ and see where that takes you. But most importantly, when you have something different and someone in your business tries to dilute it into corporate beige… don’t let them!

4. Launch it right

Too many people jump to book a massive room, panic not enough people sign up and then ask their PA to email the interns to fill the spaces. Before you do that, go back to your goals: which clients did you want to win/grow? Maybe you just need to meet them and talk about the work? 

Perhaps a breakfast for 12 would work better and be cheaper than an event for 300. Perhaps a snappy video or podcast sent to the right people would do it. Perhaps a beautifully written think-piece. Perhaps all of the above but be absolutely sure never to waste anyone’s time. I speak as someone who gets invited to many events and often leaves seething that I have learnt nothing new!

5. Give it some energy 

Invest your time in presenting the work brilliantly. Everyone has winced as a potentially interesting report was drowned at birth by a 165-slide deck prepared for the boss by someone too junior. Don’t undermine months of investment in the last 20 minutes of delivery. Energy and enthusiasm are contagious, and people can only absorb so much detail. If you know you are not a natural presenter, then introduce the work and step aside so someone else can give it the lift it needs.

6. But also give it airtime 

Too many companies still think that if they build it, people will come. Take a tip from ad/media land: mix your budget between the content creation and the channel spend (digital or physical) to get it seen and noticed. Attention is expensive - think about what it takes for you to prioritise putting in MORE content into your manic day. Make space for your content to be seen and shared before you start work on the next piece. 

7. Be human

People remember the stories not the hugely complex diagrams. The examples from real life. Things that went horribly wrong and made them laugh in recognition. Or made them wince in the re-telling. 

A big consultancy did an expensive piece of work into AI and the only thing anyone who went to the launch of it will ever remember is the host explaining that their new sensor-taps in the office bathroom couldn’t recognise black hands. This turned out not even to be true but it was this example that got repeated afterwards, not those meticulously compiled charts that had cost tens of thousands of pounds in staff hours.  

Enjoy the planning, we’re looking forward to being delighted by something new from you.

Christine Armstrong is founder of Armstrong Partners and author of The Mother of All Jobs

Image credit: DEA / A. DAGLI ORTI / Getty Images

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