By Ingrid Sapona
Last week I was at dinner at my friend’s (I’ll call her Leanne
– yes, the same friend I mentioned a few columns back). We talked about some of
the challenges we’ve been encountering in our work. We’re both self-employed plain
language writers/consultants. Leanne used a couple phrases – courage being one
of them – that don’t often come up in business conversations. Though I didn’t
interrupt when she first use the word, I immediately thought about researcher/author/speaker
Brené Brown’s work.
As the conversation continued, Leanne mentioned that she’s
been inspired by something she’s been reading. At that point, I asked if it was
by Brené Brown. She was surprised. I explained that her reference to the notion
of courage made me think of Brown. Indeed, Leanne was referring to something by
Though I’ve not read any of Brown’s work, I have seen her
TED talk and I’ve seen a few other videos of her. Brown, a professor, has
written a lot about vulnerability, courage, shame, and authenticity. I was
quite interested in Leanne’s comments and insights on Brown’s work. Leanne has
an analytical mind and I find that she’s very good at digesting information and
then figuring out how it may apply in her life and work.
After a lengthy, interesting discussion about some of Brown’s
concepts, Leanne sort of sheepishly added, “a lot of it’s really just common
sense”. I think she’s right. But, as I said to Leanne, there’s nothing wrong with
common sense and I sure think the world could do with more of it!
One of my clients this week asked me to ghost write an
article. We met to discuss the article. They want to pitch the article to the
editor of an industry magazine. Their corporate social responsibility group has
been working with another industry organization to create public educational
information on a topic that’s relevant to their industry. The approach they’ve
taken to providing the information is creative and they think it’ll be a way to
connect with a segment of the public that their industry hasn’t had success engaging.
We agreed the article can’t be just about the education campaign
or the company’s involvement in creating it. The concern is that could be seen
as too self-serving and therefore the editor would be likely to reject the
article. They mentioned they want the article to be a “thought leadership piece”.
My initial task was to come up with an outline we could submit
to the editor. First I wanted to understand the nature of the underlying
information and its relevance to their industry. As they explained, the basic
information has been available in traditional formats for a long time. The innovative
part, as far as I could tell, is the new way they’re providing the information.
So, I put together the article outline.
The first half of the article would feature a discussion of the
need for education on this topic. It would also note how much the industry has
already done to educate the public. Then we’d explain that the client has worked
with another industry organization on this new, creative approach to educating
the public. And finally, the article would talk about some of the specific
benefits of this new approach. Also, I included a suggested title that highlighted
the new creative approach to the public education effort.
The client’s response to my outline was not what I hoped. They
said we needed to adjust the focus because the article can’t be mainly about
their new approach. They reiterated the concern that saying too much about the
new approach might be deemed too self-promoting. Instead, they felt it should
mainly be about the need to engage the public on the topic and about the
industry’s general interest in educating the public.
I pointed out that from the editor’s point-of-view, what’s newsworthy
is the new approach. They again said they’re looking for an article that will “demonstrate
thought leadership”. After admitting I’m not 100% sure what that phrase means
to them, I argued that the fact that the underlying topic is relevant to the
industry is well known and that to focus on that doesn’t demonstrate leadership
– or even particularly new thought. After going around in circles on the
question of what thought leadership entails, I gave up and simply promised a
revised outline. I’ve sent it off and hopefully they’ll like it better, though
I don’t think it’ll be as interesting an article.
I don’t know the origins of the idea of “thought leadership”,
but I’ve worked on enough thought leadership articles to know it’s all the rage.
As a plain language person, I’m always put off by such corporate speak. Compounding
my ire is the fact that there’s often little new or particularly original ideas
in such pieces. It’s usually just a grandiose label business people use when
they simply want to provide information in their particular field.
So how do these two stories relate? Well, I couldn’t help
thinking about the discussion Leanne and I had about Brené Brown’s work and
might be an example of
thought leadership. Though Leanne and I concluded our discussion about Brown’s
ideas by agreeing there’s a common sense core, Brown’s analysis definitely provided
a different way of looking at – and thinking about – some fundamental human
So yes, maybe there is something to thought leadership… But
please, just as not every person is a leader, let’s be honest: not every business
article deserves the thought leadership label.