On being … thought leadership?

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 Brown.

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 whether it 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 behaviour.

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.

© 2016 Ingrid Sapona


On being … for your own good

By Ingrid Sapona

I’ve written before about the fact that I’m not an “early adopter” of technology. Indeed, I come from a family that, at times, actually seems averse to technology. Touch tone phone service was around for at least a dozen years before my parents made the switch. Dad’s rationale for not going with that new technology was that he saw it as just a way for the phone company to charge an extra $2/month. Even after automated phone systems – which rely on touch tones – became the standard for most businesses, we hung on to the rotary service. Dad knew that with most such systems you could simply wait on the line if you didn’t have touch tone, and wait he did…

Over the past 10 years or so I have come around to certain types of technology because I’ve seen how it has revolutionized how I do business. Given that I’m a writer – which is still centered on the simple act of putting words down on paper – the fact that I can even make that statement probably sounds odd. But in terms of work, technology has changed my life – all for the good.

When my Dad was sick back in the early 2000s, for example, if I needed to spend time at my parents and I had work to do, I had to pack up and schlep a ton of files and take them with me. At some point I could reduce the amount I had to carry because I could work on their computer and I could take stuff back and forth on floppy discs. Those eventually gave way to jump drives with lots more storage space. Each of those leaps made life easier but I still had to be pretty organized and anticipate what I’d need. The biggest game changer came when I started using Dropbox, which allowed me to retrieve things remotely.

In my personal life, however, until recently I’ve not been quite as open to technology. At some point in the past year I began rethinking my attitude toward technology. Yes – attitude… for I now see that I’ve actually had a bad attitude when it comes to adopting technology. I think there were many reasons I had that attitude. I’m sure part of it was attributable to the learning curve, part of it to the cost, and part of it relates to the view that there’s nothing wrong with the “old” way of doing certain things. My change of attitude is also attributable to many things. But, it really boils down to the realization that embracing technology is “for your own good”.

Here are a few recent examples that have led me to this conclusion. Last week I was looking into whether we could get groceries delivered to my mother. I was thrilled to find a grocery store near her that delivers. (It’s a small, three store chain – none of the bigger stores in her area have this service.) But, to place an order you do so through an app – you can’t choose the items on-line or over the phone. So, on the one hand, it’s terrific to find this service, but on the other hand, to access it you need a certain level of technology that she doesn’t have. Fortunately, she can tell me what she wants and I can place the order through the app on my iPad.

Another example occurred when Mom and I went to get her taxes done. She hadn’t yet received all her tax slips in the mail. But, they were available on-line and, luckily, she has a computer and printer so I could get them immediately. As a result, we were able to complete her return the day I was there. On a related note, while we were waiting at the tax clinic I heard one of the preparers explain to someone that one form he needed is only available on-line. Apparently the IRS used to mail it to him, but now you have to download it. While it seems wrong to me that the IRS has gone that route, the reality is that there’s nothing we can do about the IRS’s decisions. Hearing that made me realize that at some point in the not-too-distant future, the IRS may go completely paperless and we’ll just have to adapt.
I imagine maybe you’re thinking I should have titled this column: resistance is futile. Well, there’s an element of that, I suppose. But if you look at it that way, you feel defeated. Instead, my change of heart (and attitude) comes from finally believing that when millions of people embrace new devices or technologies, it’s not because they’re trying to be cool, or trying to impress others, or because they have money to burn. It’s because the technology makes their life easier or better. The ability to order groceries for delivery, pay bills on-line, and visit with Mom daily via Skype, are just a few examples of how technology has benefitted our family.

Mind you, I don’t think it’ll be easy to try to keep up. I know that many people’s main exposure to new technology comes through their work and through kids (or grandkids). Given that I’m self-employed and don’t have children, I do feel I’m at a bit of a disadvantage. But, I’ve got friends who are genuinely excited about technology and who are early adopters, so I’ll be fine – as long as I embrace their help and the technology!

© 2016 Ingrid Sapona