How Fear of Ghosts Can Keep Your Thought Leaders in the Dark

After 26 years of watching consultants and other advisers successfully use ghostwriters, I was stunned recently to hear a professional services marketer who didn’t believe in the practice.

It happened at a March 27 Association of Management Consulting Firms seminar in Boston, a gathering of about 30 people on a topic dear to everyone’s heart: the evolution of online publishing in consulting. In the morning, I presented the results of a new study that we conducted with AMCF on consulting firms' online publishing practices. (You can read that study report here.)

Our survey of 50 consulting firms found that only 33% of the average consultancy’s online content last year was ghostwritten; consultants wrote 67% of the content themselves. However, consulting firms whose online articles generated more than 40 inquiries from prospective clients last year had a much larger percentage of ghostwritten content (49%) than consulting firms that generated only 0-20 leads (22%).

Ghostwriting can be good for two reasons: most consultants and other professionals can't write at the level of a professional writer, and most don't have the time to write. They are paid to sell and/or deliver expertise to clients.

But in an afternoon breakout session, an anti-ghostwriter sentiment emerged. One participant in a group I led said he didn’t believe in ghostwriters. The subjects are too complex for a non-expert to capture, and most do a poor job, he opined.

“Interesting,” I thought to myself, as I facilitated the breakout discussion, thinking about my experiences, which argue to the contrary. And then “Wow, really?”

I didn’t utter those words to my group of nine. But I thought of mentioning to them – blurting out, actually -- that the authors of many bestselling business books don’t actually write the words; the ideas are theirs, but the way they are communicated isn’t. Same with many Harvard Business Review articles, research reports and other prose that tries to prove the authors have unique expertise on an issue.

But then I remembered the statistics from our study: 67% of consulting firms’ content is not ghostwritten; 34% of consultants are not at all or only slightly comfortable with using ghostwriters; and 23% are “somewhat comfortable.” A minority of consultants (43%) embraces ghostwriters. (The participants in the morning session were surprised by this.)

All to say that this marketer’s opinion may be more common than I had realized, although it didn’t seem to be the prevailing opinion of the seminar participants.

So instead of pushing back, I asked the group whether they used ghostwriters, and, if so, whether they were successful. The answer was yes to the first question, although another participant (an editor at a large consulting firm) said his colleagues don’t call themselves ghostwriters. (A great point. I also believe the term doesn’t capture what the best at this profession do. I have written about this before, which you can read here. Ghostwriters who focus on making something readable provide a necessary but insufficient skill. Those who also help the expert develop his thinking provide far more value.)

My group's answers to the second question – what makes some ghostwriters successful? -- included knowledge of the subject matter and the use of outlines to help the subject expert structure her ideas before penning prose.

But given that in the consulting firms we surveyed, ghostwriters produced an average 30% of their online articles, the gentleman in my breakout session is obviously not alone. His opinion and the survey we conducted remind me that there is still lots of skepticism about a practice I thought had gone mainstream.

Now I realize why so many B2B firms struggle to become recognized as thought leaders: They don’t realize their experts need help in developing and communicating compelling ideas. Or if they do, their experts reject it.

 

Comments

Submitted by Tim Parker on

 

Bob, good points. I'd like to venture a couple of thoughts on why many profesionals see the topic this way.

  1. First, there are not many ghostwriters who are good at this. You can't do the job unless you understand the topic. So you need long and broad busines experience, maybe an MBA, and you have to be reasonably deep across a range of business topics if you are going to pitch yourlsef as being able to help with most anything. Or if you are a firm as we are, you have to be able to asign an analyst/writer with deep experience in risk management or IT or whatever is the topic. Ghostwriters who are e.g. ex-journalists, frequently can only write good copy if the ideas are well organized in the first place.
  2. Most professionals think they are good writers. We all went though undergrad, and most of us through grad school too. We got good grades, including in English. And no-one ever told us that the way you write for school, or for a proposal or report, is totally different to how you have to write for an elective audience -- one that isn't obliged by the fact that he is your professor, or is your client and paid for the work -- to actually read it.

So yes, you need a ghost writer who not only writes prose that people want to read, but can help you -- as you put it -- develop your thinking too. Though that's not the word I'd use -- it seems to me to make the presumtion that all ideas are under-developed, which is not necessarily the way to win hearts and minds. But at least can properly structure and organize the idea, and support it with examples and data that will make it interesting for the target audience to read, and convince it of the idea.

Submitted by Connie (Miller)... on

Part of the problem is the increasing number of folks calling themselves, ahem, "writers."  In my nearly 30 years of B2B writing, I've seen plenty of clients get burned, so I understand the reluctance to hire us. I can't tell you how many times I've seen that look of frustration on a client's face after spending weeks with a writer who seemed to "get it" but who then turned in something that barely resembled English, let alone the client's message. The client looks at me--the next freelancer on the list--with suspicion. "Can you really do this? Can you really understand what I want to say?"
I get it. For clients, trusting ideas to a stranger is a little like finding suitable childcare for your kids. You can't afford mistakes. And more than ever, a lot of writers out there simply aren't qualified, especially with complex concepts and solutions. It's also true that as a writer, I probably will never understand a client's product, service, audience and markets as finely as he or she does. But I'll ask the right questions, spend non-billable hours pondering the project, bring a fresh perspective (while emulating the client's own writing style), and write something that's clear, cohesive and compelling. In the end, I'll save the client money and draw in business, because that's what I'm trained (and innately programmed) to do. Then again, I've been doing this for a lot of years, and I learned from the best. (I worked at Miramar Publishing with a pretty awesome journalism teacher!)

Submitted by Bob Buday on

Hello Connie --

This is a totally surprising and wonderful blast from the past! How are you? Hope you're doing great. (Had to ask, since it's been nearly 30 years since we last spoke. Send me an email and let's set a time to talk.)

Thanks for your comment. I agree that many writers struggle with this work. I've even seen highly talented ex-journalists struggle with "the dance" with the topic expert. The keys, in my experience, include a) doing a lot of advance reading on the topic before meeting with the expert(s), as you mention, b) helping the expert(s) say what HE wants to say (which may include gathering evidence to support highly arguable assertions) by asking really good questions (as you mentioned, and which I do remember you are very good at!), c) framing the argument in an outline that follows a problem/solution structure, and d) not writing any prose/copy until that outline is nailed and agreed to by the client.

I see two skills as core to this work: "idea development" and "writing/communication." Folks who are strong in just the second skill typically produce highly readable but forgettable copy. Folks who excel at both command premium rates and are never short on work.

Look forward to hearing from you!

Submitted by Michael Selissen on

Building on Tim's comment, a good ghostwriter also figures out how to interact with the client in a way that's productive and mutually beneficial.  Not only with regard to understanding the subject matter and capturing "the voice," but also discovering the right level of support that's needed.
 
As you make clear in the article, everyone has a different level of tolerance for ghostwriting (and ghostwriters). Each client also has different strengths and weaknesses. So writers who can identify a client's particular comfort zone and work within that zone will have a leg up. I put down my own thoughts on the subject with respect to ghostblogging, but they apply equally to ghostwriting in general: http://www.casemountain.com/newsletter/mm_12_07.html
 

Submitted by Bob Buday on

Michael --

Many thanks for the comments, and I greatly like your own blog post on the topic. I agree that the key is to interact with the client in a productive and mutually beneficial way.

One thing I've found useful is to tell the client -- the expert on some topic -- before the process begins that he, she or they are the experts on the topic but that we are the experts in how to best make their argument on the topic. In most cases, that addresses their worry that "the ghostwriters" are going to inject their ideas in my article."

Helping the client "best make his argument" usually includes helping him develop HIS thinking, which I look at as an "idea development" task, not a pure writing task (although others may quibble with this delineation).

The best ghostwriters -- which is not a useful term, in my opinion -- help clients develop THEIR thinking, and then (of course) communicate it in a compelling way.

It can be a tricky dance. But clients who are able to put their egos and preconceptions to the side can benefit enormously.

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