Over the weekend I watched a TED talk (here) by Andrew Stanton, the writer of all three Toy Story movies, and writer/director for Wall-E, Finding Nemo and John Carter. In it Stanton lays out some of the lessons he’s learned over the years, both from others and from his own trials and errors, about what makes a good story. I was intrigued to hear which of these might be useful for business writing, in particular for thought leadership.
The answer, it turns out, is most, if not all. Here are a few that I found especially powerful.
“Make me care: The greatest story commandment of all. We all know what it’s like not to care; to flip through endless TV channels without finding anything worth watching. When you find one that is, that’s by design.” For thought leadership, we make the reader care by writing from his perspective, about an issue that’s important to him, with counsel he can use. It’s the opposite of writing everything you know (or can look up) on a topic, in the belief that others will automatically find it interesting.
"Know your punch line: Know your ending and that everything you are saying from the first sentence to the last leads to a singular goal.” This is crucial in thought leadership because an article or paper that meanders all over the map does not hold attention and doesn’t make an impression. Perhaps the ultimate goal of thought leadership content is to give the reader (or viewer or listener) one important message they will take away. Sure there are details of e.g., implementation that they can come back and refer to. But if they don’t remember the key message, they won’t ever come back to review the details.
“Make a promise at the beginning: Sometimes that’s as simple as ‘Once upon a time’.” For thought leadership writing, it’s telling the reader up front what he will get from reading the piece and why it will be worth his trouble. Just as in fiction, you don’t want to give away the ending, of course. But you have to capture the problem (or opportunity); why it isn’t adequately addressed by what companies are doing today; that there is a better way; and there are big benefits to be had. You have to say this up front in an executive summary, for instance. Otherwise, managers have no reason to start reading, let alone continue when, after two pages, they can’t figure out where you are going.
“Confirm a truth that deepens our understanding”: There is nothing fundamentally new in the world perhaps, but any thought leadership content worth publishing has to tell its audience about a better way to deal with something important. A piece just published by one of our clients (here) for instance, makes the case that if your company is guilty of a Foreign Corrupt Practices Act infraction, there are things you can do right away that will mitigate your chances of hefty fines. That’s much more useful and interesting than what thousands of law firms have already done, which is to drily interpret what the act says you can and can’t do. And it confirms a truth; in this case, that it's better to 'fess up than cover up.
“The unifying theory of 2+2: The audience wants to work for its meal, it just doesn’t want to know that what it’s doing. So don’t give people the answers; give them the pieces from which they can deduce the answers. Don’t give them 4; give them 2+2.” This was a law that Stanton and his cowriter devised while writing Finding Nemo. In thought leadership, it’s why we present examples before the general prescriptions. Prescriptions are important, and generalizing them from the data and examples is a huge part of the value that thought leaders and consultants provide. But by the time you present them, the reader should have been able to piece most of them together from the real examples you have already given them. Prescriptions presented as a list of unsubstantiated must-dos are tedious and unconvincing.
It shouldn’t be surprising that so much of what Stanton regards as essential to great storytelling applies to thought leadership. People enjoy stories and they learn from them. They don’t enjoy lists of things they must do, and they quickly forget those. Effective thought leadership pieces are stories, with stories inside them.