Why Consultants Are Afraid of Ghostwriters
By David Rosenbaum
According to a 2013 survey of 50 consulting firms conducted by the Bloom Group and the Association of Management Consulting Firms, more than half (57 percent) of the consultants in these firms are “less than enthusiastic about working with ghostwriters,” and only nine percent “love to.”
Our survey also identified leaders and laggards among business consulting firms. We defined leaders as those whose online publications and thought leadership generated the most inquiries from potential clients (13 firms, each reporting over 40 inquiries on average from each article), and laggards (20 firms reporting 20 or fewer inquiries).
One piece of data from the survey is either inexplicable or perfectly understandable (depending upon where you sit): 53 percent of the leaders were either comfortable or “loved” working with ghostwriters, while only 43 percent of the laggards expressed similarly positive feelings.
There may be a correlation between using ghostwriters and getting more inquiries, there may not be (10 percent is not an enormous spread). But the data certainly justifies asking the question why a majority of consultants are averse to working with ghostwriters when it appears it’s in their interest to do so. Not only do firms that use ghostwriting seem to have more success in generating leads, having a ghostwriters work with consultants should free them from the heavy-lifting of writing and leave them with more time to advise and bill clients; that is, do their jobs.
We asked several consultants (satisfied Bloom Group clients to whom we promised anonymity) why they think so many of their confreres are loathe to work with ghostwriters such as we, and what we could do to change their minds.
Consultants are special
“This,” said one consultant, “is an ‘I’ business, not a ‘we’ business.” By this he meant that collaboration did not come naturally to consultants, especially not to senior executives running their own practices and P&Ls. Indeed, the idea that they could benefit from help in communicating their ideas runs counter to the belief upon which consultancies are founded: that their subject matter experts have big, important ideas that others don’t and they are uniquely capable of communicating them to clients. It takes a certain amount of ego (more than the average bear’s) to tell a business leader how to run his or her business, manage a deal, or develop a strategy. Such a personality may find asking for help – or recognizing that he or she could benefit from it – an odd notion, especially, as another consultant put it, a ghostwritten article “might not sound like it came from me.”
Indeed, this consultant wondered whether having his name on an article written by a ghost wasn’t, in effect, “misleading clients.”
For all these reasons, some consultants just won’t work with ghostwriters, and there’s really nothing to be done about it.
It takes too long
Writing takes time away from consulting work, which is a major reason many consultants don’t like doing it. After all, they’re not compensated for publishing articles. “It’s not on the performance matrix,” said one consultant (sounding like a consultant). Therefore, there’s a general unwillingness among consultants to invest time in writing articles. As another said, “I know I should write more but I service something like ten or 12 clients, run a P&L and a team, and I just don’t get down to it.”
One might think this would make the busy consultant welcome the ghostwriter’s help, but it’s not so simple. “You have to have a ghost who ‘gets’ it,” said another consultant. “If you have to brief the ghostwriter three or four times in order to get an article done, you might as well do it yourself. Or not bother.”
So many don’t bother.
There’s a degree of validity to this concern. Most ghostwriters are drawn from the ever-shrinking ranks of professional journalists. Journalists tend to be generalists, and often lack the specialized knowledge to engage intelligently with a subject matter expert sufficiently well to “get it.”
As my colleague Tim Parker noted in a recent post suggesting what ghostwriters could do to be viewed as professionals providing a high-value service, and not merely drones dutifully transcribing the consultant’s thoughts, “If you don’t know his field well enough to discuss it intelligently, then why would he view you as a collaborator?” If the consultant has to spend time explaining the industry in which she works, its basic concepts and language, before even beginning to describe her point of view, she would certainly be justified in questioning whether her time with the ghostwriter is well spent. And if the ghostwriter doesn’t bring value to the relationship beyond his or her ability to put words together in a cogent manner (not that that’s small potatoes), the ghostwriter’s value deserves to be questioned.
Trust: You’re a disembodied voice
In most cases, the first time the consultant and the ghostwriter meet is on a conference call. The consultant knows little or nothing about the ghostwriter other than that someone in marketing has suggested they talk. “There’s no relationship,” one consultant said, and without a relationship it’s difficult for the consultant to imagine allowing a stranger to represent her thoughts and experiences to prospective clients.
This puts the onus on the ghostwriter to earn that trust. Coming to that first conversation well-prepared is an excellent way to do that. Asking good questions is another. And if, after that, a good article follows, trust will, too.
Advice for marketers: Make it easy
The marketers who contact the Bloom Group have come to the conclusion we obviously want them to: that employing ghostwriters is a good, cost-effective way to produce the high-quality thought leadership that will lead to inquiries and leads. (And, also, that we’re just the guys to do it.) However, no matter what the marketer believes, his problem still will be selling that proposition to his own consultants.
SAP editorial director Christopher Koch recently described the way he gets his consultants to buy in: “What we’ve found is we get a good response if we approach them in a supportive way, telling them we’ll do the heavy-lifting, handle the writing, the nuts and bolts of thought leadership. All they have do is give us a 30 or 40 minute interview. All of a sudden, it becomes much easier for them.”
Consultants who have had a good experience with ghostwriters will spread the word internally: Hey, this is simple; it works; it’s raising my profile and helping me build my business. Marketing’s job will become much easier thereafter.
Advice for ghostwriters: How to be loved
The job of the ghostwriter is to make the consultant’s life easier and help grow his practice by producing articles that generate business.
It’s essential that the ghostwriter research the expert’s area before that initial call so the writer can ask informed questions and not be baffled by the consultant’s references. There’s nothing wrong with asking a dumb question, but asking a lot of dumb questions will naturally cause the consultant to ask how on earth the writer could possibly convey his ideas in an intelligent manner to an intelligent reader.
One consultant suggested that the ghostwriter “work to adapt your writing to the consultant’s voice, temperament, and style.” A good ghostwriter does that naturally, but it can’t hurt to ask the consultant what articles they’ve written or read that they particularly like, and use those as a model . . . if, of course, they’re any good. They might not be. In which case, it’s your job to bring your unique expertise to bear – how to construct a strong argument and tell a compelling story that someone might want to read.
And don’t be shy about selling your expertise. After all, you’re the professional writer. Everybody thinks they can write. All the consultants you’ll be working with got A’s on their college themes. However, their professors had to read what they wrote; the audience these ‘A’ students are trying to write for now doesn’t. You, on the other hand, have spent your career hooking readers and keeping them hooked. If you weren’t good at that, you wouldn’t be employed.
Once you’ve finished your draft, don’t grow attached to it. The draft is simply a stage in a process that concludes when your client is happy. When the consultant sees your draft, new ideas, new connections and examples may occur to her. This is a good thing. Don’t resist revisions.
Finally, remember that the engagement is not about you; it’s about them. It’s not your ideas, it’s theirs. You, the ghost, should be invisible, your voice vanishing into that of your client’s; your back-and-forth with him or her as frictionless and productive as you can make it.
That’s why you’re called a ghost, and, ideally, a friendly one.