You're a subject matter expert and you've worked with a good content editor to craft a thought leadership article that might really set you apart. You've done the hard work of perfecting your argument and illustrating it using real-world examples and data. Now comes the dangerous last mile: The final article review process before your article is published.
Depending on your situation, this review may be between you and an internal content editor, or the final content authority inside your organization. Or, the review may be between you and an editor at an outside content development firm like The Bloom Group, before you send the article on for internal or external publication. Either way, this is your last chance to perfect the final product.
But as you revise, add, and delete, you can unintentionally ruin a good article.
My former IDG colleague, Derek Slater (who now works in content marketing) just posted a Slideshare presentation that illustrates how some B2B companies review articles to death. While Derek's example relates to a content marketing piece edited by multiple people, the principle he stresses -- putting the reader's needs first -- applies equally to thought leadership articles.
During this last stage of article editing, an author may be tempted to remove what he or she perceives as jarring elements (like discussions of controversy or struggle), and insert marketing jargon. In our experience, these are mistakes that will hurt the reader experience.
Also, this review should be a time for polishing the writing and adding supporting details -- not rethinking the core argument. Assuming you have developed a thorough outline, you should be confident of your argument by now. We have seen authors rethink core arguments at this time, perhaps because someone in the company gets nervous, or wants an argument centered around a hard sell. As the author, you've done much hard work by this point: Don't fall prey to that trap.
How can you make sure your content achieves its full potential? It helps to have a checklist. Consider the following template.
1. Proof for accuracy. Your article must be accurate if it is to be authoritative. Double-check your facts and figures, paying attention to statistical comparisons, titles, and dates. You're the expert; experts need to get things right.
2. Search for missing details. In the newspaper business, this is called looking for the holes in a story. Is there any point where will the reader stop and think, "But what about . . . ?" Does the article describe a business process but miss a step? Does it ignore an obvious barrier to implementing your solution? These missing details will undermine your credibility. Good thought leadership articles anticipate reader questions, even small ones, and address them.
3. Ask what your customer will think. The final review is the author's last chance to ensure that the article speaks directly to the reader -- most importantly, to his or her problems. Many companies wish to start thought leadership pieces by describing a proprietary solution, but the audience wants to know if you really understand the customer problems. For example, if you're discussing your knowledge management approach, you must first convince readers that you understand the communications breakdowns plaguing their companies and the resulting business problems.
The desire to highlight the solution as prominently as possible can sometimes lead to a debate about how to begin, and often what the headline should be. Make no mistake: Strong leads and headlines put the reader problem front and center. Consider this headline on a recent Forbes story by Robert Sher, president of CEO to CEO, a consulting firm that does leadership strategy for midsize companies (and a Bloom Group client): Predator Not Prey: Why You Should Disrupt Your Own Company. The headline speaks directly to a midsize company's executive's fear of being gobbled up by a more innovative rival.
4. Review tone and style. Each of us has our own expressive style. If an editor has inserted words that don't sound like you, this is the time to fix that. People can try too hard to look hip when dressing; they can try too hard to sound hip, or enthusiastic, or smart, when writing. Your tone should be authentic.
1. Insert Jargon. Each industry has its own lexicon. You want to use words that your readers expect and understand, but jargon can make you sound like an advertisement. Ads won't differentiate you as a thought leader. Resist the temptation to reinsert jargon prior to publication.
2. Eliminate personality. An article does not have to sound like an annual report to be authoritative. If your article shows a bit of your personality, or even contains some humor, work to keep it there. Think about Warren Buffett. Renowned as an investing genius, his style is folksy, and no one questions his expertise. (See his most recent letter to shareholders, as an example of his style.)
3. Remove the human elements. Often, during the last mile of editing the author and the editor work to make the story shorter. During this tightening, you may be tempted to cut anecdotes -- real-life stories that illustrate the points you're making. Keep them; cut elsewhere. Human struggles, and advice on how to overcome them, will keep the reader engaged. For example, when an expert I'm working with recently likened working in a new building to being on an extended field trip, we latched onto the simile. It described a human experience to which readers could relate.
4. Skip over messes. Many business problems involve people and whole teams encountering tough times. Great business victories that conquer these problems don't happen neatly. As my colleague David Rosenbaum recently noted, business leaders already know the untidy truth. So be gutsy enough to tell the whole story, warts and all, or you won't earn your reader's respect as a thought leader.