How Thought Leadership Can Infuriate Readers

The point of writing and publishing thought leadership is to endear yourself to people who are struggling with a problem and to let them know you can help.

So why would an aspiring thought leader begin by insulting those readers and potential clients? And they do. It happens all the time.

Here are some of the things we’ve seen authors write about their target audiences in articles published by major professional services firms:

  • “Too many companies shoot from the hip.”
  • “Few companies use talented people in a competitively advantageous way.”
  • “Too many companies still implement tools in a technology-driven manner.”
  • “Most companies don't get it right.”
  •  “Too many companies begin the journey without asking the right questions.”

There are thousands of articles that begin and continue like this, and it is not a good idea.

One problem with asserting that “most” or “too many” companies are doing “it” wrong is that if the reader does not identify with the shortcoming you’re describing, she has no reason to read your article. These arguments are often strawmen, unsupported, set up so the author can knock them down. For instance, for a company to be implementing tools in a technology-driven manner (rather than with a clear business goal in mind), as so many articles accuse companies of doing, they would have to have ignored almost everything written about IT strategy since Jack Rockart’s seminal 1979 HBR article, “Chief Executives Define Their Own Data Needs,” which lays out the theory of “critical success factors.”  If that’s the case, (and I personally doubt that “most” or “many” companies do), one more written admonishment isn’t going to change them.  

Another problem with assuming your reader is making strategic and tactical errors left and right is that it’s probably not true. Most people in most companies are doing their best. If they have not yet got to where you think they should be, there is usually a reason that does not include ignorance or stubbornness. 
For instance, perhaps the energy sector is behind others in its adoption of artificial intelligence. It would be easy to ascribe that to “resistance to change, a belief that what they already have is sufficient, and skepticism about whether new technologies will deliver” as one commentator has. But since those human frailties are not particular to the energy sector, they don’t really explain anything. A little more drilling might surface some more tangible challenges, such as low oil prices inhibiting technology investment, or legacy oil-field modelling and prediction systems that are hard for companies to move away from. Whatever the reasons companies aren’t doing what the thought leader thinks they should, addressing them with understanding and compassion – instead of simply criticizing and hectoring them -- will turn the reader’s perception of him from uninformed and unsympathetic to informed and potentially helpful.

A third problem is that customers want their professional advisers to be confident but not arrogant and less experienced advisors can unwittingly cross that line. Here’s what a senior partner had to say recently about a paper his team had drafted: “It’s too judgemental and negative...we are positioning ourselves as the arrogant consulting firm that is telling people they don't understand, they are falling behind, and they are not strategic. We can have a few hard-hitting points to shake people, but those but be part of a broader set of points that will inspire them.” To talk down to the reader, to suggest you know more about the client’s business than he or she does, is disrespectful. 

So, should you ever declare that “most companies” are doing something wrongly? As a rule, I prefer to tell them there is a better way of doing things. But if you do want to criticize the assembled masses, make sure your assertion is fair, and that you can substantiate it. 

Once you do, you can say it with confidence. For instance, “Too many authors insult their readers!”
 

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