When I talk to people about marketing for thought leadership, whether a nonprofit communications director trying to promote her boss as a thought leader or a consultant trying to promote herself that way, I often hear this question: Do you have to write AND speak to be a successful thought leader?
I think the answer is YES, which is unfortunate, because it’s rare for both writing and public speaking to come naturally to the same person. If both skills come to you effortlessly, consider yourself extremely blessed! The rest of us have to work hard at it.
Let’s assume that one comes easier to you, or to the thought leader you are working with, than the other. How do you approach this? Let’s look at two common scenarios.
The Great Speaker Who Won’t Write
The Situation: Your boss is fabulous with people and is a great small talker and big speech maker. She is equally great in a small, intimate meeting and on a stage in front of 500 people. But she rarely writes more than quick messages pecked out on her phone.
Why This Is a Problem: Both search engine optimization (SEO) and social sharing are essential to thought leadership marketing, and both require written content. While you could conceivably use just video and graphic content, it will be a big uphill battle.
How to Solve It: It’s time to hone your skills as a ghostwriter. Some people think this is dishonest or cheating, but it’s not. There’s even a professional association for ghostwriters. Your job is to take all the verbal goodness that comes naturally for your boss, and to translate that into the written word, while doing your best to capture her sense of style as well.
Ideally, you’ll have a fairly regular stream of long-form content (think 1,000 word blog posts, say once a month) as well as the occasional (and longer) manifesto-style post or book length content. You can repurpose these into shorter content (email teasers, quick blog posts, social updates, PR pitches).
Your challenge is then to have her review and edit your writing, rather than to do the drafting herself. Over time, with practice, you will hopefully get so good at it that all she has to do is quickly skim your writing before approving it.
Alternatively, your boss may be willing to do the first drafts, but they will be incomplete, and possibly incoherent. In that case, you become the editor, filling in all the missing content.
In either case, your boss’s name is on everything. It’s her intellectual property and you are more like a talented technician changing the shape and form of the content. Ghostwriters often go unrecognized, especially when they work in-house.
The Great Writer Who Won’t Speak
The Situation: Your boss is a brilliant visionary who is either terrified of public speaking or who would insist on using a 120-slide deck smothered in detailed bullet points.
Why This Is a Problem: Leadership of any kind is much more effective when a personality is attached to it, and it’s tough for that personality to shine through clearly through written words alone. Also, many people who would benefit from your thought leadership simply won’t read, for whatever reason (they just don’t learn well that way, or don’t have time). Spoken word is an essential companion to the written word for thought leaders.
How to Solve It: Take a two-pronged approach. First, find ways to better expose your boss’s personality in writing. Encourage her to write more in the first person. Do some Q & A or other interview formats with her that include some personal or reflective questions. Write a quirky bio that really shows her human side. Use photos that are more casual than a typical business head shot.
Second, work towards getting your boss more comfortable with speaking. Now you are the speech writer instead of the ghostwriter! Create the PowerPoint for her. Write a two-minute video script for her. Research public speaking trainers or courses for her. Show her good examples of videos of others like her speaking about their work as models she can follow. Actively encourage her to practice alone, or with you, or with someone else.
Video is great because you can do multiple takes and edit out flubs. But it can also be terrible for the same reasons: Your boss may become a perfectionist who refuses to let you use any of it.
Speaking in front of a group is great because it’s over and done in one take, and is usually scheduled for a specific date and time, so it’s hard to weasel out of it once it is booked. But it can also be extremely nerve wracking and there’s no real ability to edit.
Pick the format — live or video — that you think will get your boss the quickest win and build her confidence. While you can do all the prep work, ultimately she still has to deliver the talk.
What advice do you have for either scenario? Please share in the comments.