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Thought Leader or Speculator? Why Your Content Needs to Take a Stance

By Robert Overmann

thoughtleaderorcommentatorBefore the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion on the morning of Jan. 28, 1986, then-director of the space shuttle solid rocket motor project Allan McDonald expressed concerns about the launch. He spoke out about his reservations, advised against the launch, and refused to sign off on it. Unfortunately, the launch continued as scheduled, and none of the shuttle’s passengers survived the explosion.

While your honest opinions and interpretations of facts and trends might not be the difference between life and death, your readers turn to you for bold ideas like McDonald’s — not blind concurrence.

After sitting down with other Influence & Co. pods — account strategy and editorial teams — to explore client pain points, we discovered that many of the leaders we work with fear disenfranchising their networks, clients, and fellow C-suite members by being too “real” or critical with their content. These same leaders, fearless and confident when presenting to their boards, are reticent to speak with the same fervor on public record.

And that makes sense. With the public being increasingly willing to claim their offense to careless comments, business leaders have become especially wary of being identified as callous offenders and losing credibility, profit, and goodwill toward their brands. 

As content creators, our greatest fear is not getting published. To avoid rejection or alienating our readers, leaders and other public-facing individuals have a tendency to distance themselves from controversial topics. But in a sea of “X Ways to Do Something You Already Know How to Do” clickbait, even the most docile reader wants something divisive every once in a while.

So What’s the Problem?

The bottom line is that business leaders often worry about being ostracized or discounted after presenting a controversial idea. Rather than seeing it as a willingness to discuss problems, many see presenting any negatives or controversy as a third rail. 

A client of ours, for example, is incredibly cavalier when answering questions and expressing his ideas with us. But when he reads his article through the eyes of his ideal reader, his willingness to be controversial disappears.

When our clients approach a draft of content, they start to think about their image. What will readers think of them? How will readers perceive their brand once they’ve finished the article and glanced at the byline?

Afraid of offending or losing an audience — thus discouraging investments, donations, or general interest — business leaders avoid hot-button issues. And they certainly know their stakeholders better than we do. But sometimes, there can be a disconnect between knowing a customer and knowing what that customer wants to read. 

Taking a Stance

Here are five reasons company leaders should be more opinionated in their content:

1. You’re a human, not a public relations machine. 

Whether you have 10 employees or 1,000, they’ll be looking to you to lead your company. To be an effective leader, you must be real. Your network of other industry influencers, mentors, mentees, and customers can all see through inauthenticity, and if you only focus on never offending anyone, you’ll turn into a PR robot no one can connect with.

2. Controversial opinions imply confidence. 

When you tiptoe around anything, especially something controversial, it communicates some level of cowardice. But when you take a stance, you’re telling others that you truly believe in your ideas, practices, and services. Being controversial and unafraid to tackle the hard-hitting issues shows independence of thought.

3. New ideas are what move thought leaders (and their industries) forward. 

To be truly innovative, you can’t just applaud everyone and everything around you. There are plenty of practices, companies, and leaders to be excited about, but the only way to push your company forward and breed new ideas and technologies is to be real and honest with yourself — and sometimes, that means being controversial.

4. Your content will be better if you’re willing to be yourself. 

When we work with our clients, we use as much of their original wording as possible to maintain their voice and highlight their expertise. You, as a thought leader, can give your readers a better idea of yourself, your knowledge, and your industry than we can by ourselves. When you’re honest and direct in your answers without shying away from topics that could stir controversy, your content will be stronger and your marketing more successful.

5. Your relationship with us will work more smoothly. 

This goes hand-in-hand with the fourth reason. Being opinionated in your answers and communication with us helps us better understand you, your company, and your content marketing objectives. When we’re open with each other without fear of offending readers, the knowledge extraction and content creation processes are easier. 

If you’re still hesitant to embrace controversy in your content, try asking yourself these questions: 

  • What kind of content do I consume in the industry publications I read?
  • What do the best pieces of content I’ve read have in common?
  • What has generated the last big idea in my company?
  • What is the true worst-case scenario?

Remember that you and your customers are people; humanizing your brand by embracing the passion and controversy in your industry will go a long way.

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Posted on September 1, 2015

About Robert Overmann

I love artful and accurate prose, traveling, and great food. My favorite days are those I spend with words, nature, and my family.

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