storytelling thought leadership

Want Better Thought Leadership? Tell Better Stories

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As a reporter, Sean Flynn spent his days covering everything from college and professional sports to crime and government. Now he has tapped into that natural curiosity and storytelling ability in his work as senior writer and managing editor at the global management consulting firm A.T. Kearney. Sean works with authors and thought leaders to turn their big, bold ideas into must-read content.

I recently caught up with Sean to get his take on what good thought leadership means, especially in the social media era, and whether there’s really any difference between a good newspaper story and a good marketing story.

A big part of your job is to figure out how to take all these busy people, with all their big ideas, and transform that into engaging content. But how exactly do you define thought leadership?

It’s funny because when I started here, I had never heard that phrase before since I basically came straight from journalism. But to me thought leadership is having ideas that are worth sharing and that people trust your opinion.

Historically white papers have been the main vehicle for thought leadership — like, “I’m going to write this big ol’ book based on this heavy-duty research.” But the internet has completely transformed this. What does it mean to be a thought leader in the digital age?

I still think there's a thing like, "We did all this research, and we came up with all these findings from this research that took us a really long time," and that's the most important thing to promote. But what really matters is what readers want.

We push authors to think about our audience. Who are they and how can we answer their questions? To reach a broader audience, you need to think about what that audience wants, then share an idea that helps them and hopefully makes you look smart enough so they call you.

It's really taking an external, outside-in focus on our content — it's all about what the audience wants rather than what we have.

When you’re creating thought-leadership content how do you decide what channel and format is best?

Maybe I’m in the minority here, but I’m kind of channel agnostic.

I would say that quality matters, whether it's a tweet or a really long paper. If you have a compelling tweet, people will click on it. If you have a compelling paper, people will read it. But the key is knowing who your audience is.

Let's make good stuff, and then we can worry about how to craft it by channel.

A.T. Kearney went all-in on LinkedIn and you’ve really experimented with the platform. Your website is an important channel for promoting your content, too. What are the advantages and disadvantages of owned channels versus social platforms?

One challenge on LinkedIn is that we encouraged, and I think rightfully, our authors to write as much as they could on their own, to have an authentic voice. But on our website we work hard to have a consistent style, grammar and editorial oversight. So one of the tactical challenges is balancing authenticity with consistency.

The other is to create a user journey on our website — for someone to get to our website, begin a journey and find their answers here. When you send people a great link to other content, there's a risk that you’re taking them off your island and they're not going to remember to come back.

What is the main skill you brought with you from working in newspapers?

One thing you can bring from newspapers is storytelling. I just don't think the elements of a good newspaper story and a good marketing story are all that different. The stories that are really good will draw people in and tell you a little bit about being alive in this world.

Mary Ellen Slayter is CEO of Rep Cap. Before creating her own content marketing firm, she served as director of content development and a senior general business and finance editor at SmartBrief, a leading publisher of e-mail newsletters. Before joining SmartBrief, she spent 8 years at The Washington Post, where she authored the Career Track column and worked as an editor in the business news department. You can find Mary Ellen on Twitter @MESlayter.

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