How to Write Technical Thought Leadership
Let me be honest, I don’t like the term, “Thought Leadership.” It’s too vague. Marketing people often apply it to writing that is neither thoughtful nor leading anything.
For example, a lot of people refer to high-level, informational writing (like this overview of Docker Networking we wrote for a client) as “thought leadership.”
While the piece above is excellent, it’s not really conveying leadership. It doesn’t have a strong point of view, and it’s not borne out of a unique perspective on the state of DevOps. It’s just really deep, helpful information on a highly technical topic. Great stuff, but not “thought leadership.”
So, what is true “thought leadership?” And how do you write effective technical thought leadership content?
In this piece, I’ll offer my perspective. As a former CTO turned writer, I’ve written a fair bit of technical thought leadership, but I’m also an avid reader of the stuff. After sharing some examples of technical solid thought leadership, I’ll offer a few tips for writing your perspectives in a way that is both thoughtful and persuasive.
Examples of Technical Thought Leadership
Good thought leadership blends your unique experience and expertise with writing that’s compelling to readers.
For technical thought leadership, that means you showcase an understanding of a specific technical subject while either making your case or showing something you’ve learned.
I’ve noticed three broad categories of technical thought leadership:
1. Taking a Controversial Stand
Not every “hot take” on the internet is thought leadership, but some of them are. You are taking a risk by taking a hard stance on a somewhat contentious issue, but you’re also more likely to generate some buzz.
Some examples include:
In these examples, the writer combined industry and technology knowledge with a hard stance that isn’t universally held. Ultimately, they each make a good argument, whether you end up agreeing with the author or not.
2. Sharing a Unique Point of View
Another way to demonstrate thought leadership is by sharing a unique point of view or insight into something you’ve learned. I like these when they go deep into something I didn’t even know I cared about (like in the 32 bit real estate piece below):
These informative articles usually showcase the writer’s expertise to build trust while giving readers insight into their point of view. They’re often popular with others who have experienced similar things but may not have had the skill or time to write them down. For example, my “Day in the Life of an Engineering Manager” piece above made the rounds on Reddit and Hacker News with lots of head nods from other engineering managers.
3. Predicting the Future
Finally, a lot of thought leadership is directed towards the future. Engineering leaders at large companies, consultants, and visionary startup founders often present these kinds of pieces as a way of swaying readers towards their worldview.
Sometimes these pieces are controversial, but they often look far enough into the future that nobody will remember if the author was wrong anyway.
How to Write Technical Thought Leadership Well
With a sense of the various types of technical thought leadership writing out there, I’d like to give you a starting point for creating compelling content like this. Besides getting some of the fundamentals of technical content down, there are a few extra things you can work on to make your thought leadership stand out.
This might be obvious, but your writing will always be more compelling when you pick a topic you have experience in.
I’m not saying freelance writers can’t write decent thought leadership content, but if you don’t have personal experience, you need to get sources and be ready to dive deep into this topic.
With technical thought leadership, this is especially important. Who wants to read a piece about the future of edge hosting by someone who’s never used deployed something to it before? If your audience is experienced technical leaders, you need to have the experience to back your writing up.
Technical fields change quickly, so check out the existing content on the topic before you start writing. Books, blog posts, and industry news can all help you understand more of the context surrounding your observations and help you create more complete arguments.
Support a Single Thesis
With experience and knowledge in place, you want to write your whole piece with a single thesis in mind. Many attempts at thought leadership turn into scattered rants that ramble through seemingly unrelated ideas as they go through the author’s head.
Take a single strong stance on each piece. Make sure everything you write supports that stance.
“In the hands of a good writer, data-heavy content is both informational and fun. Research skills are just as important as creativity – together, they make all of your content attractive and engaging.” - Duke Vukadinovic, FirstSiteGuide.com
A lot of the thin thought leadership content is pure conjecture. The author may have personal experience, but it’s tough to take them seriously if they don’t back it up with data, quotes, logical arguments, or respect for the other side.
I have started interviewing a few sources for most thought leadership pieces I write. This almost always results in more robust ideas as I end up collecting multiple points of view that might vary from my own.
In persuasive writing, be sure to refute yourself then resolve the argument. By pointing out that the other side is somewhat valid, you gain credibility with those on the fence.
Craft Strong Conclusions
Last but not least, you need a solid conclusion to drive your technical thought leadership home. In some cases, this could be a call to action or encouragement for readers to consider this topic more independently. In others, it could be an invitation for rebuttals.
Ideally, you want people coming away from thought leadership pieces with a new perspective on the topic at hand.
There’s No Substitute for Experience and Time
While you can research a topic, interview experts, and sink a lot of time into thought leadership pieces, I’ve found there is no substitute for real-world experience. Suppose you’re an executive spending hundreds of hours per month thinking about a topic. In that case, you’re inevitably going to have better opinions about it than someone who just picked up a cursory understanding last week.
If you find yourself struggling to write thought leadership content, you might just need more time to think. I’ve used various tactics to make time for organizing my thoughts, and I find this to be a great time to formulate opinions and arguments that might make good thought leadership someday.
Finally, if writing skill is your blocker, you don’t have to use this medium. Video, audio, presentation, etc., can all be good ways to get your thought leadership out there. While written communication is essential, it’s not the only way to get your point across.
Build a Blog that Software Developers Will Read
The Technical Content Manager’s Playbook is a collection of resources you can use to manage a high-quality, technical blog:
- A template for creating content briefs
- An Airtable publishing calendar
- A technical blogging style guide