Compelling thought leadership – Part 3: Designing high-impact thought leadership questions

In his third article exploring the strategies professional firms can use to create compelling thought leadership, Alastair Beddow considers how to design high-impact thought leadership questions

When time is at a premium, making dull, vague or obvious statements is a major turn-off for a reader of thought leadership. Too many thought leadership reports fail to make an impact because they just repackage existing knowledge or simply restate or describe an issue or problem without leading the reader towards thinking about potential solutions.

In most instances this difficulty arises not as a result of poor data collection, but out of poor question drafting. The off-cited computing phase ‘Garbage in, garbage out’ is an apt description of the shortcomings of much thought leadership planning: if you fail to ask meaningful questions, you will struggle to receive meaningful insights back, and it will be incredibly challenge to craft a compelling narrative from the data collected.

Consider the following three pairs of statements by way of an example. They are not too dissimilar from the kind of thing you might read in a thought leadership research paper about cloud computing. In each of the three pairs statement A is less impactful than statement B, and the reason for this can often be attributed to poor thought leadership question drafting.

Pair 1

  1. 49% of companies currently use cloud computing technologies;
  2. 87% of companies expect to be using cloud computing technology by 2020.

Although thought leadership can provide a useful benchmark to describe existing activity, most readers also want a future-looking view about how trends they need to be proactively thinking about. It is important, therefore, to ask questions that will help tease out future trends, and compare and contrast future priorities with existing practices. The evidence collective will then add greater weight to any assertions you firm wants to make about a particular issue.

Pair 2

  1. Three in four executives say they are concerned about the risks posed by cloud computing;
  2. The three biggest cloud computing risks that executives are concerned about are data security, system failure and increased compliance costs.

Statement A raises more questions than it does answers: what are the executives concerned about? How do they quantify the level of concern? What will the impact of the risk be for their business? Ask questions that don’t just dwell on sentiment, but also allow respondents to quantify or rank opportunities or risk to give greater direction and clarity to thought leadership reporting.

Pair 3

  1. A majority of CIOs (92%) agree that they need to put in place tighter controls to monitor cloud computing risks.
  2. Currently 41% of CIOs provide regular reporting directly to their company’s board about cloud computing risks; this number is expected to rise to 73% within two years.

Statement B highlights a specific gap in existing risk management and points to a change that any CIO may want to consider implementing in her business. To derive at such a statement, a question needs to ask about specific activities (in this instance board-level risk reporting), not just generic aspirations, and how instance will change over time. Designing questions to collect this level of insight then sets up an ideal opportunity for a firm’s fee-earners to follow up with practical ideas about how to address the issues raised.

Three lessons for designing high impact thought leadership questions

  1. Consider what statements you can assert without research – either because your professionals are already confident in making them, or there is existing data to support your argument – and which statements need supporting research. This initial thinking will help to identify areas of focus for thought leadership questions.
  2. Thinking through statements you will be able to make off the back of the thought leadership questions you draft. Will the questions give sufficiently precise and meaningful responses to allow you to craft a compelling narrative for any thought leadership report?
  3. Focus on highlighting the ‘so what?’ from any research questions. The ideal thought leadership report should go beyond a simple description of data to consider the implications, issues and recommendations arising out of any research.

By Alastair Beddow