Don’t Sell Solutions: How Your Scrappy Startup Can Tell Stories That Resonate

by Anne Szustek Talbot, VP of Content, BX3

So you’ve decided to start a business. Good for you. Now here comes the time for reckoning: For it to be a successful enterprise, your company needs customers, if not also funding. One way to help make that happen: Getting the word out about your company.

Thought leadership is a chance to show how you, the founder — and by extension, your company and team — are smart. We’ve outlined how your startup can leverage the same strategies for thought leadership SUCCESS (our trademark thought leadership acronym) as long-established consulting firms.

There’s another element to thought leadership beyond telling a great story however. If you or your company’s writing is to accomplish what’s written on the tin; that is, lead people in thoughts, it’s going to have to reach someone. Hosting thought leadership content on your own site is one way to go. Yet that brings us back to square one: If no one knows about your company, no one is going to go to your company’s website.

The traditional way to get eyeballs for your thought leadership content is to take the public relations route of pitching bylines to third-party publications, with the hopes of it landing in a publication with a high readership and/or whose audience stands to have a chance of being interested in the topic. Whatever the scenario might be, the following will hold: Insightful, snappy content is useful. That’s not enough. It also needs to be a topic relevant to the crowd and attention you want to draw. It also needs to be written in a way that the reader can take seriously.

At present, I’m a corporate content and communications professional who’s written plenty of thought leadership content. I got here by way of being a journalist and editor — one specifically tasked with, including a host of other duties, vetting and giving the green light on submitted thought leadership content and bylines. Do you want your thought leadership content to make it past the cutting room floor? Great. Glad we have that in common. Read on for my crash course on how not just to make your thought leadership content sing, but to put a smile on the face of a potential commissioning editor.

Know what you’ll say and how your target audience will receive it

As any writer knows, the first thing you’ll need to know is what you’re writing. Jot down a potential list of topics (or bandy some ideas about with your co-workers, including your communications team, if you have one) that invoke passion in you and/or align with your brand.

The next step: think about your target audience. Do you want to reap customers of a certain demographic? Read up on or conduct some research on which messages resonate with that cohort.

Second question: Where does your target audience hang out online? If you’re trying to reach investors, a publication with an asset management bent such as Institutional Investor or Pensions & Investments could be a better bet than trying to go for a broad-ranging daily newspaper. Looking to establish your startup as an innovator in workplace culture? Aim for publications that seek to highlight leaders in this area such as Entrepreneur or Fast Company. A female thought leader looking to reach women aspiring to do the same might aim for legacy publications such as Glamour or established new media entities like Girlboss or Refinery29. Keep in mind that the best venue to tell your story might not even be a publication in the traditional sense. Your own or your company’s social channels on third-party platforms such as LinkedIn or Medium might make the most sense to publish your thought leadership, as you’ll retain full control of the messaging.

How to keep the message on point

Once you’ve identified the publications you feel are best suited for your message, take some time to read recent op-eds that have run. You’ll get a feel for the tone their editors seek and what topics and content pass muster. Not that you (or your content writer) should try to ape another person’s writing style quip for quip. Nonetheless, trying to incorporate some of the argument structure, formatting, and length will help buffer your piece against heavy editing — and hence, retain control of the message.

What publications are looking for in thought leadership varies as much as the publications themselves. Some might be looking for a contrarian take on a well-hewed topic. Remember: controversy gets clicks. Others might want a first-person account of how you handled a problem. This recent thought leadership piece in Fast Company by Debbie Sterling, founder of girls’ STEM-focused toy company GoldieBlox, outlined how she, as a Millennial herself, faced the challenges of managing a similarly aged workforce and turned her colleagues’ demands into projects that benefit the team.

Nonetheless, there are some key commonalities to keep in mind when you want commissioning editors to keep away their proverbial red pens — or keep them from rejecting your piece outright:

Promotion: Stay away from promoting your company’s products or services or why that sector is ripe for innovation. Save that for native advertising. The way thought leadership markets you and your company is by showing how you and your company are forward-thinking, not by saying “why you should buy my stuff.”

Jargon: Nothing turns off an editor more than tired corporate-speak such as “we sell solutions” or its even more dreaded offspring, “solutionize.” Remember that the existence of a solution presupposes the existence of a problem. Once your editor’s eyes catch such neologisms, your corporate-speak will become said problem. 

(Not sure if “team player,” “ideate,” or “boil the ocean” fall into the jargon category? Pro tip: if they’re on 

Forbes’ Jargon Madness brackets, then the answer is yes.)

Storytelling: Remember that journalism is about identifying the key players and why it happened. How do journalists bring readers into a story? They write a thought-provoking lede, followed by a nut graf that identifies the issues at hand and builds tension. Then work through the rest of the story. If you’re feeling up to it, write a kicker that reflects the rest of the piece and sends off the reader on a pithy, memorable note.

Will resonate with the reader: A thought leadership piece, by its very definition, should inspire new ways of approaching a topic or challenge. Chances are, if the piece does a solid job of that, the reader will want to share the story, either in conversation or via social media. A good editor will be able to identify the stories that have the best chance of doing just that. The best thought leaders (and their editors) know not to submit pieces that will fall short of that standard. If out and in doubt, find the human side of the story you’d like to tell. It’s part of human nature to want to read about other people. (For what it’s worth, financial journalists are told to scrounge up any sort of human aspect to the stories they write, lest they ink a 1,000-word piece of little more than portfolio return statistics.)

Grammar: Thought leadership is about presenting your best self. Would you go into a presentation with wrinkled clothes or a stained tie? Then avoid blemishes on your work that will distract from the key message (or will get your piece auto-rejected). “Its” and “it’s” are two words with distinct meanings, as are “your” and “you’re.” “That” and “which” are not interchangeable. Iron out any grammatical slips before sending.

You launched your business to serve the market and your customers, whether they are businesses or consumers. That product or service likely aims to solve a problem and answers a question the consumer might not have even been aware that they had.

Think of your thought leadership the same way: Let it answer a question and do a service for the reader. Let your target audience come away with a new impression and paradigm it didn’t know they needed. Your readers might just go and tell someone else about your thoughts and your company. 

That just might be the best way to solutionize your marketing there is.

About the author:

Anne Szustek Talbot is a longtime content specialist, with nearly a decade and a half of experience covering news in and communicating on behalf of firms working in the asset management, litigation, financial technology, and tax sectors; as well as broader topics such as emerging markets, foreign exchange, and macroeconomics. Her most recent journalism position was as the online editor at Institutional Investor, where, among other responsibilities, she helmed the publication’s op-ed section and third-party thought leadership content. On the public relations side, she has earned coverage in an array of top-tier outlets including Cheddar, CNBC, Forbes, and The New York Times. 

Previous roles have taken Anne across borders and industries; her earliest roles were working for the senator from her home state, handling communications work, and as an intern diplomat for the State Department at the US Embassy in Tashkent, Uzbekistan and at the US Consulate General in Istanbul, Turkey, where she would return to launch her media career. Anne leans on her varied background to reach across industries and develop the most effective messaging and publicity campaigns on behalf of BX3 and its clients. 

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