One of the most critical skills of the most successful thought leadership teams is argument shaping — the ability to develop a compelling argument in partnership with a subject matter expert. This article offers tips for what a compelling argument looks like and how to partner with your SME’s to develop one.
At our 2018 Profiting from Thought Leadership conference Bob Buday first introduced the concept of argument shaping to the world of thought leadership marketing. In his foundational talk he outlined the clear but critical distinction between argument shaping and ghostwriting. And he shared his contention that the most successful thought leadership emerges from a creative partnership between a subject matter expert and content developer. A partnership in which both parties recognize that the role of the content developer is not simply to capture the unseen wisdom of an expert and put it to words. But, rather, both parties recognize that for thought leadership to work the content developer needs to become an expert themselves — an expert in developing a profound argument.
It’s that argument shaping skill that’s critical to helping a subject matter expert shape, hone, and develop a point-of-view that has merit, conviction, and the ability to unleash groundbreaking insights and uncommon commercial success. As it turns out, we later proved through our 2019 thought leadership research, that bringing the expertise of “argument shaping” to bear into the content development process is one of the 7 critical factors to being highly successful in thought leadership marketing. In fact, we found that 92% of top performing companies placed high value on this skill. Yet only 26% of the broader population of firms thought they were good at it.
Ultimately, if you’re going to make thought leadership a critical lever to your firm’s growth, you’ll need to hire or cultivate this unique, but rare, skill within your content development teams. To get underneath this a little further, let’s look at the elements of a compelling argument and offer some tips to help you get better in this area yourself.
Elements of a Compelling Argument
Alright, I’m not going to take you back to your high school debate class to understand what a great argument looks like. Nor am I going to make you suffer through a Trump-Biden debate to know what a compelling argument clearly DOES NOT look like. But before we can become better argument shapers we have to agree to some common language about what a compelling argument looks like. In my experience, a compelling argument has at least 5 components:
- A clear problem statement — To start, most effective thought leadership needs to be directed squarely at a big, intractable client problem. Ideally, it’s a problem that many organizations share and have found difficult to overcome. Yes, thought leadership can also point at an unseen or unfulfilled opportunity. But our brains tend to be hardwired to overweight risks relative to opportunities. So, most of your thought leadership will likely be pointing at big, client problems.
- Evidence of impact — Often the impact of a problem is clear and evident. Other times the problem is just tip of a much larger, unseen iceberg. In these cases, providing evidence on the impact of the problem is a critical step in getting executives to act when a solution is later presented.
- Explanation of current, prevailing solutions — Chances are good that organizations have found some solution to the problem already. An effective argument explains those existing solutions and points out their various shortcomings. Hence, it makes the case that a better way to solve the problem is needed.
- Explanation of your superior solution — Presumably, your firm is going to put forth, a different, better solution, or you wouldn’t be developing this piece of IP at all. Explain the solution in detail in language a client can understand.
- Evidence — Finally, for any argument to hold water, we must present evidence that our proposed solution works. We must bring forth real-world examples that the proposed solution has been applied in other organizations with great success.
Tips for Shaping a Compelling Argument
I’ve spent much of my time the last 4-5 years working with firms’ partners and our content developers to shape more effective arguments. If you find yourself working with subject matter experts to shape their thinking, here are a few tips I’ve found to be more effective in that endeavor:
- Use a Structured Outline — Most of the time subject matter experts come to the table with a fuzzy idea of what they want to say. While the argument may seem very clear in their head, frequently there are holes and transgressions. Just about any argument can follow a simple, logical structure. We use a process coined Situation > Complication > Resolution that is used by many Tier 1 consulting firms. Over time, we’ve found that 95% of thought leadership projects can be framed using one simple outline structure. The outline helps us bring the subject matter experts’ thinking to light and identify any holes in the argument. It also helps us keep the expert focused on the argument itself and not the language used to articulate it. In his recently released book, Competing on Thought Leadership, Bob Buday shares the outline structure he’s used for over 30 years to help clients publish numerous books and over 50 HBR articles. Without a doubt, this is the best place to start.
- Read a Lot — Earning the respect of subject matter experts tends to start by being well read in and around the domain in which they operate. Your goal isn’t to rival their expertise, it’s simply to be fluent enough in their world to hold an effective conversation about the problems they solve and the ways they solve them.
- Ask Why, Why, Why — From there it’s always critical to consistently ask questions. Why do companies typically fail in this arena? Why can’t they solve for that? What blocks them? Why else do they fail? You can almost always ask, “Why?” one more time to uncover another level of insight.
- Force Evidence –– Consultants and firms are frequently reticent to share the details of their client work. Often that work is confidential. But that doesn’t mean there’s no evidence that the suggested solution actually works. Push your experts to provide examples of their thinking in action. Often, they’ll identify public examples from their own knowledge or from secondary research. More often than you’d guess, it’s quite possible to approach clients to share their experiences by framing them as best practices examples of how to solve a problem.
- Get Validation — Share your outline with your subject matter expert before you go into content development. Invite others within the organization who haven’t worked on this initiative to review it as well. If you can, share the outline with a few trusted clients. Often, other experts and clients will see problems with the argument you simply do not.
Stop Writing. Start Arguing.
In late 2020 I reached out to every marketing and editorial leader at every large firm that I knew to hear how things were going. Every single one of them said the same thing to me, “Jason, we’ve published more in the last 3 months than we did in the previous 3 years.” If you thought the struggle for client mindshare was fierce 5-6 years ago, it’s now heightened to a fever pitch. Before you publish that next piece of content, step back for a moment and ask yourself, “Have we developed a compelling argument?” If the answer is no, it’s okay to hit pause. Step back and take a second look. Where can you strengthen your argument? What’s missing? Who else could we ask to chime in?