How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

We Might Be Doing It All Wrong

The way almost everyone communicates and markets is to start with one of two things:

A. Ourselves (our research, process, product, vision, etc.); or

B. A problem in the world that our audiences or market face (that the audience soon learns our research, process, product or vision etc. addresses).

Andy Raskin, who helps develop master narratives and positioning for Silicon Valley companies, recommends something different:

Start by naming a change in the world.

Not just any change. Big, hidden change.

What defines this kind of change?

  1. It must give rise to stakes (opportunity and risk for your audience; new winners and losers);
  2. It must be a discrete, 0-to-1 shift (e.g., “we now live in a subscription economy”);
  3. It must be stated as a done deal — something that has already happened;
  4. It must to some degree flout conventional wisdom — be something that, although they sense it, will surprise them; and
  5. The statement of the change must describe precisely how things have changed.

The sign you’ve hit it on the head, Raskin says, is when you name the change — and see your audiences nod in recognition.

“Why now” is one of the most important slides in funding decks, according to a DocSend and HBR analysis of 200 startup pitches Raskin cites — way ahead of the “Company Purpose,” “Problem” and “Solution” slides.

Indeed, Raskin pulls this “change in the world” insight from looking at a lot of pitch decks, given by startups to funders.

Naturally, you — as a researcher, as a research communicator or marketer — might think this means you don’t have to heed Raskin’s advice.

If that’s your take, what you’re not grasping is how slyly “start by naming a change in the world” itself implies a fundamental change in the world:

That if you want attention today, you have to first offer something transformative and compellingly urgent.

That’s table stakes.

As Raskin puts it elsewhere, the pitch deck is the narrative of our time. We best motivate action in our audiences by describing how the ground has already shifted under their feet — creating irresistible tension in them to act, to catch up.

Communicating in this way requires vision, insight and narrative skills in equal measure. It’s a really high bar.

This is why I counsel my new clients to move as quickly as they can past their initial desire to “communicate our research more effectively.” Because individual pieces of research almost always fail to provide the larger “change in the world” framing. They are insufficiently motivating.

Another sign you’ve named the right change, says Raskin: “You can imagine that 90% of your content…will be about the change and its impact. (BTW, this is the secret to thought leadership.)”

So change is about changing you, as well.

Takeaway tip: Forget about your research and your organization’s research for a second. Instead ask: What is the change in the world our audiences need to see for their own good? That fuels what I and we are doing?

Then start to imagine the content you would create to explicitly link the application of your own expertise to that change.

That’s one good way to begin a thought leadership content marketing plan.