The world of science writing—with its quarks and black holes, its microbes and its salamanders—might seem several biomes away from the world of thought leadership. After all, thought leadership is for business people, and the world of business tends to be a bit more, ahem, buttoned-up than the world of scientists.
Or at least that’s what stereotypes would have you believe. However, the truth is that thought leadership can learn a lot from studying the craft of science writing. By borrowing the best practices of science writers, thought leaders can produce pieces that are teeming with interest and life—kind of like a healthy ecosystem. Here’s what you should know.
Great storytelling makes complex concepts accessible
Science writing isn’t read only by scientists—plenty of casual readers enjoy Scientific American, too. So how do science writers bridge the gap between what PhDs in astrophysics and average readers can understand? By focusing on storytelling.
Flip through any copy of The Best American Science Writing, and you’ll notice that stories tend to open with attention-grabbing narratives, whether those narratives are about trapping rats or colliding black holes. By telling a story, not just explaining a concept, good science writing can make the abstract feel concrete. It lays out ideas, but it also gives the reader something human—or at least human-like—to grip onto. In some cases, science writers also populate their stories with real-world characters that further draw readers in.
Some thought leaders think they need to write in business jargon to be taken seriously—but that’s actually not the case at all. Science writers know that the personal, human element doesn't make the research they're writing about less serious or authoritative. So thought leaders shouldn’t be afraid to prioritize narration over jargon—it’s what readers want.
Fresh research piques a reader’s interest
What’s one mistake we see thought leaders making over and over again? Rehashing old concepts in new packaging (ten traits of the best entrepreneurs, anyone?). Science writing is predicated on finding new and exciting research. Good science writers know that an interesting finding or new study will capture a reader’s interest—and, long before that, catch an editor’s eye. For example, this National Geographic article takes an age-old subject—addiction—and includes advances in neuroscience to challenge old, calcified views on the subject.
One of our clients did something similar in this thought leadership article we worked with them on for Quartz. In it, they took the idea of creativity, which is also a fairly overdone topic, and spiced it up with serious scientific research culled from—again!—the field of neuroscience. The result? Interesting, readable thought leadership that taught readers something new.
Transparent sources make for trustworthy thought leaders
When we talk about “research,” we’re talking about verified information that will stand up under scrutiny. Science writers are obsessive about getting their facts, stats, and sources right, because a bit of shady research can taint not just their article, but their entire career. They also know that good sourcing is key to building trust with the reader, so they take time to get things right.
Thought leaders would do well to apply some of that rigor to their own work. Too many thought leadership articles link to shady sources—say, an article that links to an article that links to a totally unsourced blog post that mentions a particular statistic. While that might look like “research” if you squint hard enough, it’s basically no better than concocting said statistic out of thin air. In contrast, this article about wearable tech that we worked on for VentureBeat is full of links backing up the stats, including a study from MIT. The article doesn’t ask readers to simply trust its assertions—it proves them.
Real-world impact makes readers care
One thing that’s hard about writing on the internet: readers are easily distracted. A 2015 study by Microsoft found that people today have an average attention span of only 8 seconds. How do science writers get readers to sit still for 2,000+ word articles, especially those on obscure technical topics?
In part, they do so by linking each article subject back to the impact it has on the real world, imbuing technical topics with immediacy and relevance. For example, this article on brain implants puts its real-world impact front and center with an attention-grabbing title: “The Surgeon Who Wants to Connect You to the Internet With a Brain Implant.” Immediately, this isn’t an article about some obscure medical technology—it’s about the reader’s potential future.
Too many thought leadership articles fail to connect to readers’ real-life concerns—and therefore fail to earn placement. That’s an especially important concern for articles that focus on a single industry. Why should Forbes’ general business audience care deeply about what's happening in, say, the niche bespoke widgets sector without some additional explanation? The solution: make like a science writer and always try to dig for the real-world impact of your piece for all you potential readers.
Want to apply these principles to your own thought leadership?
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Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash.