On Becoming A Thought Leader: Power, Vulnerability, and Liberation

In today's content marketing, being a hired hand isn't enough: you have to be a leader. Founder Jean Tang offers her testimony and eight lessons she's learned.

Plastic ducks following the leader
Source: Ryan McGuire, via Gratisography

Toward the end of 2015, I was thrilled to take on a Forbes column. My beat is a doozy: I’m covering “my own entrepreneurial journey,” along with the scaling of my company, MarketSmiths, and service businesses as a whole.

For the founder of a copywriting agency, this is clearly wonderful exposure, coupled with a chance to showcase our humanized approach to content on a global scale—and build a metrics-driven success story. Plus, we love Forbes.

Since then, I’ve learned a ton. MarketSmiths and I are hereby bringing  the following lessons to both our ghostwriting services for clients and our own positioning in an increasingly crowded content marketing arena.

Lesson No. 1. You have to be a thought leader.

To write anything worth reading, you’ve got to take a stand. It should be fresh and original, but also relatable and real. This is much easier said than done.

In a past career, my editorial stands have been about, well, which luxury hotel or eatery I favored best. Now a content strategist, things get a little more hairy, but not much. From time to time, I might fight for a brand tone, a market positioning I think will do better than another. I am used to feeling certain I “know” the answer.

In contrast, taking a real stand requires vulnerability. And there are no right answers. Read on.

Lesson No. 2. It helps to be vulnerable.

For my first post, I went with raw—and I haven’t stopped.

The Scaling Chronicles: My Struggles To Scale A Service Business is like a page-long howl on the challenges of scaling a service business, coated with sweat and punctured with nail marks.

Scary? Bigtime. I tossed through the long night prior to publication. After the post went live, all I wanted to do was scramble back to bed and hide from the world. At first, the view number was low—and I definitely read into that.

Rewarding though? You bet. That post has now climbed to around 75,000 views. That’s more views than primary votes for six out of 12 Republication presidential candidates (sorry, Chris Christie). I came out of my funk–and MarketSmiths’ traffic and leads spiked.

Even better, I got many comments and emails from fellow entrepreneurs. Some asked how I’d read their minds. Others forwarded the post to their families, hoping it would help validate their “crazy” lives. I got thanked—a lot. For most writers, knowing your work resonates is the very pinnacle of success.

At times, now several months in, the word “exposure” still feels physical—and awful—like I’ve showed up to school the internet without clothes. I go through the same cycle every time a post goes up: second-guessing title and image choices, agonizing over the flurry (or not) of tweets, wondering how to best promote (my staff and our digital strategist have been invaluable here). But even just one note from a grateful reader makes my week.

For any author that’s not sure how transparent to be, I’d suggest going all the way. Vulnerability cultivates strength, breeds connection, and carves out a powerful stance.

Lesson No. 3. But it’s not about catharsis.

Like fellow personal essayist and MarketSmiths copywriter Elizabeth Nelson, I’m good at identifying what I’m feeling in the moment. I like to marvel about this kaleidoscope of emotions to anyone who will listen. I imagine it’s charming—but I’m sure they’re just humoring me.

Yeah. Not a great strategy for Forbes. I’ve written whole sequences capturing minute shades of emotion, as if directing an action sequence. I’ve watched as they all fell to the chopping block floor. I’ve had to get clear that this isn’t a platform for a stream-of-consciousness recanting of thoughts, impressions, and events. Nor is it a clearing house for narcissism. It can be a struggle to keep this top of mind—especially for a first-person column with such an acutely confessional bent.

Lesson No. 4. Even a pro needs an editor.

In one format or another, I’ve made my living as a writer and editor for 17 years. And for that very reason, I know I need someone to oversee my words. I’m lucky to have two: one from Forbes and another just for me.

My remarkable friend and veteran editor Mark has been filling the latter role. He claims it’s not a lot of work, but I know that my pieces go to him one way and come back another. As with copy: when it comes to our own brand or story, the blind spots proliferate.

Mark has re-angled pieces to deepen the point, so that they emerge more meaningful—and less literal. He’s suggested jokes, introduced irony, teased poignancy out of mundane quotes.

He’s also delivered punchlines—and pointed out missed opportunities to develop them (that led to a whole other lesson on how to build your story, not reveal your cards too soon, as one would in copy).

And he definitely makes sure I’m not treating this platform as a dear diary—and losing the readers we have together worked hard to earn.

Lesson No. 5. Even with an amazing editor, click predictions are impossible.

It’s a cliché, but you really can’t predict internet popularity. In this two-part series, part two shot up to 18,000 views—leaving part one in the dust. In a three-part series, part one hit the stars—and part two was nearly DOA.

I know. You have theories, and they include titles, images, excerpts, search terms, publication timing, promotion, and maybe the orientation of planet Mercury. But who really knows? Not I.

Lesson No. 6. Friends—new and old—really come in handy.

When viewership for this piece halted mid-climb, I sent the link to the most relevant group: the entrepreneurs with whom I’d shared the actual experience. Within hours, they’d mobilized: read, shared, commented, thanked me, etc.: and the view number shot up fivefold.

Lean on your people; they are golden. Friends can also provide amazing subject matter. I convened a small group to discuss the particular issues women have with scaling—and was rewarded mightily with provocative ideas, rich solutions, and surprising experiences. I decided to turn that discussion into this three-part series about million-dollar women entrepreneurs—and gathered a few crucial discoveries that will help me scale faster.

Lesson No. 7. But be prepared for frenemies, too.

They say there’s no such thing as bad publicity. I’d agree with this: especially if it’s good publicity.

The thing is, my desire to heap praise and create exposure for organizations I like has resulted in being called aside and taken to task. Twice.

Perhaps it’s a counterbalance for having written travel fluff pieces. For Forbes, I refuse to produce fluff. My pieces have been honest, respectful, and exceedingly well balanced. Remember the risk we spoke about a minute ago? It’s real, and it can result in being called “ungrateful”—and dealing with people who do NOT thank you for sending them traffic.

On the other hand, I’m relaying my perspective on reality, and it feels good. Really good. And that reveals the biggest surprise of all.

Lesson No. 8. When done well, thought leadership feels like revealing the best version of yourself.

Doesn’t that make you want to go and write your heart out? Do it. You’ll never look back.

Jean Tang

Jean Tang

A champion of high-end content, Jean is a living tribute to copywriting for humans. In 2012, at a TEDx talk, she declared her now widely viewed “War Against Bland.” The visionary founder of MarketSmiths, Jean leads her growing team to captivate, inspire, and motivate readers. She has helped thousands of global clients generate revenue from words (up to 12,000% ROI), and transformed the writing of hundreds of seminar attendees at the SXSW Interactive Festival (2014 and 2015), SXSW V2V (2014), the Small Business Summit (2014, NYC), and other venues.

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