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Thought Leadership 101: Avoid the Pitfalls of First-Person Writing

You may have heard the old journalism admonition that “the story is not about you.” Here’s the surprising addendum: Even when it’s about you, it’s still not about you.

The instructional nature of thought leadership writing often poses a unique challenge: how to stay focused on the reader when you’re sharing your own experiences. In the hands of a skilled writer, the first-person voice is a valuable tool to set a scene and establish a personal connection with the reader. It’s all too easy, however, to slide inadvertently into self-absorbed writing.

How do you know which end of the spectrum you’re hitting? Watch for these common first-person pitfalls:

Too Many Details

You can call this the “First, there were dinosaurs approach.” Believe it or not, you don’t have to tell a story in order exactly as it happened in real time. Make every effort to tell the story as succinctly as possible. Readers don’t need a step-by-step account of your thought processes, nor do they need every single detail as it occurred.

Let's say, for example, that you're writing about how a recent trip overseas taught you a lesson in using foreign currency. We'll be interested to know what you purchased, how you paid for it, what went well and what went wrong. We probably don't care that you planned to travel last year but the trip was postponed, or that you spilled a drink on your favorite t-shirt at some point on the trip, or that you almost missed the deadline to renew your passport. If your piece includes detail like that, congratulations, you've written a journal entry.

The key is to understand in advance what your reader will be learning or gaining by reading your thought leadership article. With a focus point in mind, it will be easier to include just those details that move your story forward—and to leave out extraneous and self-indulgent details that will bore your reader.

Too Many "I"s

Take stock of how many times you use the “I” sentence construction, as in I felt… I watched… I wondered. Too many “I”s are a good indication that you’re too internally focused.

Too Personal

Leave out the thoughts or anecdotes that only close friends or family are likely to enjoy. Unless your husband’s outstanding work-performance evaluation or your teen’s ACT scores directly relate to the point of the article, don’t include them. (Bonus Tip: Nobody appreciates them in your holiday letter, either.)

Bottom line: Great thought leaders don't fixate on what they want to write. They identify what their industry needs to learn. Is there a confusing topic you can shed light on or a new insight you can reveal? Look for ways you can present that information using your unique expertise and original voice.

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