The Unofficial Partner Guide to Thought Leadership

Thought leadership is an increasingly popular way of making a mark in the sports industry, and Richard Gillis has some strictly unofficial tips for getting ahead.

The Unofficial Partner Guide to Thought Leadership

Like many of you, I sometimes have thoughts. This can be thrilling but in the viciously competitive sports knowledge economy, thoughts will only get you so far: being known as an industry opinion-former is where the money is.

The time-rich, ideas-poor demographic

Today’s democratised internet allows all of us to reach an audience. This will be largely made up of lazy account managers and prisoners: people with time on their hands and who are weak-minded enough to have their views shaped by what they read on LinkedIn.

 

A White Paper
Science has proved that more people write Thought Leadership White Papers than have read them. Nonetheless, the very existence of a white paper does much of the heavy lifting when seeking to create gravitas: pages and pages full of words, like a New Yorker feature.

 

An Ideas Manifesto
For the more fashionable, a manifesto takes the Thought Leadership White Paper and adds some communist chic, only without the grinding poverty and loss of hope. Think Che Guevara, when he had a hipster beard and was properly hot. See also: any agency with ‘Republic’ in its title.

 

Tone of voice
Innocent Smoothies meets Martin Luther King.

 

‘Like a TED talk’
There comes a time when typing is not enough and you’ll feel the impulse to take your thoughts on the road. Conferences are an essential component of the plan and, luckily, there’s a loophole to be exploited by the aspiring opinion-former.

The properly smart people tend to want a fee to appear. They see this as a reward for reading books and arriving at their ideas after a period of serious study. But payment undermines the conference business model, which relies on the ambition of lightweight chancers. By doing it for free, the sports business everyman can get on stage and go ‘full Gladwell’.  

 

Mention Shoreditch in conversation
Shoreditch is UK sport business shorthand for ‘the future’, a mythical place inhabited by ‘tech-savvy Millennials’. For a US audience, try Brooklyn or Portland. 

 

Storytelling
Like all the best episodes of Midsomer Murders, there’s a simple three-part structure to any sport business opinion blog post. The first paragraph establishes that ‘sport is big business’. This can be applied to all verticals. ‘Rugby is big business’ is a cracking start to a piece. And ‘women’s sport is big business’ will go a long way to endearing you to Sally Hancock.

This is followed by what proper writers call ‘the difficult middle bit’, in which your argument is built by quoting other people saying things, and graphs.

Then we come to the end. The final can be summarised by the phrase: ‘But the future is uncertain’. This is the perfect get out of jail free card for when your 6,000-word missive on what Liberty can do to grow Formula One turns out to be patronising and naive hogwash. 

 

Zig-zag
In the market for ideas, it’s far more important to be different than correct. Nobody got famous just by being right: the great thought leaders type things that make the rest of us shudder with surprise and envy. It’s not enough to say that the Premier League bubble is about to burst – far better to suggest the next round of media rights will be a contest between Twitter and CBeebies.

 

Be a sexy outlaw
Steve Jobs used to wear a T-shirt with ‘Be an Outlaw’ on the front. Outlaws are sexy renegades who ride in to Dodge and terrorise the townspeople.

When launching a new sports agency, give interviews with the trade press saying that you’re about to rip up the sports marketing rulebook. Don’t smile in the photo.

 

Own a word
The godfather of positive thinking, Tony Robbins, once tried to trade mark the word ‘ICAN’. Be like Tony and create your own term that becomes your calling card.

There are still many words that remain unclaimed: Engagementism. OTTershite. DataSuckage. SPORTULTURAL. Narratelling.

The only limit is your imagination.

 

Leave them wanting more
Do you have an exit plan? Great stories after all, have great endings. David Foster Wallace only really started selling books once he’d topped himself. Invest in your own career by doing that, too.

 

Richard Gillis is the author of The Captain Myth: The Ryder Cup and Sport’s Great Leadership Delusion.

Follow him on Twitter @RichardGillis1