Thought Leadership on Thought Leadership: Finding the Executive’s Voice

This article is the first in a quarterly series on developing thought leadership content for tech executives. The next piece will offer best practices on conducting interviews with client executives.

When a PR agency begins a new client relationship, one of the most common refrains it hears from clients is a warning: “Our CEO is very particular about their voice… it will definitely take a while to nail down our executive’s voice.”

Executive thought leadership (ETL) is an essential component of any successful PR program, and a company’s CEO should ideally be the standard bearer for a robust thought leadership program. However, client contacts have a responsibility to protect their CEO’s time and resources; they will be understandably reluctant to pass along a draft that doesn’t match the CEO’s voice and perspective.

What does it really mean to capture an executive’s voice? Should content writers spend weeks researching the CEO’s background, combing through podcast interviews and speaking appearances? Or is capturing the executive’s voice possibly easier than it seems?

The elephant in the room

Let’s acknowledge the truth: the CEO of a Fortune 500 company or a rapidly growing startup is rarely going to be the person drafting their contribution to the company blog or a new Forbes Tech Council article. That doesn’t mean that an ETL program is phony or disingenuous. The key word here is thought — an ETL program offers the chance to capture an executive’s unique vision, perspective or personal background and convey that to their audience.

The ultimate role of the content writer is to capture the unique thoughts of the executive and then communicate those thoughts as clearly and persuasively as possible. The thought at the core of each article will play the most important role in defining the executive’s voice. Is it essential to know whether an executive is more likely to say “really” or “very” in their everyday speech, or whether they prefer the poetry of Pablo Neruda to Tom Clancy novels? Honestly, probably not. If you take an executive’s ideas and frame them with good writing, odds are you’ll receive compliments for how well you captured their voice.

Avoiding unforced errors

Of course, you can’t completely ignore an executive’s unique personality or history. On the most basic level, if you’re working with a CEO from France or Israel, people will probably raise an eyebrow if your content is littered with references to baseball or Swedish rock groups. You don’t need to know every detail of what an executive does in their spare time, but you should also avoid coloring a content piece too much with your own personality.

At the same time, it’s important to have a general sense of an executive’s demeanor and the way they communicate with their team. If you were writing thought leadership for Steve Jobs, master of the understated “ more thing,” you wouldn’t want to be ending every other sentence with an exclamation point. But if you’re writing for Steve Ballmer…?

At the end of the day, your goal should be for an executive’s employees, friends and even close family members to not suspect that their content piece has been ghostwritten. You don’t have to become a method actor to achieve this — for one thing, I could never keep up with the fitness regimes of some of our client CEOs. Simply pay attention to the content of their ideas and let your writing serve that content accordingly.