Shorter, stronger stories: Three alternatives to long-form thought leadership

Piers Tomlinson

For several years now, content marketing gurus have evangelised about storytelling. But what if, despite all your hard work, your story is just a little bit dull? Should you tell it anyway?

In a word, no. Telling a boring story is much worse than not telling it: it alienates your audience and undermines any ambitions you have to be a thought leader.

So what makes a story boring? In thought leadership, it usually comes down to one thing: it’s too long. There may be some excellent insight in there, but it’s buried beneath pages of waffle about well-covered issues that don’t tell you anything new.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that longer reports are redundant, or that long-form thought leadership can’t be extremely powerful. There are also plenty of subjects that are too nuanced or complex to fit into anything shorter than a full-length white paper.

But if you are going to produce a lengthy report, you need to be able to fill every page – without resorting to ‘stuffing’. If you can’t, it’s best just to tell your story in a different way. And it makes sense in any case to use a variety of channels and formats as part of your content mix, to suit the varied tastes and time pressures of your audience.

With that in mind, here are three alternatives to long-form thought leadership and some thoughts on making them work.

Human conversations: content behind the scenes

Ultimately, your content should be judged on how it resonates with clients. And the conversations your business teams have with clients are among your most direct channels to the market.

Rather than stretching your content into a long report, try boiling it down into one sentence that others can tweet or weave into conversation. One strong viewpoint – “consumers are alienated from mainstream media”, say, or “big data is overrated” – is worth more than pages full of standard-issue analysis.

Just providing messages for people to repeat isn’t enough, however. As with all thought leadership, you should come up with storylines in advance by involving the business in structured discussions. The closer they feel to the material, the more likely they will be to use it with clients.  We also find that people are much more likely to share content with clients if they can neatly summarise the message – which again emphasises the need for a clear message.

Video and audio: back to basics

Today’s improved production values, faster streaming and greater affordability make video a viable alternative to the long-form PDF. But make sure you invest time in writing an engaging script to give your video a chance to stand out – don’t just rely on glossy production values.

Video is hard to get right – largely because it asks more of your audience than other content and can be fiddly to navigate. Most of us don’t watch videos all the way through – we keep them playing in an open tab and half-listen while doing other things. This helps explain why well-scripted audio content can work just as well – and at lower cost (Google’s Jigsaw being a good example).

Digital content, without gimmickry

Digital content such as infographics, interactive landing pages and animation can look dated very quickly. And if they aren’t integrated into the project and considered upfront, they can seem like an afterthought.

But when digital content works well, it gets a short viewpoint across clearly and effectively. Usually, this is when as much time has been spent on what the infographic says as on what it looks like, which requires the designer and writer to work closely together and challenge each other’s contribution.

Digital content is also getting much easier to create. Platforms such as Ceros – as used here – help you develop interactive content without specialist developers.

The content choices you make will always vary by subject, industry and audience. But, across the board, be wary of gimmicks. And, most importantly, you need to be able to ask yourself that very tricky question: is this story boring?

If the answer is ‘yes’, what are you doing about it?

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About the author: Piers Tomlinson

Piers leads FT Longitude’s editorial team and is responsible for the quality of its output. As an editor, he is skilled at making complex issues accessible and compelling for a wide range of audiences, specialising in innovation, consumer behaviour, emerging risk and the evolution of the finance function.

Before joining FT Longitude, Piers held a number of thought leadership, communications and research positions in the management consulting, healthcare and logistics sectors. As a freelance writer, he wrote extensively about topics ranging from contemporary art to environmental technology and the global supply chain.

In 2021, Piers was part of the team that won Best Use of Thought Leadership at the B2B Marketing Awards 2021 with Protolabs.

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