Business clients often commission me to ghostwrite and edit opinion pieces, typically based on a conversation with a senior executive or subject expert in their organisation under whose byline the finished article will sit. The trade press and business blogs are always on the lookout for original commentary by industry figures and experts, and increasingly firms are also using the big social networks and their own blogs to self-publish and publicise content. .
For companies that get it right, thought-provoking insight and opinion pieces can be a useful and inexpensive way to build a business’s standing among its target customers, partners and industry peers.
As well as ghostwriting countless comment pieces over the past three decades, I’ve also edited magazines and blogs where I’ll be offered an endless stream of them from hopeful PRs and marketing departments. Unfortunately, many are way off the mark. Among the most common issues are what I call...
The Eight Ws of Worthless Opinion:
WTF? – An argument is disjointed, unclear or nonsensical, often stuffed full of needless buzz-phrases and arcane jargon.
Wanton self-promotion – An organisation crudely shoehorns in as many positive mentions of its company and products/services as possible, leaving the article sounding less like an expert opinion and more like a piece of sales puff.
Who cares? – The point being argued is inane, self-evident, irrelevant to the target audience or brings no additional insight to a well-worn debate with which the audience is already likely to be familiar.
Windbaggery – An expert fails to communicate in a way that appeals to the target audience, either assuming too much knowledge on the reader’s part, trying to sound clever or simply failing to explain their points cogently and succinctly.
Wishy-washiness – A piece wanders around its subject and ends up sitting on the fence. This may be a conscious attempt to demonstrate a rounded understanding of the subject, but such pieces generally come across as weak and indecisive.
Watering down – An article is edited by marketing people to make it more readable, and/or passed around various execs who suggest/demand other edits, in the process losing essential details or nuances of the original argument.
Whitewashing – A piece glosses over (or fails to address) obvious facts or counter-arguments that weaken or invalidate its premise.
Whoppers – Arguments are backed up with biased or inaccurate facts and statistics - unverified, quoted out of context, out of date or otherwise highly dubious.
So how do you write commentary people want to read and share?
Know the argument you want to convey. Can you boil the essence of your message down to a pithy, active, one-line statement that’s likely to grab the attention of your target audience? “Firms neglecting data protection are courting disaster, warns Jane Smith, Legal Director of BigCorp”... ”The whole sector wins when we standardise our widgets, argues Simon Small, CEO of LittleBiz” ...that kind of thing? And then back it up with three or more killer points, each with supporting evidence? If you can’t, then you’ll likely struggle to maintain a coherent and punchy argument throughout the piece.
Opinion pieces should reflect a genuine view held by the named author. The best ones put forward genuinely insightful arguments that mark a company out as one that engages with its customers, supply chain partners and industry peers, understands their challenges, and provides helpful, honest insight that chimes with its intended audience. That insight could be about a trend in your industry, a hot topic in the headlines, some survey results, a new piece of legislation or regulation, political shenanigans, a professional cause dear to the author – pretty much anything, in fact, as long as you believe it will resonate with your target readers.
If the author’s argument is fairly straightforward and non-technical, a generalist writer may be able to do it justice. But in my experience many companies get into difficulties when a generalist has to translate a more complex or technical argument – or tease that argument out of an expert who may be struggling to articulate it in simple terms. In these cases, it may be better to use a specialist writer who has both a broad knowledge of the field in question and the ability to communicate it in an appropriate manner for the target audience. A specialist will also be able to ask relevant questions and make useful suggestions to help hone the author’s argument.
A writer should talk to the expert/executive whose name will front the piece in order to gain a clear understanding of their argument and the substance behind it. They should verify any stated ‘facts’ and firm up points that seem incomplete or unclear, conducting additional research where necessary. But as well as grasping the substance of the argument, a good writer should also absorb the expert’s style and tone. Are they thoughtful and soft-spoken? Brash and prone to hyperbole? The closer the person’s natural tone can be replicated in the written piece, the more it will come across as an honestly-expressed viewpoint. And if the expert recognises the piece as being in their ‘voice’, it shouldn’t take lots of back-and-forth edits to gain their final approval. However, where an expert’s natural voice is clearly not appropriate for the piece at hand (which can happen), it’s often worth discussing with them how they’d like to come across – authoritative, conversational, forensic, wily, etc – and adapt the tone accordingly.
Strive to adapt the piece to an outlet’s preferred style while still retaining the author’s natural voice as far as possible. Opinion pieces are typically in the region of 500-1,200 words, but if you’re writing one for a third-party outlet (rather than for your own website, blog or social channels), then check the requirements of your desired outlet before submission and familiarise yourself with their style. Some outlets, for example, favour pithy, bullet-pointed pieces, others a more discursive long-form prose style. Are they looking for conversational, first-person ‘blog’-style pieces, or something drier and more analytical? Even if they’ve now moved online, many of the well-established business press outlets demand a set word-length and style – and your piece may be edited beyond recognition if you don’t stick to it. Blogs and websites are typically more flexible, and generally only edit for typos. If you’re self-publishing, of course, you can use any style you want, but you’ll need to have already built up a good social media profile if you actually want it to be read and shared..
Whatever argument you’re making, or piece of wisdom you’re imparting, you need to keep two things front-of-mind. First, be sure what you’re saying is something your target audience will find worthwhile reading. It might, for example, give them some insight or information that could help improve their business, warn them about an upcoming challenge, or call on them to take action for some professional or societal cause. Second, ensure you’re communicating with them at the right level. If the piece is aimed at senior executives, it will need to use different language than if you were making the same point to a general business or consumer audience. Pitch it at too high a level and you’ll go over your readers’ heads, too low a level and you could seem patronising. If you’re talking about something technical to a non-technical audience, avoid jargon and use appropriate examples and analogies to get across difficult concepts.
Jim Mortleman is a business and technology writer, editor and commentator. Email email@example.com, website https://www.mortleman.co.uk