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Episode 17: Glenn Leibowitz on the Advantage of Writing Well

McKinsey & Company’s Group Head of Communications talks about how thought leaders can write better, the impact of AI writing programs like ChatGPT, and his own quest to become a better writer.

How can thought leaders improve their writing? Few people are more qualified to answer this question than Glenn Leibowitz, Group Head of Communications for McKinsey & Company’s Greater China region (based in Taipei, Taiwan), and a talented writer in his own right. In fact, he was recognized four years in a row as a LinkedIn Top Voice: twice in the Marketing & Social Media category and twice in the Management & Workplace category.

Glenn takes great pride in teaching writing. He distills the majority of his insights on his “Write With Impact” podcast, a five-star show featuring Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists and bestselling book authors who reveal their writing tips and tricks. “Write With Impact” has been going strong since 2015.

In February, Glenn invited Buday TLP CEO Bob Buday on his show to talk about Bob’s book and the essentials of thought leadership. In turn, Glenn joined Bob on “Everything Thought Leadership” to discuss how thought leaders can write better, the impact of AI writing programs like ChatGPT, and Glenn’s own quest to become an even better writer. You can find out about Glenn’s podcast at:…

Listen to the Podcast

Transcript: Glenn Leibowitz and Bob Buday

Bob: Hello, Glenn. It is great to have you on our show, having been on your show about a month ago.

Glenn: That’s right, Bob. Thanks so much for inviting me on your show. It’s a real privilege and honor to to speak with you about a topic that is near and dear to me. And I know is to you. You’re a legend in the industry. So it’s just it’s really quite an honor to be to be here with you today.

Bob: Well, thank you. And I’ve been following you for such a long time. I love what you write about writing. And I want to get into a bunch of issues about thought leadership, but particularly writing and the importance of writing and how people can write better, and what happens when you write better? What’s the impact all that? So let’s begin here: Why can good writing help somebody who aspires to be a thought leader? Or a recognized thought leader? Why is good writing so elemental, so important to people who want to be famous for their expertise?

The Link Between Writing and Thinking

Glenn: Well, I’ve been doing this for a long time, over 23 years. And what I would say is that good writing is really essential if you want to build your reputation as a thought leader. I say that because your writing is a reflection of your thinking. So, if you’re building your reputation and your business on the back of the strength of your thinking and your ideas, and if your writing is the most obvious reflection of that, then it seems pretty clear to me that you need to invest in making sure your writing is good.

I’ve worked with so many thought leaders over the years, and the ones who have broken through the noise and the clutter out there have almost invariably been good writers. They’ve been good writers even before working with editors like myself or you. And the best ones, frankly, are the ones who sit down and write the first draft themselves. That’s where their true voice comes from. Yes, they could rely on ghost writers or idea developers, which is a term that I think you prefer to use. They certainly have the resources to do so; resources are generally not a limitation for them, which is a good thing.

But they realize that they have far more impact when they actually sit down and write. Some of them might dictate and have their thoughts transcribed, and then edit it. That works perfectly well — I work with thought leaders who use that approach, and I help them do that. But the best thought leaders have something about the way they communicate verbally, that translates into the way they communicate in writing. It’s different, obviously, but the two are definitely linked. And you can sense that when you read something they’ve written. So, if a thought leader doesn’t have this time to sit down and write, that’s fine. Capable writers, editors, and idea developers can help you, and you should definitely leverage their expertise. But whatever you do, my suggestion is: Just don’t hand over 100% of your writing to someone else, even if this just means going in and editing or commenting on the draft that was written by someone else. You want to make sure that you inject the experience and insights that only you possess, and you want to put some of your personality into your writing as well.

From Idea to Published Insight

Bob: Let’s say an aspiring thought leader — someone who is really motivated to get his or her ideas out there in the world through writing and public speaking — came to you and said, “Glenn, here’s my topic and here is my expertise.” How would you advise them to proceed? The choices might be, “Glenn, I could just talk to you and you could ghostwrite for me,” or “I, the aspiring thought leader, can take a stab at a first draft and then you can help me raise it to a higher level.” What would you advise an aspiring thought leader to do in the process of codifying their ideas?

Glenn: I’ve worked with thought leaders who’ve had different preferences and different capabilities. I just ask them what they feel most comfortable with. I’m confident that they have ideas that are trapped in their heads that need to get out. And I’m just on a mission, on a hunt, to try to get that out of their heads and on paper.

With some thought leaders, I can have a 15-minute call that results in an entire LinkedIn blog post, where they talk, and the talk is transcribed, and then I edit it. That works well for some people. One guy  jotted down a couple of ideas while he was on a plane, then sent me a draft that I edited, and that worked very, very well for him.

I recommend that thought leaders try to sit down and jot down at least an outline. We call it “dot-dash outline,” that just gets the ideas down on paper. It does not have to be completely formed or finished or polished. They just need to get something down on paper. That works for a lot of thought leaders.

I just worked this week with someone this way. He gave me his outline and I did some additional research and reading, some thinking, some writing, throwing things away, coming back to it. So I’m in the process of working with him on that piece. He jotted down the ideas and then said, “Let’s make this an iterative process,” which is exactly what it should be. He threw me his ideas; I threw him back a rough first draft today. And I’m waiting to hear back from him tomorrow. He’s asking some other people to take a look at it.

Then there are those who actually give me a completely well-formed, well-written draft that only needs copy editing. I love that for obvious reasons, and I work with thought leaders who have done that over the years. It literally takes me 10 to 15 minutes to do a copy edit. One person in particular happens to be very prolific. He happens to be a very prominent thought leader with millions of followers on LinkedIn, and has written hundreds upon hundreds of articles. So he’s sort of the outlier — a dream client or dream colleague. But, as I said, I work with thought leaders across the entire gamut. And that’s perfectly fine for me, just as long as I get their brilliant ideas out of their heads and onto paper or the screen.

Bob: In your career, could you roughly estimate what percent of the people who you’ve worked with you are like that person?

Glenn: I envision a two-dimensional, four-box in a matrix or framework. A very large segment of people who I work with are excellent writers but don’t have the time to write, and for a very good reason: They’re serving the clients, doing the work that they’re good at. They happen to be outstanding writers. I don’t have the hard numbers, but I would say 80% of the thought leaders I work with either don’t have the time or the capability.

It’s a very small percentage who actually have both the time and capability to independently hammer out a fully formed outline. I very often work one-on-one with one thought leader; I love working that way and I think that’s very effective. It yields a very good product.

In many cases, however, I work with teams of people. There may be one or two thought leaders who are driving the thinking and the writing, but have teams of analysts and associates and others who are helping with the process of outlining, doing the research and writing the draft. I’m accustomed to working in that mode as well.

The Challenges of Working With Teams

Bob: Do you see any unique challenges in working with an individual versus working with multiple people on an article, white paper or book?

Glenn: That’s a fantastic question. And I should try to write about this at some point. I think it’s more efficient and productive to work one-on-one with a thought leader, especially if they happen to be a good writer. That helps tremendously.

Beyond the writing ability, what’s more important is the distinctiveness, the freshness, the innovativeness of their ideas. So that’s paramount if you think a thought leader should have new insights to share.

But the reality is that a lot of thought leaders work in teams. One or two thought leaders might be driving the thinking, working with teams of analysts and others who are helping. This can be frustrating at times when you’re looking for a decision or someone to drive the thinking. If I’m not seeing it from someone on the team, things are not going to move forward. When I see that happening I try to say, “Look, this is not moving forward. The ideas are not very distinct from others out there. This has been published before, I’ve read five articles about this already. What are we saying that is going to stand out — that’s different; that makes you proud; that you want to show to your clients?”

If that outline is not working, I’m going to be very honest. I have to balance the sensitivities of thought leaders with their desire to stand out. I know they want to break through the noise. I know they want to attract the right attention from the right people, from their clients. And I believe the way to do that is through distinctive ideas and good writing. That is a magical combination. If we can achieve that, then I’m helping them.

If they value this — and most of them do — we’ll go through as many iterations, discussions and drafts as it takes to arrive at a piece of thought leadership they’ll feel proud sharing with their clients.

Turning Mediocre Writers Into Good Ones

Bob: How do you teach thought leaders or aspiring thought leaders to write better – at least, those who want to learn? In my experience, many who write poorly don’t understand that, and they’re not interested in getting help. Is it possible to take somebody who is a mediocre writer or worse and turn them into a pretty good writer? And I’m not saying a professional writer who’s ready to write novels and have big publishers publish them.

Glenn: It’s not easy but it is possible. It’s going to take a lot of practice and repetition. I have had the privilege to work with some thought leaders over the course of many, many years. Sometimes it doesn’t take that long, but I can see a progression in their skills.

There is some advice I can offer. The first is to give them the confidence it is possible to improve their writing skills. They should also be aware of the criteria for good writing, for good thought leadership. They should have a checklist to evaluate their writing and make their next draft better. Taking a draft and improving upon it, kicking the tires, and getting feedback are critical.

They are not going to improve their writing overnight. It can take some time to develop that skill. But if you’re in it for the long run, it’s worth investing some time and energy, perhaps a little money too. There are a lot of great resources out there: great books, great blog posts, free content on LinkedIn, and podcasts that you can listen to — like your podcast, for example — that teach the craft.

I’m always trying to refine and hone my own writing. I’ve been on a journey of learning how to become a better writer for almost two decades, and I’m not stopping. I always feel I can be better. I can be paralyzed with fear of getting the first draft out the door and then revising and rewriting it. If you think about it that way, just get that first draft done. Then edit it and you’ll get to something better.

Clarity is Paramount

Bob: I feel the same way. I look back at my old writing and I think “Oh my God, this is terrible. How did I write this?” And then I read people like Malcolm Gladwell or Michael Lewis and say to myself, “I don’t think I could ever write this well.”

Without going through all the skills that somebody who wants write better must gain, which ones are easier to teach and for somebody to learn? And which writing skills are harder to teach and learn?

Glenn: One is clarity. It is paramount. Another one is asking yourself what’s new or distinctive about your idea. Another skill is telling a story to bring your ideas to life and make them relatable. There are another 30 pieces of advice that I would suggest. But if your ideas are clear to you, you’ll be able to communicate them clearly to others through your writing.

You could do the work upfront in developing a detailed outline, which I know you’re a very strong advocate of, before sitting down to write that first draft. When I talked to you last time you said that when you work with clients, you spend maybe 80% of the time just developing an incredibly detailed outline. I love that advice. Because it forces you to get your ideas crisp and clear.

Clarity also means removing or translating technical jargon, or industry jargon. We encounter this all the time, and it can make it difficult for the reader to understand your ideas. It also means supporting your arguments with evidence, facts and examples. These are all things you share in your book, “Competing on Thought Leadership.”

How Great Writers are Different

Bob: Think about the people whom you’ve worked with over the years and helped turn into strong writers. Did they hold any attitudes or beliefs that were different from the people whose writing didn’t improve as much?

Glenn: Yes. One is they had to learn to trust people, to trust me, with handling their ideas. As an editor or idea developer, I had to win their trust so they would share a part of themselves with me.

That’s quite personal. On the outside, they may look very impressive and successful. But very often they’re quite sensitive, especially in exposing their ideas to the world. Before they even get there, they have to expose their ideas to me, or somebody else who is trained to be a constructive critic. They have to learn to trust me.

They also have learned to trust themselves and feel that they have something worth sharing with their audience. That’s another deeper struggle I can help them with. I’m not a psychologist, and I don’t pretend to be. But there’s something about learning to articulate your ideas on paper in writing that gets to who a person is and how they express themselves to the world. And can be a very delicate topic.

Being willing to expose their ideas to the world takes some courage. It also takes a lot of practice, falling down and making mistakes, and then accepting them and learning from them. All of that is essential. The ones who are willing to learn from their mistakes and try again and again are the thought leaders who are going to get better at it.

The Power of Positive Feedback

Bob: How important is positive feedback, from LinkedIn and other sources, for authors of thought leadership content?

Glenn: It’s very important. Positive feedback provides positive reinforcement. The feedback comes in many forms. It’s not just in views or likes or shares, although they are quite visible. It’s ultimately what you see in your emails or calls from potential clients that lead to conversations in person. The ultimate feedback is when it turns into a paying client. And that’s what they’re looking for.

Not seeing that feedback can be discouraging. Some people get discouraged quite easily from the lack of feedback and start thinking it’s not worth investing in developing their writing and publishing skills. My suggestion is simply this: “Try it — and if it doesn’t work, learn from your mistakes and do it differently. But don’t give up.”

It can take some time to build an audience, a following, and a reputation. This usually doesn’t happen overnight. Some things go viral; some books are New York Times bestsellers right out of the gate. But in general, it may take dozens, maybe even hundreds, of times to establish the level of awareness and credibility you’re seeking. But it is doable, if you’re willing to put in the time and try and try again.

Bob: It’s so much easier today than it was 20 years ago to get instant feedback to articles, through sites liked LinkedIn.

Glenn: Yeah, absolutely. I have been in this business long enough to remember when we were waiting for the “yes” or “no” from the op-ed page editor of whatever top-tier publication we were at their mercy of. Now we’re not. I started getting active myself on LinkedIn in 2014. The advice given to me was to post an article once a week, which was way more than what I was doing at the time, which was zero.

Today you should try to do something at least weekly, maybe twice a week. It could be a short piece of commentary. Just share your ideas and be consistent about it. It will take time to gain traction. You may hear crickets initially, but you must get used to that.

I believe it’s about having distinctive ideas. And if you’re a thought leader, you have distinctive ideas and insights. Start with putting them out there and interacting with others who have ideas. LinkedIn is not a one-way way platform. You have to be “social” and recognize other people’s ideas, not just click “like” on them. Leave a brief comment that recognizes them, or comment on their idea.

Interacting with other people’s ideas on LinkedIn and recognizing them will help you gain visibility. By the way, you don’t have to have a huge following either – just the right following. But don’t try for only a couple of weeks or a couple of months and then go cold turkey. You need to be out there for at least a year or two. I’ve never given up since I started in 2014. Some of the thought leaders I’ve worked with have been on LinkedIn consistently for about that time. And some of them have done incredibly well. Others just started to become active a few months ago or a year ago and have seen tremendous success with very short, pithy posts. It doesn’t have to be a 3000-word essay with big graphics.

Generative AI and ChatGPT

Bob: OK, last topic: generative artificial intelligence. Now we’re in ChatGPT version 4. And I’ve been testing version 3. I’m intrigued and I’m worried. I see it’s not perfect. It can get things very wrong. Still, the prose I have seen come out of it is remarkably good, even if the facts are not always right. What do you think its impact will be on writing and thought leadership?

Glenn: It’s a great question. It’s something that I’ve been grappling with. I’ve been thinking through and experimenting with ChatGPT over the past couple of months since it came out. I agree with you: I just have to congratulate the team that created this because it is an impressive application. I have not tried ChatGPT 4, which is the latest iteration and is more powerful.

Initially, I was concerned. But the more I look at it, the more I use it, the more I realize it’s going to be a very powerful and useful tool for writers and thought leaders. I think it’s here to stay. It is powerful and only getting more powerful.

I think the challenge is: How do we harness that power and make it really useful for us? My first experiments with it were not yielding writing I could use immediately. But I could see its potential as a helpful automated intern or automated assistant: to break through writer’s block, which afflicts all of us. I have found it helpful to stimulate ideas, to pull out some content from the internet that I would never have thought of.

I have used it to help write a podcast script for my wife, in Chinese, about the cello. It’s aimed at 10-year-olds. I used an English prompt, and it created a very useful script in Chinese. My wife may use a riff on this and do her own thing.

I think there are certain things it cannot do yet, and I’m glad it can’t because if it can, I’m going to be replaceable. But right now, ChatGPT cannot write a speech I gave to my office a couple of months ago, where I drew on experiences I’ve had at this firm for over two decades. Those experiences never been documented before. I’ve never written about it; I’m not supposed to write about it. Some of what I shared was confidential and meant for my colleagues only. But at some point, if ChatGPT or some other generative AI application can write that speech for me, I’m going to have to do something else.

Bob: I agree with you. I think it’s going to level or raise the playing field for thought leaders. If a constraint for thought leaders is their inability to express something clearly, well, ChatGPT has taken that constraint away. A lot of people are going to post a lot of things using ChatGPT. They’re going to be well written, and hopefully these people will check the accuracy and correct the mistakes before they publish them.

A lot of people will sound very smart because ChatGPT is largely doing the writing. That’s going to raise the bar for truly distinctive ideas. These large language models of AI are combing the web looking for what’s already been written. But I can’t yet see generative AI as being able to create whole new insights that no human has ever come up with.

The question then becomes this: What leads to distinctive insights? I think it comes from doing primary research that explores best practices and compares them against worst practices, including one’s client work.

Ultimately, I see these generative AI tools as forcing thought leaders to get much better at coming up with original insights. Anybody who’s just riffing on something from a couple of client experiences is not likely to come up with any better insights than someone who’s typing that question into ChatGPT. In fact, the ChatGPT version may be better written, and may have more insights because it has more data points.

Glenn: I agree with what you just said, Bob. I think it is going to definitely push the bar much higher for thought leaders of all stripes, and that the really good ones, the ones with distinctive insights, will clearly have an advantage ifthey can invest in getting those insights out through good writing or good videos or other formats.

I think they will create a bigger distance between themselves and the rest of the pack of, say, average thought leaders who rely on the technology and don’t take those extra steps in developing distinctive insights.

Bob: Glenn, this has been great. It’s been a real pleasure to talk to you about writing for thought leaders. And we will have to do this again in six months or so, after we learn more about generative AI and how it’s changing our field here.

Glenn: Thank you, Bob, for inviting me on your program. And congratulations on the publication of your book. I look forward to talking again soon sometime.


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