Aphorisms are short statements, usually in the form of observations or instructions, that express a general truth. The best aphorisms are effective attention-getters, and they’re easy to memorize.

Two of my favorite examples are “Measure twice, cut once” and “Make do, or do without.” There is a point, however, where aphorisms become clichés.

The business world is full of aphorism-clichés. You see them all the time in articles about marketing and communications. I recently did a Google search for “tips for content marketing.”

The first result was a Forbes article titled “9 Actionable Content Marketing Tips From Top Industry Experts.”

What followed was a list of ‘aphorisms’ that don’t really say anything. For instance:

Tip #1: “Be a better writer; tell better stories.”
Tip #2: “Answer the questions your prospects and customers ask.”

Whatever the merits of an article like this, it cannot be considered ‘thought leadership.’

A better example of thought leadership would be to dive deep into Tip #1. Instead of the unhelpful “Be a Better Writer,” why not walk an audience through the process of becoming better storytellers? It could be through a whitepaper, book, webinar, podcast or series of in-person workshops.

But even that is stretching the concept of thought leadership. I think that real thought leadership happens when organizations pose big-picture questions and provide big-picture answers. Think strategy, trends, research, analysis, policy solutions and so on.

More importantly, real thought leadership implies a certain objectivity. To be a successful thought leader is to put naked self-interest aside. Associations and nonprofits can be effective as thought leaders because they represent the interests of a market, cause or profession rather than an individual organization.

The last thing I want to say about thought leadership is that it involves writing. There’s no way around that. So good thought leadership and good writing go hand-in-hand. MW