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Exploring the Deeper Art of Thought Leadership: Insights on Content, Challenges, and the Role of AI

Jake Meth is the founder of Opinioned, a consulting firm that helps thought leaders publish op-eds in top media outlets. From his tenure as an opinion editor at Fortune to his work as a journalist covering the Arab Spring, Jake has built a reputation for insightful, original content that media consumers want to read.

In his role at Fortune, Jake worked on articles with Hillary Clinton, Melinda Gates, and Paul Polman (former CEO of Unilever), to name a few. Opinioned has continued to produce top-shelf content delving into topics like the aging crisis, the power of symbolic leadership, and climate activism.

Jake spoke with me about what makes thought leadership writing great and how our clients can build bylined content into their PR strategy.

Q: How do you define thought leadership?

A: The term has become squishy over the last decade. I think the simplest definition is that thought leadership is an umbrella term to describe writing, speeches and other ideas put out into the public by subject-matter experts (SMEs) with the intention of educating and advancing agendas. In recent years, thought leadership has become an essential part of any type of leadership, as leaders are expected more and more to have strong advice and ideas to complement their ability to run organizations and manage people.

Q: In your experience, what are the benefits of successful thought leadership?

A: Doing it successfully is an excellent way to form an intimate connection with your audiences. Because it’s coming from you, not your company’s website or a social media account, it feels more personal. It makes you look like more than just an executive. Writing high-level op-eds in particular shows people that you are a creative thinker with a strong command of your core topics. It tells people that you are a smart person but also relatable, since you care about the things they care about.

Q: What are the common “mistakes” you came across in your time as the op-ed editor at Fortune?

A: Only about 5% of the submissions I read made it to publication. I spent a good portion of my day reading pitches and sending rejections. Execs and their comms people don’t spend enough time thinking about whether their idea is original and is going to stand out to an editor. At the top outlets they are seeing at least 20 pitches a day. For the top-top it’s likely over 100.

Many leaders are unfortunately caught up in echo chambers at their organizations, with the people working for them, both internally and externally, not really questioning whether what they’re saying has already been said or whether it’s just a surface-level analysis.

I do believe that most leaders have interesting things to say. The problem is that they put forward ideas to the media that they think editors will care about. They try to jump on the news or create trends that don’t exist. Because they don’t spend much time outside their world, it’s hard for them to have a well-developed sense of what editors and readers want.

Q: On the flipside, what are the criteria of good thought leadership?

A: Good thought leadership delves into the deep recesses of what leaders know and educates people with insights they can’t get anywhere else. It’s a bonus if they can align those insights with what’s happening in the news (but not necessary). Good thought leaders have their finger on the pulse of what people want to know, and deliver to them in a way that’s easily understandable and relevant. Also, it’s not self-promotional (at least blatantly so)!

Q: Are there “prompts” you use when working with thought leaders to get them to start thinking in a more thought leadership-way?

A: It’s more of an art than a science. This is why I’ve created Opinioned. It’s extremely difficult to shake executives out of their comfort zone and get them to open up about things they know extremely well. It can’t be automated or even turned into an easily replicable process. I’ve seen companies try to do this and the results are mediocre.

Most leaders are often not even aware of how interesting they are, and even if they are aware of it, they’re often not willing to share what makes them interesting, because of a fear of upsetting someone.

Before interviewing an executive, I think of some questions based on what’s happening in their space. I ask myself what I would want to know as someone who’s not well-versed in their field. But overall, I keep it fairly open-ended, and rely on my journalistic instincts to follow interesting threads when they appear. These always lead to the most interesting ideas.

Q: What is different about thought leadership today vs. a few years ago?

A: Recently, thought leadership has been supercharged by the emergence of LinkedIn as a major social media platform. Despite some of the deserved backlash about LinkedIn’s strange choices of which content to feature on news feeds, I think this has been by-and-large a good thing, both for regular consumers of thought leadership and for the thought leaders themselves. That’s because it’s much more thoughtful and accessible to non-social-media-minded people like myself (which is most people). It’s also magnitudes less toxic than Twitter/X.

I also think the advent of thought leadership–focused newsletters has been beneficial for thought leadership in a similar fashion. People are more able to freely express their thoughts on their own turf, without the need to be inflammatory or cutesy/short with what they say in order to get noticed. It’s more conducive to deeper and well-thought-out content, which I’ve enjoyed reading much more than hot takes.

Q: What are your thoughts on people – i.e., thought leaders/executives – using generative AI to write thought leadership content?

A: It depends on their objectives. If they just want to push out regular, everyday content to their audiences, then I don’t see a problem with it. It just makes that process faster, and I’m all for efficiency.

I think they run into trouble when they try to do more thoughtful pieces like speeches or op-eds. That’s because AI is just an average of everything that’s already been written and consumed into the machine. AI can’t think creatively because it’s not designed to. It might look that way sometimes, but it’s really not. AI can’t be skeptical or know when to probe someone to go deeper versus letting it go and moving on. It can’t form a trusted bond with anyone.

To me, it’s extremely obvious when thought leadership content is AI-generated. It has a smell to it that can’t be deodorized

Q: What’s your favorite part of the work you’re now doing over at Opinioned?

A: I love working with someone who is talented and has a lot they want to get off their chest, but until working with me, hasn’t had the ability to do so in a way that will reach a wide audience through a mainstream news outlet.

I enjoy being that conduit for them, helping unlock what they know that others want to know, too. It can be a little scary for them at first because it’s an unfamiliar and unconventional way of producing good writing. But they always appreciate it once they see the final product.

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