How to Write a Thought Leadership Book

Image: five origami boats. Four smaller boats follow a larger one.
Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán from Pexels

Today’s post is by author, coach and speaker Stacy Ennis (@StacyEnnis).


With more than thirteen years working with nonfiction authors, and as a published author myself, I know how humbling it can be to set out writing a thought leadership book. After all, it’s one thing to want to write a book; it’s another thing to write a book that connects to your purpose and life’s work. It can feel like a daunting undertaking. But when you have ideas that can change the world for the better, it’s worth doing. When you step deeply into your role as a thought leader, your positive impact grows immensely.

A thought leader is someone whose ideas, expertise, or story influences others at scale, and often the most powerful catalyst to that type of influence is through a compelling thought leadership book that organizes and shapes the transformative insights you’re ready to share. Central to writing a book with this kind of power is understanding the why, who, what, and how of the book you want to write.

Why: Define your big vision

Before you begin writing your book, engage in one to two hours of intentional thought around the life and impact you’d like to have. Journal about what your ideal life looks like one, five, and ten years from today. At each point looking forward, note the age you are, describe your family life, detail your professional life and accomplishments to date, and clarify the impact you’re making through your thought leadership. Don’t forget to include joyful experiences like vacations and hobbies.

This activity will help you clarify and visualize the possible impact of your book, which makes up your why. Your big vision will serve as an anchor that keeps you motivated throughout the long journey of writing and publishing. (To support this process, download my free life visioning guide.)

Who: Clarify your “one reader”

If you’ve studied nonfiction book writing, you’ve probably come across the concept of the “one reader.” In a thought leadership book, your one reader should be a clearly defined person who will have the most profound experience with your book. This individual will undergo the greatest transformation, experience the deepest influence, and perhaps even become an evangelist of your work because she has been so greatly impacted.

To uncover your one reader, think back to the people you’ve influenced, helped, or supported over the years. These could be clients, colleagues, friends, or even your own family. Some authors find that their one reader is actually a younger version of themselves, before they developed a perspective or idea that changed everything. If you’re unsure about who your one reader is, set a timer for twenty minutes and freewrite or make a bulleted list of readers who would benefit from your book, listing the names of people you know, along with more general descriptions (like “young woman entering her career and lacking confidence” or “senior executive looking to develop empathetic leadership in a midsize company”).

Consider your list and the ways each potential reader could benefit from your book. Decide who would benefit the most, and then either sketch out a description of that person or create a fictional reader persona. Describe your ideal reader in a few paragraphs: name, age, what they do professionally, what their family life is like, what keeps them up at night, what gets them out of bed in the morning. What are their biggest challenges? What are they most excited about? List books they love and podcasts they listen to.

If you’re unsure whether you’ve defined the “right” reader, complete one or two more personas. Then take a day or two to think about what you’ve come up with and seek outside insights from a trusted mentor or friend. If you’re really stuck, consider finding an expert guide, such as a book coach or developmental editor. Clarity about your one reader is important, as it will drive decision-making as you outline and write your book.

What: Clarify your book idea

With clarity around your vision and your one reader, now it’s time to uncover the intersection of your ideas and impact. Define the core message of your book: a crystal clear one- to three-sentence description that fully defines the purpose, the throughline, and your hopes for reader impact.

To help clarify your core message, I suggest first spending thirty to sixty minutes reflecting on your book’s purpose. Turn your phone on do not disturb, shut down your computer, and ask anyone who may be home to not interrupt you. Then, close your eyes. Envision your reader reading your book. Watch her expression, imagining her coming across new insights and feeling new levels of awareness. Then, envision her finishing your book, closing it, and sitting quietly, reflecting on what she just read.

From here, you can define your core message by considering your book’s throughline, the “common or consistent element or theme shared by items in a series or by parts of a whole.” The throughline provides the consistent connective tissue that ties your book together from first word to final period. Defining the connective tissue of your book can be especially challenging for people with endless ideas or a robust history within their field. After all, how do you distill twenty years of ideation, practice, and expertise into a few sentences? If you’re feeling overwhelmed as you define your throughline, note some ideas and if needed, let them settle.

Next, turn back to your journal to answer a set of questions: What is the one thing you hope your reader will take away from the book? What are core learning points you hope she will remember? How will she be transformed, impacted, or inspired? Freewrite any additional thoughts or ideas that come up.

Finally, take a day or two away. Come back to your notes—including your vision, reader persona, and journaling—and write your core message, summarizing the purpose, throughline, and impact of your book. This will be your north star, the guiding focus of your writing.

How: Outline the structure and content of your book

Next, spend a couple of weeks outlining the book to create a solid structure. Consider both the core anchors of the book—which will organize into chapter topics—and how they need to be sequenced in order to create a profound impact on the reader. Think through how you’ll integrate storytelling. Consider when and how you introduce your core message, the big idea the book is centered on.

For example, will the book organize around a central narrative, such as your life story, including lessons, insights, and transformations that lead to a paradigm shift in the reader? Will your book present a groundbreaking idea, then walk through the background, discovery, and application of that idea? Will the writing focus on a blend of information, practical advice, and case studies or stories that support the big idea?

If you’re feeling stuck, study other books in your genre, especially ones that resonate with you. Review their table of contents. Reread a chapter or two to study how they integrate storytelling and data to support their big idea. Notice how some utilize storytelling as the core structural foundation, while others focus on the components of their big idea as a framework to guide chapter structures, and still others present information in a step-by-step, how-to approach.

As you think through various structures, consider your book’s core message. What type of structural approach best fits the purpose, throughline, and intended impact of your book? It’s a question worth spending time with, because having a sense of which structural category your book fits into will help you build the outline, plan the writing process, and actually write the draft.

With the why, who, what, and how of the book clearly defined, you’ll be on your way to writing a powerful thought leadership book that connects to your big vision—and eventually impacts lives.

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