E2A 061: How to Write a Compelling Thought-Leadership Book 

 August 15, 2023

By  Scott A. MacMillan

The thought leadership book may just be the holy grail of nonfiction authorship. But for many it can be a struggle to turn knowledge and expertise into thought leadership that is truly novel and inspiring.

In this episode of The Entrepreneur to Author Podcast, your host Scott MacMillan shares how can you carve out a space amidst the myriad of voices in today's world of information ubiquity to be remembered and to create a book that helps your business grow.





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Episode Transcript

Please note: The transcript is produced by a third-party company from an audio recording and may include transcription errors.

Scott MacMillan:

You're listening to the Entrepreneur to Author podcast.


Welcome to the Entrepreneur to Author podcast, the podcast that brings you practical strategies for building authority and growing your business. And now, here's your host, Scott MacMillan.


The thought leadership book. For many, it’s the holy grail of nonfiction authorship. But many (if not most) entrepreneurs struggle to turn their knowledge and expertise into thought leadership that is truly novel and inspiring. It’s why how-to books are usually the preferred choice for first-time authors…they’re just easier to write well and to deliver value to your readers.

Well, today we'll uncover how can you carve out a space amidst the myriad of voices in today's world of information ubiquity. How can you not just be heard, but be remembered? How can you plant a flag that not only acts as a point of differentiation for your book, but also as a north star for your business? Let's dive deep in this edition of Entrepreneur to Author.

To start, let’s consider what a thought-leadership book is

I think a compare-contrast approach may be helpful here. Because a ‘how-to’ book is rather easy to wrap your head around, let’s compare the thought leadership book to the more common how-to style book, looking at 5 areas: 1) the purpose and objective of each style of book; 2) the scope of each; 3) how the audience engages with each type of book; 4) the typical style and structure of each; and finally 5) the author’s role for a thought-leadership book compared to a how to book.

Let’s begin with the purpose and objective. A How-To Book has a clear, practical objective. It seeks to guide the reader through specific steps or processes to accomplish a particular task or skill. The primary aim is to instruct and provide actionable guidance. By contrast, the purpose of a Thought-Leadership Book is to offer new perspectives, insights, or theories on a particular subject. It challenges existing beliefs or introduces innovative concepts, aiming to influence how readers think about a topic rather than giving them a specific set of instructions.

In terms of scope, a how-to book is typically quite narrow in scope, focusing on the specifics of a particular task, technique, or skill. For example, a how-to book might teach someone how to bake a sourdough bread, start a podcast, or how to become an AI expert in the media industry. A thought-leadership book, on the other hand is usually broader in scope, aiming to address bigger ideas, trends, and overarching principles. For instance, a thought-leadership book might explore the emerging trends in bread and baking, the future of the podcasting medium, or how AI will transform the media industry.

Readers engage with these two types of books differently too. When reading a How-To Book, readers have a specific goal in mind, expecting clear, actionable steps. They want to "do" something and are seeking guidance. But when reading a Thought-Leadership Book, they’re often looking for insights, inspiration, or a fresh perspective on a topic. They are more interested in "understanding" than in step-by-step guidance.

All of this results in a different style and structure as well. How-To Books are best written in a very structured, sequential manner and often break down information into digestible chunks, steps, or stages. This may include checklists, diagrams, or templates, for example. The structure of a thought-leadership book, however, can be more flexible as the author needs to weave in far more anecdotes, research, case studies, and personal insights. The narrative might be more exploratory and reflective than it would be in a how-to book.

So, if we think about it, the author's role with a How-To Book is that of a teacher or instructor, providing a clear path and offering expertise in a specific area. By contrast, in the thought-leadership book, the author role is that of, well, a thought leader or influencer, who is aiming to change or expand the way readers think about a particular topic.

So, that’s all well and good…but what, then, is the foundation of a good thought-leadership book?

Creating a compelling thought-leadership book requires a unique blend of expertise, originality, and effective communication. Here are several elements that contribute to a standout thought-leadership style book:

Deep Expertise: The foundation of any thought-leadership book is the author's profound knowledge and understanding of the subject matter. Whether through personal experience, professional practice, or rigorous research, the author's expertise lends credibility to the book's claims and insights.

Original Insights: A standout thought-leadership book should bring fresh perspectives to the table. This could mean challenging established norms, presenting innovative solutions, or offering a novel interpretation of existing knowledge. This is the biggest gap I see from authors wanting to write a thought-leadership book. Too often they’re simply regurgitating concepts from elsewhere rather than using those ideas in support of their OWN novel and compelling perspective.

Well-Researched Content: A compelling argument is bolstered by evidence. This could be in the form of data, case studies, interviews, or historical examples. The research not only supports the book's claims but also enhances its authority in the eyes of the reader.

Clear and Engaging Writing: Regardless of the depth of the content, the manner in which it's communicated is critical. The book should be accessible, avoiding excessive jargon, and presented in a way that captivates the reader's interest. The great news is that this is where a professional editor makes all the difference. As an author, you should focus on developing the core ideas and know that if you deliver on that, your editor will ensure that the writing is clear and engaging.

Forward-Thinking: Good thought-leadership often anticipates future trends, challenges, or shifts in thinking. It's not just about reflecting on the present or the past but offering insights into where things might be headed.

Actionable Takeaways: Even if the primary aim isn't to provide a step-by-step guide, readers should come away with some practical ideas or strategies they can consider or implement based on the insights shared.

Engaging Narrative or Storytelling: Personal anecdotes, stories, and case studies can help illustrate points and make the content more relatable and memorable.

Well-Organized Structure: A logical flow of ideas, clear chapter breakdowns, and a coherent progression make it easier for readers to follow the arguments and understand the central thesis. This is another area where a professional editor can really help. Even if your first draft is, structurally, a bit clumsy, that can absolutely be fixed with a structural or substantive edit. The most important thing is that the core ideas are compelling.

Provocative: The book should challenge readers, prompting them to question their own beliefs or see things from a different angle.

Interdisciplinary Approach: Drawing on insights from multiple fields can enrich the discussion and provide a more holistic view of a topic.

In the end, a great thought-leadership book doesn't just inform; it inspires, challenges, and leads to broader discussions in its field and beyond.

Like I said, of all of these, the one I see people struggle with the most is coming up with that original, compelling insight that underpins the whole book.

So, let’s spend some time thinking about how you might develop this

Crafting a unique angle for a thought-leadership book requires a blend of introspection, research, and creativity. Here are some strategies to help develop a compelling perspective:

Identify Gaps and Unanswered Questions: Dive deep into the existing literature and discussions in your field. What are the questions that haven't been answered? What topics or perspectives have been overlooked? By filling a knowledge or perspective gap, you can provide fresh value to readers.

Connect the Dots Across Disciplines: One way to introduce a novel angle is to bridge insights from different fields. For instance, how does a concept from psychology apply to business? Or how can principles from biology inform architecture? Interdisciplinary thinking can lead to breakthrough insights.

Challenge the Status Quo: Question widely accepted beliefs or practices in your field. Why are things done a certain way? Is there a better approach or a different perspective that hasn't been considered? Being provocative—while well-reasoned—can captivate an audience.

Engage with a Diverse Group: Regularly converse with people outside of your immediate professional or social circle. Engaging with individuals from different backgrounds, industries, or cultures can provide fresh viewpoints and challenge your own assumptions. It can also help you spot trends or patterns that aren't yet apparent to others.

Remember, the goal isn't just to be different for the sake of being different. Authenticity is key. Your unique angle should resonate with genuine insights, experiences, or beliefs that you think can add value to the ongoing conversation in your field.

Once you’ve got your unique angle, then what next? How do you turn that into a book?

Transforming a unique angle into a structured book outline is a crucial step in the writing process. It helps ensure that your narrative flows logically and that your key points are presented coherently. Check out Chapter 4 of my book Entrepreneur to Author for a more detailed look at building out a comprehensive book blueprint. But in the meantime, here's a quick overview to help you create an outline based on your chosen angle:

Define Your Central Thesis: Start by clearly articulating the core argument or perspective of your book—the overarching message you want readers to take away. This will serve as the anchor for everything else.

Break Down the Thesis into Key Points you need to help your reader understand about it. These will serve as your Chapters: Consider the major pillars that support your main argument. Each of these pillars can represent a chapter or a section of your book.

Expand Each Key Point: For each chapter or section, list all the subtopics you’ll need to include to cover the chapter topic for your reader. Consider these as mini books where the subtopics are like mini chapters. Now, go a level deeper, answering in point form for each topic and subtopic: 1) What is this topic about – in other words, explain the topic; and 2) Why is this topic important for the reader to understand? Also include point form notes about anecdotes, stats, case studies and other evidence that come to mind that will support your claims. Although less common for thought-leadership books, there may be some topics where you’ll also need to answer a 3rd question: How can your reader take action on this? Think of all of this as creating detailed outlines for each chapter.

Order Your Chapters and subtopics logically: Ensure there's a clear progression from one chapter to the next and from one subtopic to the next. This might mean starting with foundational concepts and moving towards more advanced ideas, or perhaps you'll prefer to narrate in chronological order, historical context to modern-day applications.

Next, you’ll write an Introduction and Conclusion for each chapter and then write your book introduction and conclusion.

The Introduction sets the stage by introducing the problem or gap you've identified and hinting at the solution or perspective you're about to offer. Highlight why it's essential and what readers can expect to gain from your book.

In the conclusion, summarize your main points and re-emphasize your central thesis. Leave your readers with final thoughts, future predictions, or action steps based on what they've learned.

Before diving into the writing process, share your outline with trusted colleagues, mentors, or potential readers. Their feedback can help you spot gaps, unclear areas, or points that might need reordering.

As you start writing, you might find that certain points need more emphasis or that some chapters are too lengthy and need to be split. It's okay to adjust your outline as you go. Think of it as a living document that guides your writing, but don't be afraid to deviate if it benefits the overall narrative.

By following these steps, you'll have a structured roadmap for your thought-leadership book, ensuring that your unique angle is clearly presented and that readers can easily follow and understand your argument.

Remember, the world doesn't need another voice. It needs your voice. Your unique, genuine, passionate voice. A thought-leadership book is probably the most difficult types of book to write well. If you don’t feel up to it (yet), that’s okay…how-to books are easier to write and can be just as powerful in terms of supporting your business and that’s usually the best place for a first-time author to start. But if you DO feel that a thought leadership book is in your future, I hope this episode has been a helpful primer.

Either way, remember. Now is the time…time to write, time to publish, and time to grow. I’m Scott MacMillan, until next time.

Scott A. MacMillan

Scott A. MacMillan is a speaker, international best-selling author, entrepreneur, and the President and Executive Publisher at Grammar Factory Publishing. He and his team help expert entrepreneurs write and publish books that build their authority and grow their business.

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