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My daughter had been away at camp for two weeks when her counselor called with an update.

“Yes, she’s made lots of friends,” the counselor said, and, “No, the dining hall didn’t get hit by lightning – I don’t know why she wrote home and said THAT.”

I know why – payback for our letters claiming the dog had been sleeping in her bed and we’d been storing her brother’s dirty diapers in her closet. Sarcasm, it seems, can be passed down.

Other things can be passed down, as well, which is why I was excited to hear the camp had a “Shark Tank” night planned. I had told my daughter plenty of stories about entrepreneurs over the years. I thought she’d have a head start on her competition.

Unearthing lessons from founders’ stories

One of my favorite parts of my job is talking to clients about how they became entrepreneurs, what inspires them, how they coach their teams, what their hiring secrets are and pretty much anything else they’re willing to share. These conversations have unearthed some surprising anecdotes that we’ve crafted into thought leadership content for executives, pitched out to reporters or developed through one-on-one coaching with founders who want to write their own articles – but also want help shaping their thoughts.

These are the stories I tell at dinner time, and the reason I had high hopes for how my daughter would do in the “Shark Tank: Woods of Maine” competition.

She’d heard about the founder who learned leadership when, at 8-years-old, she stood in for her grandfather at his board of directors meeting. She’d heard about the entrepreneur who turned a love of puzzles into a career in engineering, the one who created a business in her college dorm room, the one who bucked every Silicon Valley trend to create a successful company without grinding his employees down during endless work weeks.

Getting executives talking

Some executives know exactly which stories they want to tell, to whom and why. Give them a good listener, and they’re at least half way to creating a piece people will want to read. For everyone else, some coaxing – and coaching – helps.

We integrate content strategy and creation with our media relations, marketing, social media and other influence-building programs, and we start conversations with founders by explaining why we ask them to devote time to talking about what they should talk (and write) about.

Why should you spend time on thought leadership? The answer ties directly to strategic business objectives, like awareness, lead gen and more.

Next, we ask executives what they want to be known for. Where is their expertise? What initiatives do they want to champion? Which publications would their moms be impressed to see them in? And what are the personal stories and strong opinions that will make their ideas stand out?

To get even the most taciturn CXOs talking we:

  • Ask them to fill in the blanks in prompts like, “What is the one truth about [TOPIC] that most scares [YOUR TARGET AUDIENCE].
  • Try to learn something about their life beyond work with questions such as, “If you weren’t allowed to work for a month, what would you do with that time?”
  • Look for their origin stories by digging into their early influences, the worst advice they ever got, their best day at work and more.
  • Push for the details they might think don’t matter. It’s amazing what a simple request like, “Tell me more about that” can deliver.

When no one can write it but you

These conversations are critical to capturing a leader’s voice and incorporating it into a ghost-written piece of content. They’re also helpful for coaching purposes.

When we work with founders and executives on the drafts they write, for example, we can highlight a stilted phrase and insert a note like, “This doesn’t sound like you. When we spoke, you said it like this…”

We can also make suggestions for where to start: “These three points came through loud and clear when we talked about this topic. Make these into your subheads and use that as your outline.”

Or, “We heard these five headlines as you were speaking. Which one gets you the most fired up? Let’s start there.”

The headline on my daughter’s Shark Tank-esque experience at camp turned out to be, “Writer’s kid better at telling camp stories than creating product ideas.”

She didn’t win. But she held my attention with her story about the kid who did.

A good story, facts and a strong point of view are at the heart of writing worthy of the label “thought leadership.” Want help turning your stories into influence?