Why Leaders Should Be Writers
We’ve all heard the cliche: “Leaders are readers.”
The idea is that great leaders are curious learners, seeking out new ideas and information that can help them make smarter decisions for their organizations. And that’s where the discipline of reading comes in.
But I would take that idea a step further to say that "Leaders are writers,” as well.
Because writing is a discipline that helps us think. And we need to be able to think deeply about our ideas so that we can communicate them more clearly and persuasively to others.
As entrepreneurs, we often come up with a great idea or proposal in our heads, but then when we try to explain it to others, we confuse our audience—and ourselves—discovering that we really don't understand what we're talking about.
But when we write, we gain the perspective we need to discover any holes in our thinking. We’re able to see…
"Oh, that comes across the wrong way. What if we say it like this?”
Or, “That doesn’t really make sense, does it? I need to find some research or stats to help me clarify and back up what we’re thinking here.”
Or, “We have some stuff here we need to cut out so we don’t lose our audience."
In other words, the writing process gives us the discipline to help us shape and test our thinking. This way, we can improve the quality of our ideas—and our ability to communicate them with others.
That’s why leaders should be writers.
But I'm not saying we all have to be great—or even good—writers. I'm saying we have to be willing to engage in the writing process if we genuinely want to improve the quality of our thinking and ideas.
And as entrepreneurs that’s a function we shouldn’t outsource.
The Perils of Outsourcing Our Thinking
I learned that lesson the hard way as a young entrepreneur in the late 1990’s at the height of the Dot-Com bubble.
Even though I had written professionally for a few years, including a monthly column with Entrepreneur magazine, I didn’t have the confidence that I could write our startup’s elevator pitch or build our investor pitch deck by myself.
(I shared about my lessons learned in this article for Entrepreneur magazine: “7 Investor Presentation Pitfalls—and How to Avoid Them.”)
So I hired a venture consulting firm for a few thousand dollars to write our story. My thinking was: “Well, these guys are experts at communicating to an investor audience, and I don’t want to screw up. I can share with them the big picture of our business, and then they can do the ‘heavy lifting’ with making sure we say it in a way that connects with investors.”
The end product that they put together for us was decent. But as I started to use their material to present to “live” investors, I realized something very quickly: I didn’t own the pitch. And my audience could tell.
I remember one investor saying, “Your business might be interesting, but it doesn’t seem that you really believe in it.”
"Don’t believe in it?" I thought. “What do you mean? I’ve put in all my savings and tapped my credit cards to fund this thing, and you’re telling me I don’t believe in this? If there’s anyone who believes in this venture, it’s me!"
But I’m came to realize what he meant.
I thought I had outsourced the writing of my pitch, but what I had actually done was outsource my thinking.
And that’s why it came across to the investor that I didn’t own our story. I couldn’t communicate my passion for our business because I hadn’t done the deep thinking it takes to put together a coherent and compelling narrative. How, then, could I expect my presentation to make a strong emotional connection with the audience?
So, despite the money we spent, I scrapped the presentation the consulting firm put together for us. And after several days of wrestling with our story and researching different formats for our elevator pitch and investor pitch deck, I crafted a story that I could own—that I believed in deep in my core.
That’s when our story came to life for us—and for our prospective investors who started writing checks to fund us.
Although that venture eventually failed about 18 months later in the wake of the “Dot-Bomb” market crash in 2001, I came away with this valuable lesson (among many): Never outsource my thinking.
What I Should Have Done...
Instead of hiring the consulting firm upfront, I should have committed to putting together my best first draft. This approach would have forced me to do the hard (thinking) work required to develop our pitch in a way that I could identify the most compelling aspects of our business, which would ensure I would own the story.
It's at that point—after I've done the thinking work—that I could hire a venture consultant or another professional writer to either collaborate with me or coach me through the process until I get the pitch ready for "prime time."
The Bottom Line
When it comes to crafting your company's story, don't outsource it—whether to an outside company or your marketing team. As CEO, you must own the story if you're ever going to be effective at telling it. And that begins with thinking…through writing.
Sean M. Lyden is CEO of Lyden Communications LLC, a Strategy and Storytelling consultancy that helps entrepreneurs tap into the power of story to grow their business.
The Next Step
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