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Translating Complex Ideas into Compelling Stories | Rhea Wessel

Translating Complex Ideas into Compelling Stories | Rhea Wessel

How storytelling can bridge the gap between expert and audience.

An interview with Rhea Wessel about creating an engine for content creation rooted in expertise.

There are two major challenges thought leadership practitioners face when they sit down to codify their ideas:
Too many ideas, and a big, blank page.

Sitting down to codify your content can feel like a daunting task. You’ve got tons of insights – but when you’re staring at that first page, everything freezes up.
Where do you even start?

To learn how to gather your insights, map them out, and codify expert solutions, I’ve invited Rhea Wessel, the Founder of the Institute for Thought Leadership. Rhea helps companies turn their subject-matter experts into thought leaders, enabling them to share their insights clearly, cohesively, and fluidly.

Our conversation begins with a common issue: Should thought leaders give away their best insights for free? Rhea discusses the balance between how much content a thought leadership practitioner should share, and how much should be kept in reserve for clients, and most importantly – why that line exists and where to draw it.

As a journalist with 25 years of experience, Rhea has developed methodologies to help experts identify topics, map them out, and apply their knowledge in a way that offers a valuable solution to their audience. This “story engine” can help overcome the fear of giving away ideas, by generating a constant flow of topical insights.

Finally, we take a look at the things that make content compelling. Rhea tells us to include an element of transformation – either in a person, team, or project. In order to create that, you need to understand the full story of the transformation, from the beginning to the end. Be sure to describe the waypoints of change, and illuminate why that transformation was critical to success.

Three Key Takeaways:
  • Good ideas that sit on the shelf aren’t helpful. Giving away ideas that create buzz and show promise is the best way to get your content, and your name, recognized.
  • Good content will make an audience say, “Tell me more!” Make sure they see quickly what your insights do, and why they’re valuable.
  • Compelling content needs to lead the audience through a journey of transformation.

If you need a strategy to bring your thought leadership to market, Thought Leadership Leverage can assist you! Contact us for more information. In addition, we can help you implement marketing, research, and sales. Let us help you so you can devote yourself to what you do best.

Join the Organizational Thought Leadership Newsletter to learn more about expanding thought leadership within your organization! This monthly newsletter is full of practical information, advice, and ideas to help you reach your organization’s thought leadership goals.

And if you need help scaling organizational thought leadership, contact Thought Leadership Leverage or reach out to Bill Sherman on Linkedin!



Bill Sherman How do you transform complex ideas into compelling stories? That’s one of the biggest challenges in thought leadership, because an idea that will excite your experts just might not be framed in a way that appeals to your target audiences. So in today’s conversation, I sit down with Rhea Wessel. As a financial journalist, she wrote thousands of pieces for outlets such as The New York Times and Wall Street Journal. She’s now taken her skills into thought leadership, and she currently leads the Institute for Thought Leadership. In today’s episode, we’ll talk about building the bridge between your expert and your audience. We’ll also talk about turning ideas into stories, finding the hook and framing the story. I’m Bill Sherman. And you’re listening to Leveraging Thought Leadership. Ready? Let’s begin. Welcome to the show, Rhea.

Rhea Wessel Thank you, Bill. Glad to be here.

Bill Sherman So, I want to start with a question about creating value for your audience specifically. You’ve said that sometimes people are afraid, giving ideas away for free. Can you explain that a little bit more for me?

Rhea Wessel Yeah, sure. So I think in when you’re writing for your audience as part of your thought leadership practice, there is a balance to strike between how much to give away and how much you’re going to charge for in terms of advisory fees, speaker fees, etc.. Many experts walk a fine line with that. It’s a difficult thing to know, especially if you’ve put your ideas into a methodology. Right. And it’s been visualized. It feels more valuable. It is a piece of intellectual property. And I came across this in my writing practice that I actually did couldn’t understand what they’re talking about because they didn’t give me enough information. And I was editing an article and, you know, so you’re surely not going to give away so much that I can use your methodology without you. How do you decide that? It’s a fear. And I think as you start to publish more frequently, then you can overcome that fear.

Bill Sherman And I think you talk about process and methodology, right? Certainly, if your organization is focused on professional services in one way or another, there’s a fear of giving away the secret sauce. Right. But at the same time, I think you also see it in B2B organizations that are providing product or service, and it becomes an unnatural fear and counterproductive that you want something in exchange for the idea. Have you seen that?

Rhea Wessel Yeah. It’s a transactional mindset that you get. You describe there and I believe in the abundance of the universe and the abundance of ideas. And I am not saying it was easy for me to go out and release my models to the world. Right. Because, yes, I’m in business as well. But I believe that I’m going to be blessed with the next good idea and that there’s more idea, good ideas coming.

Bill Sherman Have you seen examples where organizations maybe they’re thinking that this has to serve immediately a marketing purpose rather than a thought leadership purpose. And so if we’re going to give the idea away, you’re going to give us your contact information or you’re going to go into our lead funnel and you agree to have a conversation with someone from sales. And it’s almost asking more from your audience than what they’re willing to give.

Rhea Wessel Yeah. Yeah. I think you’re on to something there. To go into the lead funnel, to give your email, that’s a big ask. And there are so many people out there publishing great ideas and sharing their great ideas that the reader is probably just going to turn somewhere else so that that strategy for B2B marketing could be counterproductive. One of the things that I say in my book is go out there, give away your ideas for great. You’ll build and win trust. And that will come back and come back to you in turn and in time and in measure.

Bill Sherman So you come to thought leadership from a journalist’s mindset?

Rhea Wessel That’s right.

Bill Sherman Is that right? So I want to ask you first, what is it that you’ve learned or you carry with you from journalism into the practice of thought leadership? What skill has been helpful for you?

Rhea Wessel Mm hmm. Okay. What skill has been helpful? I think the journalistic skill of finding the story and framing the story is really key. And that’s how I’m coming at this. That’s different than most of the rest, because and I’ll just back up a little bit and tell the story of how I got into this work as a professional writer for 25 years, having written for Wall Street Journal, BBC New York Times, I was working for companies, a lot of them professional services companies, and being asked to edit the articles written by teams in which they’re presenting a concept and new idea, maybe, let’s say about supply chain or fintech or something like that. I would get into these articles and see the same repeat problems, and then I’d have to go on calls with a team of authors who spent their weekends and evenings drafting this article and basically help them understand why I’m about to massacre it. And then it went something like this. You know, I would hold up if it was a video call of the article and say, I heard it, heard it, heard it, and reading through it and taking it off. Oh, that’s a new idea. That’s interesting. Yeah, that’s teasing my brain. And then I would recommend flipping back to the top, kick out the rest, then something else. And I call these framing conversations and I had so many of them with so many experts that I realized that it’s a widespread problem because people are super knowledgeable in their fields, they’re taught to think in right in a in an academic way. And so that is that’s what I’m bringing here, is to help you structure the ideas in that way and also find out what to write about, because that is another widespread problem, especially when you have your own content schedule. You’ve got to get out there with the next article. I noticed you don’t have this problem. You always have a great article and that is story ideas. But many people are literally like, What do I write next? What do I write next? And so the system that I created, the story framing system helps you find those stories, and it’s about the journalistic take on there, meet the needs of the audience and delivering your knowledge as a solution to their problems and setting it up that way.

Bill Sherman So let’s dig deeper on this. I think you point to something where many experts struggle with. They know a lot. They have a lot of expertise. There are many things going through their head, but it is very hard for them sometimes to figure out what piece of knowledge, what idea they have is advancing the conversation from the readers perspective or from their audiences perspective. The thing because the thing that the expert may be interested in may be beyond or further advanced than what the audience is ready to hear. Mm hmm. And so you almost need an outside perspective sometimes for someone to say, there, that’s goal. Talk about that. Would you agree? Based given your stories?

Rhea Wessel Yes, definitely. That’s the role of an editor in a in the process of generating ideas and articles and books and so forth. Is that outside perspective to help you see that? And even journalists can get a little bit too down in the weeds in their topic. And one one way I suggest people tackle that problem is to look at a landscape of problems faced by one particular audience, then choose one of those problems that you, as the expert, know a lot about. And then take that problem, for instance, to a mind map and really look at it from different angles. Really? 360 degree. Break it down. What are the components of that problem? And with that mind map, then you can apply your solutions as an expert. And it’s like the popcorn, the ideas, the story ideas just come right out. And if it works, I do this in live story framing demonstrations. So I’ll bring an expert onto the show or onto the stage and don’t know anything about their subject matter. And within about 5 minutes, we’re coming up with headlines as a group. So, it works.

Bill Sherman And I think and I’d like to hear your thoughts that part of the challenge is for those story topics, not only finding topics that intrigue you, because if you’re creating the content, it’s still got to intrigue you in some way. Otherwise, your audience won’t be interested if you’re not interested. But you have to think from your audience’s perspective as well. If you only create content, whether it’s a video or a podcast or a article or whatever, and it only intrigues you. You failed because you’ve got an audience of one.

Rhea Wessel That’s right. That’s totally right. And that’s why that mind map that I just described is all about the audience’s problem. And that is really why they’re driven to you as an expert. Is probably not for entertainment. They go to other places for that. Right. It’s great if you can deliver your knowledge with a touch of entertainment as well. They’re coming because they have a problem. Right. And you’ve got to acknowledge that. You’ve got to have looked at it in a different way or synthesize it in a new way or broken it down in a new way to tackle it. And one example I like to give is the topic of digital transformation. Right? So a lot of people in professional services are writing about digital transformation. It’s massive. We need knowledge in this area, but please do not publish an article with the headline. Digital is here to stay in. Your company needs a digital transformation. That is just not a story anymore. Right. And I can’t tell you how many times that’s come across my desk to edit that. Right.

Bill Sherman In 1999. That would have been fantastic. Right.

Rhea Wessel Exactly. And the thing is, often when I take a look at these pieces, then they’re actually gems of ideas. There are great ideas packed in there. They’re just packaged wrong. Right. And so that’s when I have to go problem with the team or the writer and say, look what is fascinating and let’s switch that around. And that’s my examples for me, too, to achieve what you’re talking about. It’s a matter of looking at your audience’s problems, and it’s easiest I find, if you only do one very niche audience and one problem at a time. Right. So if you look at your set of ideas, your set of knowledge, you’re going to find that you actually have multiple audiences and they have multiple problems. So if you repeat the exercise X number of times, then and then apply your solutions as headlines in the journalistic style then. Will roundly be out of stories, too, right? That’s my.

Bill Sherman Oh, absolutely. Because you can change one of the variables. You can swap out an idea to the same audience and use the same modality. Or you can say, okay, I want to use the same idea and modality, but a slightly different audience and they have needs. And so that alone makes your story engine so good. You pointed out something though, that as you do the editing pass in a review and as he said, what people lead with and I’ve seen this in writing, too, it’s almost like they have to get their engine going and put some things on paper before the real idea comes out. And that editorial I to say, huh, that’s interesting here. I know it’s in paragraph six or paragraph ten or page 20. Tell me more about this, because I haven’t heard anything here. That’s exactly what your audience is looking for. The. Huh? That’s interesting. Tell me more. That’s the core definition of an idea. And if you can put that at the front of your piece, rather than buried deep in the article, they’re going to stop scrolling. You’ll have their attention and their permission to go further. And I think. Academic writing, to your point of view is counter to that, right? It doesn’t think about social media and you’ve got 5 to 8 seconds at most to get attention.

Rhea Wessel That’s right. Yeah. It’s set up differently. And I have seen that authors have in companies writing for the company have also been steered wrongly by the company themselves by having they receive a template that teaches them and shows them to put the key takeaways at the bottom, and then they generate something new and interesting and the key takeaways and that actually belongs in the lead. So and this is a company I’m thinking of that’s actually quite advanced in their thought leadership strategy and so forth. Some of the templates are broken because they’re too close to the academic style for their articles. And I get a sense of though I’m preaching to the choir the way you talk about it like that. That’s exactly. Exactly. Well, and.

Bill Sherman My mindset these days is if you’re doing a white paper, which is long form, you have to be willing to accept that your audience may only look at the cover of your white paper. They might not even download it. And that covers your first chance to communicate a big idea. And so if you’ve got a splash graphic that says nothing about the idea or the insight, you’ve wasted your opportunity to communicate to that audience. Go ahead and put your big ideas smack on the cover because that that’s your possibly only chance to get someone’s attention. And that’s much more from the journalist’s perspective. It’s the hook in the lead that matters, right? Those first two, three sentences and writing them are tough.

Rhea Wessel That’s right. Sometimes it’s difficult also for journalists and authors who are experienced. This doesn’t come out maybe until you’ve been working with the idea set for quite some time. It’s the kind of thing that would go on the back cover of your book, right? It’s that that highly synthesized. It’s that highly honed for your audience. And I totally agree it belongs on the front cover also in publishing. And I tell you, I’ve come across many websites and also books that I’ve had to read in a professional context. And I’m just like, tell me what it is, you know, reading, reading, reading. They’re talking about how great it is. And this is setting up the problem. Well, what is it? You know, and that actually belongs on the cover, as you say, the big idea belongs on the cover. And for your article in your lead and your headline.

Bill Sherman Well, and it’s fascinating. And I think social media is a good way to train yourself for this. Right, is if you write a piece for social media, say LinkedIn, for example, you get almost instantaneous feedback on do people engage with the idea or does do they just scroll through the feed? Right. Even if you have the right audience, you get a sense of, hmm, good story, bad lead. And that’s okay. Because in social media, you know, if it didn’t work on Tuesday, you could always rewrite and publish it next week with a different lead to see if you can be more engaging. And so part of it is constantly engaging with and listening to your audience to figure out what gets their attention.

Rhea Wessel Yes, definitely. That feedback was super important.

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Bill Sherman So you talk about complex ideas and compelling stories. And I want to ask you first. What makes a story compelling?

Rhea Wessel Well. My answer to that, what makes a story compelling is that it includes an element of transformation, and it can be in a transformation in a person, can be transformation in a team of people working together in a project or even in a product if you’re writing about a product. Now, we to set up a transformation in this type of business writing, you need to understand the situation at the beginning and the situation afterwards. And so when I’m writing the story for others as a ghostwriter, not my self, then I’m interviewing. For story. So there was even a great book called Interviewing for Story. Right. Journalists are learning. Learn as they do that they’re picking out the nuggets from the experts head to get the story, waypoints to set it up. And ideally, it’s going to show how something changed or went or something went, let’s say, on a transformation journey and didn’t change. Right. It can also be that way. So that’s, I think, what you can look for and try to build into your stories. And it’s when you’re the story is about you sharing your expertise, it is a little trickier how to how to do that. But there’s going to be some sort of logic and narrative tension built in.

Bill Sherman Well, and let’s go back to that story of digital transformation. Right. If you’re telling the story, you can tell a couple of different stories. You can tell a story of the past of how digital transformation has been going on. But that’s not all leadership. You can provide advice today on challenges your audience is facing, or you can look forward into the future and say what’s coming down the road the next three, five years that you need to prepare for digital transformation. Right. And so the ability to get people to look ahead of today’s problems, because I think in life, we’re always looking at our feet, whether it’s in the personal side or in our professional role. We’re focused on, what do I need to solve today? Someone who can tell me a story of what I need to prepare for in the future that’s valuable.

Rhea Wessel That is very valuable. Yes. And I think that is a key thing in your role as you’re developing as a thought leader, is to have an opinion on these things and not be afraid to stick out, stick your neck out with something potentially sounding slightly silly. Right. But if you can back it up and you have your pieces and you’ve got your experience to show along with it, definitely that that is what that leaders do, that they’re leading the conversation in their niche, they’re setting the agenda, they’re showing the trends, they’re bringing it forward. Definitely got that forward motion. And so if you are stuck and don’t know what to write next, you know, posing that question to yourself or having a chat with someone close to you and then kind of listening to what you say and then getting that into an article that’s a great service to your readers. And I encourage that.

Bill Sherman Well. And these peer to peer or expert to audience conversations are great places to take notes because they do spark ideas for content and the things that you can share. Right. And so whether that’s having a notebook you keep with you or some sticky notes or whatever, find a way to get those into your content calendar. I think that’s by far one of your best tools is to listen to what you say and to what others ask, because there’s stories there.

Rhea Wessel There are stories there that is good fodder for for articles, definitely. And I think in addition, you can also understand when you when your raw energy is best set to writing. And I’ll give you an example. I’m a morning person. I just wake up early. I feel great. The world is my oyster. And often before I even do my morning meditation, I’ve already got a story idea and I have a way to capture that sitting next, you know, on the on the bedside table. And many of the articles just came out then. And so if you know that about yourself and it helps to have a capture method. Another thing I do that is is quite good is when you’re on the road. I have created a WhatsApp group where I’m the only member so I can WhatsApp myself and then you can hold down the microphone button for speech to text and you can dictate your idea into a chat to yourself. And I used to just speak the ideas because I listen to a lot of audiobooks. So driving around an idea and I would speak the ideas, but then I had hundreds of my own audio messages to listen to that wasn’t working. So if you put them to text, then you can capture that idea and then you have one feed of your own thinking and it’s captured. And I think that’s, that’s a nice idea.

Bill Sherman That is quite useful. I may borrow that one because every now and then I’ll have an idea when I’m out on a run or something. And yeah, you don’t have a pen and paper handy, but you always have your phone. So good idea there. I want to turn to the concept of the internal expert or even the executive who says, maybe I can get out one or two articles or two pieces of thought leadership, but I know that requires more than just a one and done. And I’m not sure there’s more than one piece in me joke that you know what people skeptical of the how much they can put out.

Rhea Wessel Well, the usually I come across people who have kind of the opposite problem. They have so many ideas, they’re not sure how to herd them into the right direction. But then again, they get to the place that you’re talking about once they actually are in the in the habit of creating ideas and in articles. And so let me try to address both ends of that spectrum when you’re feeling stuck and don’t know what to write about next. Again, I think going back to the audience in their problems, breaking that down, looking at it that way is the best way. Again, for the opposite end of the spectrum. When you have so many ideas, then it’s I think it’s great to create categories for your collection method, right? And as you work through it, then that’s when the ideas can cross-pollinate without you really knowing it. So like in the core methodology of my book, the story framing system that just literally happened by accident, I was sitting at my desk, I was reviewing my own slides from something I had taught years before. I was coming up with some new ideas and I was like, Wow, those two things sit. And then then I created something new. And so that’s why the collection process is so important, and you don’t want to outsource that. And if you’re feeling stuck, to go back to your original question, I do think that working with a journalist and a ghost writer and a story coach can be all in one same person is a great idea to be interviewed. Have someone interview you for the story they see you writing right in the act of being interviewed. The act of having to articulate the answers to the questions. You’ll come up with new ideas. And so there’s plenty of people working in ghostwriting who do those type of interviews, but there are also people who are story coaches, and they’re there to help you find and shape your best ideas into articles.

Bill Sherman Well, and I know that some of the work that you do where, as he said, in terms of that ideation and brainstorming, where all of a sudden you go from, well, maybe I have an idea or two to wow, here’s 30 topics that I could work on. I’ve got this plan, and then it’s just a matter of putting those into production and time to be done. And I’ve heard and seen those interview conversations where you chat with someone for half an hour or even an hour and you can have a good dozen topics. You’ve got more that you’ve considered, but all of a sudden you’ve got a good dozen. What’s like, Oh yeah, we could write all of these.

Rhea Wessel Yep, that’s right. That’s right. That’s a fruitful conversation. And I expect to walk away from this conversation with you. Bill and I also have some new ideas, too, right?

Bill Sherman Oh, exactly. Exactly. So I want to ask you a question about. What you’ve learned over the course of your career. But I’m going to frame it this way. At a point where you transitioned from active journalist into the world of thought leadership. Right. What advice would you give yourself at that point that you know now? So based on everything that you’ve learned, if you could go back in time and give your younger self advice, what would it be?

Rhea Wessel Mm hmm. Okay. I’m going to need a couple of seconds to think about this. Here’s my transition into the role of thought, leadership and writing for companies. It did happen very slowly and. I’m just going to talk. I think I’ll let an answer to your question. What I did notice is that the journalistic skill set is so, so, so valuable in organizations. And I would so I had my journalism assignments as well, and then I would have my corporate assignments. And I was always noticing I’ve been now working with this company for two months and now I’m writing a speech for the board member. Now, you know, and now I’m having an interview with the CEO because as I got to know the company and the people I’m working with, they see the importance of being able to find the story, get the story, get it on the paper. And so it’s maybe that’s the advice to the younger self is like, don’t underestimate it, you’re on the right track. This is super valuable. You’ve been you’re lucky you were trained to do that and to find stories like this, to build concepts, to have that and use what you have and go out there to the world because many, many people need that. So that that maybe would be good advice to the younger self because I didn’t really see it coming. It was just the way that I saw it and train. And then I was noticing like, okay, I have been hanging around and I’m already, you know, chum with the partners of this because they, they see the value in the way that you help get the ideas into shape and make them fit to serve the audience. And it is a skill that can be learned. You don’t have to be a journalist to do it. And that’s basically the mission that I’m on now with my company and with what I’m doing. My work is I’m taking this journalistic skill set to the experts of the world and say, Hey, you’ve got great ideas. Please don’t leave them stuck in your head. So you take this toolkit I’ve got here for you. Let’s get them out of your head and into the world, because the world needs to hear those great ideas. And that’s what.

Bill Sherman Well, and that’s the distinction between being smart and practicing thought leadership. You can be smart and have lots of great ideas, but if they just stay in your head or on your hard drive or on your shelf and you don’t help them reach scale, you’re not practicing thought leadership. And that’s a shame because as you said, the world needs more good ideas that create impact. So, Rhea, I want to ask you a question before we wrap up. How can people find you?

Rhea Wessel Oh, okay, great. So you can go online, google me. You can look on the website Institute for Thought Leadership dot com and LinkedIn, of course, and my book is on Amazon and other booksellers as well.

Bill Sherman Fantastic. Thank you very much for a wonderful conversation today, Rhea.

Rhea Wessel Thank you, Bill. It’s been a pleasure.

Bill Sherman If you’re interested in organizational thought leadership, then I invite you to subscribe to the OrgTL newsletter. Each month we talk about the people who create, curate, and deploy thought leadership on behalf of their organizations. Go to the website and choose join our newsletter. I’ll leave a link to the website as well as my LinkedIn profile in the show notes. Thanks for listening and I look forward to hearing what you thought of the show.

Bill Sherman works with thought leaders to launch big ideas within well-known brands. He is the COO of Thought Leadership Leverage. Visit Bill on Twitter

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