11 Writing Tips to Engage & Keep An Audience (From Thought Leaders Who've Done It)

JD Supra Perspectives

[Law firm consulant Lance Godard originally published the following post on his blog after asking recipients of JD Supra's 2018 Readers' Choice Awards for insights on maximizing visibility of their writing:]

JD Supra just published its 2018 Readers’ Choice Awards, recognizing the 240 most-read authors of legal analysis and business commentary out of the 50,000(!) who publish on the site, and once again it’s full of valuable competitive information on what’s important to clients across a broad range of disciplines.

I wanted to find out from the most-read authors of 2017 why they think readers keep coming back to their work. My question:

As a top author in your category, what is one piece of advice you’d give other attorneys or writers trying to gain the same sort of visibility?

Responses form the top authors are insightful:

1. Stay on top of emerging topics and issues

From Kathryn Rattigan (Robinson & Cole), #1 in Airlines/Aviation: “Determine one area that you are looking to position yourself as a thought leader in and make it a priority to stay on top of emerging topics and issues in that area. The more you read about your industry and your areas of interests, the more knowledge and insight you will have to share with others. I find that it’s best to think of blogging as a competitive hobby you enjoy so that the writing comes more naturally, which will engage your readers.”

2. Be first to market

From Robert Bell (Bryan Cave), #1 in Antitrust & Trade Regulation: “In a crowded marketplace your writing has to stand out from the crowd. I would highlight three key differentiators. It has to be relevant to your audience. Secondly, it has to be timely. Ensuring your analysis is first to market is crucial. Lastly your piece has to be written in a way which is readily accessible for your readers topped with bold eye catching headlines. One of my favourites over the last year or so was my article on the Brexit and the UK Great Repeal Bill entitled “Largest Train Crash in Modern History.”

3. Provide value

From Alan Kaplinsky (Ballard Spahr), #1 in Class Action: “Every post needs to provide value. That means being in front of developing issues so you can tell people things they don’t already know and aren’t reading anyplace else. You have to have the knowledge, that’s a given. But you also need to provide analysis and perspective to your reader. We’ve scooped major American dailies. You need to be first and best. And you need to do it consistently. It’s not easy, but that’s what it takes.”

4. Be practical

From Tom Fox (Compliance Evangelist), #1 in Compliance: “I try to provide practical advice to those in the compliance profession. If you write from an academic or strictly legal perspective, in-house practitioner may not be able to use your advice or translate your thoughts into tangible actions in the corporate world. Be practical and help in-house practitioners use the your legal insights in a tangible manner.”

5. Write about that which you’re passionate

From Linn Freedman (Robinson & Cole), #1 in Cybersecurity: “My advice is to write about subject matters that you are passionate about – that passion comes through and keeps the subject matter interesting for your readers. Keep the message succinct and get away from legalese. I like to write pieces that are practical for clients and readers and my purpose is to keep them up to date on the most recent attacks, risks and intrusions so they can take action in their own organizations. Finally, I have found that if you want to grow your readership, you have to post pieces frequently and the pieces have to be current and relevant. Posting news that is in the mainstream media is of little interest to those searching blogs for current information in a particular area (like cybersecurity).”

6. Write every day

From Michael Reif (Robins Kaplan), #1 in Finance & Banking: “Make writing a part of your everyday routine. I try to write about finance and banking nearly every day, and I find that doing so keeps me on top of the latest developments in the field and keeps me from making excuses about being too busy to fit it in my day.”

7. Be concise, relevant, and quick

From Debra McCurdy (Reed Smith), #1 author in Healthcare: “Our readers are busy executives, general counsel, and other professionals who have access to a tremendous amount of data. They want to get the most relevant information as quickly as possible.  I try to capture in a concise and understandable way what they really need to know about new health policy developments — provisions that could impact industry overall and their business in particular but aren’t featured in a [Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services] press release, for example.”

8. Be relevant and original

From Barney Reynolds (Shearman & Sterling), #1 in International Law: “Saying something well thought out, relevant and original but not perversely so.”

9. Give readers something to act on

From Raymond Lahoud (Norris McLaughlin & Marcus), #1 in Immigration: “Timely, current information, and choosing topics that will impact and resonate with your audience is key. It needs to be information your readers will act upon, otherwise it is just noise.”

10. Do your homework

From James Beck (Reed Smith), #1 in Life Sciences: “First, write about something you like and are enthusiastic about. Second, set up some kind of system (I use Lexis alerts and Westlaw case citation searches) to ensure that you learn about new developments quickly. Third, don’t be afraid to do research. Readers appreciate news that is not only interesting, but that they can use. Fourth, publish early and often.”

11. Write with emotional investment

From Steve Baird (Winthrop & Weinstine), #1 in Trademarks: “My advice is simply to write with emotional investment in your particular field of professional passion. This approach is what I believe caused best-selling author Seth Godin to draw generous attention to my brainchild DuetsBlog, after our first four years of writing about trademarks and branding topics, without us knowing until then we even had his expert branding attention. He later publicly applauded DuetsBlog as an example of how lawyers might ‘step out’ of their ‘invisibility,’ calling the blog ‘brilliant,’ ‘endlessly interesting,’ ‘filled with opinions,’ and having ‘generous, free teaching.’ After this praise, he even asked his freelancer audience, ‘who are you going to call, some drone in a big office ready to charge $800/hour, or your friend Steve, who has just as much at stake as you do?’

So, to me, with the benefit of Seth’s generous insights, writing with emotional investment implies more than great content, it requires passion, personal opinion (not boring recitation of facts and legal holdings), a generous willingness to share something of value to and with your audience, consistency, and a strong commitment to the written work.”

*             *             *

I put a similar question to Adrian Lurssen, co-founder of JD Supra: What’s the one piece of advice you would give to attorneys and writers on how they get broad visibility for their work?

Perhaps not surprisingly (but noteworthy all the same), he said the same thing, essentially using the exact same words as did the authors:

“All of the authors recognized in these awards have in common the fact that they write. Other than that, there are significant differences. They’ve all been writing for very different audiences, addressing very different matters for their own particular readers. So it is hard to generalize what ties it all together. One size does not always fit all. With that caveat, I will say this: it helps to produce a regular cadence of content. While you can get lucky and achieve enormous popularity with three or four articles in the year, ‘get lucky’ is not particularly good writing advice. So: write regularly.

I think in most cases in these awards, authors published at least once a month. Many of them wrote much more. I would fall on the side of frequency. Keep at it. In fact, it shouldn’t even be a question of “How often should I write?” Attorneys are, frankly, perfectly positioned to be thought leaders because they have a well-trained, thoughtful, important role in making sense of critical matters about the way we conduct our professional and personal lives. What they say matters. Someone who wants to be a thought leader should not ask: how often should I write?

Someone who wants to succeed at this should be driven by an inner desire to engage a community and a body of thought, and they should get busy doing just that. I suspect that many of the writers in these awards can’t help but to write often about the subject. They’re geeks, in the best sense of the word, for these topics.

Tied to that, they also have a pulse on what matters to their readers. Part of their writing includes knowing what to write about. There are many ways to do this – from deep dives into data analysis to simple exercises capturing frequently asked questions – but it is essential. Address what your readers actually care about; not what you hope they care about.

Finally, I would argue that niche is good. Don’t try to be the most well-read Labor & Employment author. Pick a niche topic or two within that space and own them…”

Study the Awards, update your content strategy, then get writing. You’ll be glad you did.


[Lance Godard has spent three decades within the legal profession, in-house and as a consultant, helping lawyers and practice groups grow their book of business. Connect with him on LinkedIn and follow his new work on JD Supra.]

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