Social media, writing

How to be a thought-leader through LinkedIn

People often forget LinkedIn. Or rather, they dismiss it. It’s just that site where you put up your CV and then never go on it except to deal with those annoying Connection requests, right? It definitely was. But while we’d all pigeon-holed it as that, LinkedIn has quietly become one of the most promising of social networks – rivalling or surpassing Facebook and Twitter, not in overall size, growth or fame, but by proving hugely more effective in key metrics like engagement, particularly for a professional context.

Plenty has been written about how and why. So rather than repeat all that, read the first part of this blog post from Buffer. But if I were to name three main reasons, they’d be 1) turning it from a ‘business card’ networking site into a social network by putting in status updates/a newsfeed, 2) setting up a hugely powerful ad platform to utilise their network, 3) building a network of “Thought leaders” as bloggers.

Yes, bloggers. You thought that term had died with the 2010s, but it’s still a thing – it’s just become so commonplace and integrated into things like Facebook and media websites that we don’t even think of it as “blogging” anymore – they’re just articles (or, if I were to be pedantic, a variation on op-eds). And you know why Op-eds are still popular, and powerful, in mainstream media? People listen to them. We love them. Because they’re full of opinion – and transparently labelled as such – they contain lots of passion and emotion, or at least plenty of information from an angle that we’re interested in and want to hear about. Moreover, it has a face to it, a person behind it, someone we can judge – for better or for worse. And as human beings, these are the things that we respond to – more than a fact-sheet, more than a table.

And this is what LinkedIn has done brilliantly. For over a decade it’s been a place almost everybody feels they must have a presence on “for professional reasons”. Why not build on that – and the extensive network of contacts it’s led us to set up – by letting us broadcast our thoughts and opinions to each other? And the key element of it is because it’s Linkedin – that place for “work” – it’s not about what you had for dinner or the cat you saw at lunchtime, but something that has to feel useful, or at least relevant in some way to the world of work or your profession/industry.

So building on that – and in order to increase our time and engagement on the platform – they put in that newsfeed, allowed everyone to share status updates, links, photos, videos, all the things we already do on Facebook and Twitter. But they also added things like integration with Slideshare so users could share decks. And then they started blogging.

First, they showed us how it was done. They established a closed pool of exclusive “elite” bloggers – people like Barack Obama, Arianna Huffington, Bill Gates, people you might actually look up to professionally, admire for their ideas and strategic thinking. They got them to share their thoughts expansively on the platform. It did what social media does best – give access, be the great democratic leveler by allowing anyone to follow, hear and discuss those inspirations and ideas directly with these people that seemed otherwise a world away from yours.

Then they opened it up to everyone. Now anyone can write an Article. And anyone can follow anyone else, without going through the formal ‘Connecting’. And they’ve made it super simple and beautiful to do so – no doubt learning from modern blogging platforms like who realised the vast number of users don’t want to mess around tweaking a website, they just want to write and then post it.

And that’s what you can do now.

The ‘How to be a “Thought Leader” using LinkedIn’ is by doing just what I’ve said LinkedIn did themselves:

  1. Have something to say. Be passionate about your work, your industry, your beat – passionate enough to have an opinion about it and to want to talk to others about it.
  2. Try sharing a status update.
  3. The easiest thing is to share links – just like you already do on Facebook or Twitter. Stuff that’s relevant to people in your field. Write an accompanying sentence to say why you think this is worth reading (or not!) or what in particular you found interesting about it.
  4. Or a pure status update – say what it is you’re doing (for work) and who you’re meeting (as long as it’s not confidential of course!). Why not share a photo or a short video? Especially when you’re at a conference, a meeting or some other thing to do with your work (again, just make sure there’s nothing in it you wouldn’t want public). Say what’s interesting about it, or just celebrate the fact that you’ve met interesting people or talked about interesting things – this is still a social network, it’s just that it’s all work-related and we don’t have to feel super sick or guilty about it because THAT’S WHAT IT’S FOR.
  5. You could also share a slide deck via Slideshare (*cough* AGAIN make sure it doesn’t have anything confidential in it before you share *cough*)
  6. BTW the character limit for status updates is a maximum of 600 – roughly two tweets (by the 2018 Twitter character limits).
  7. Write an Article. Something that needs more than 600 characters, or a few tweets to convey.  Again, something you’re passionate enough to have an opinion about – and want to talk to others about. Articles can be really really long (up to 120,000 characters I think) but I recommend keeping them to 500w or less unless you really need the depth and detail (like this post!). Here’s a video from LinkedIn on how to create Articles, and some tips to get you started.
  8. Keep going. You don’t have to write every day, or even every week. But try for at least a few times a month. Maybe start with one article a month and a few status updates a week.
  9. Perhaps most important: don’t forget to listen. And converse. That means:
  10. Read your newsfeed a bit to see what your contacts are saying
  11. Find people who say interesting things and follow them so you see their stuff in your newsfeed. You don’t have to connect with them to do this, and remember you can always unfollow them later. And why not Like or Comment on their post if you’ve something to add to the conversation? You can also share their posts or links to your own feed – a quick and easy way to find things to post about.
  12. If people write comments – reply to them (in the comments)! Even if it’s a ‘thanks for your comment’ or something, it breaks down the barriers and starts conversations that could lead to new ideas, opportunities and/or collaborations. Also don’t forget you can always take it into a more private direct messaging thread, should you wish to carry on the conversation in a more closed context.

The aim is to build yourself up to a rhythm and frequency that’s right for you – there is not right or wrong amount. It’s what fits you. But you do need to do it reasonably regularly for people to get to know you.

By sharing all these things on your profile, you will establish your own voice and identity – and by consistently doing people will come to know what you stand for, what you find interesting and hopefully want to hear more because you’re talking about things they don’t know or that they too want to talk about. Just like, you know, real life.

Other key tips/things to know:

  • Anyone that you’ve connected to has the potential to receive your updates or articles in their newsfeed (their Home screen – one of the first things they will see/check when they log-in to LinkedIn). But they DO NOT have to connect with you. They can just follow you, just like on Twitter, Instagram etc. (note you can turn this option off in your settings, but if you’re reading this article, I suspect you wouldn’t because the whole point is to become more known!).
  • If you really want to, you can restrict who can see your status update or article at the post level. Most of the time it defaults to just your followers or ‘Public’. I advise doing it as Public as it means more people can find you and it’ll help grow your following. But there may be times that it’s a little more private and you’d rather do it to a specific circle of people.
  • You can also disable the comments on an Article. Most of the time I’d say don’t do it, as the conversation is the main point of this. But maybe you want to announce something and feel it’s a little sensitive – not enough for you not to tell people, but enough that you don’t want to talk about it any more than what you’ve said.
  • You can save Articles as drafts to post later. Which brings me on to…
  • Timing can be important. LinkedIn is (so far) blissfully free of an algorithm that meddles too much, meaning that generally what you see what’s been most recently posted, or at least most popular from that recent batch. Personally, I think people are more likely to be online at 9am on working days, so why not post around then? I’m not saying you have to write it all then – you can always write your Article up beforehand, then copy-paste it to post the next morning.
  • If hashtags are your thing you can tag them in your status updates and articles. LinkedIn has started surfacing these more – and also introduced the ability to ‘follow’ hashtags in your newsfeed, just like on Instagram, which could be really big in this professional context because all that content should be relevant to the thing you want to know about for your work.
  • My personal take on LinkedIn: people are on it a heck of a lot more than they admit. The key difference is, I don’t think they’re on it for that long necessarily – certainly not compared to Facebook. But there’s a significant number of people that religiously check it first thing in the morning at least 3 or 4 times a week (probably Mon-Thurs). As I mentioned before, I think the emails/notifications about new connections, work anniversaries and job searches they have running bring them in. They clear that – and then they have a quick look at their Newsfeed homepage. They might not scroll too far, and they might not spend more than 10mins total on LinkedIn. But it’s enough time to see a few posts that matter. And if you become someone whose opinions and info matter to them – they’ll want to check in more on what you say.
  • Finally, I’ve written this focused on LinkedIn because I really do believe there’s a big opportunity there. But this strategy can apply to any social network – it just depends on where your audience is and whether the platform/context is right for what you want to achieve. Are your peers all on Twitter, or Reddit, or Medium? It’s a similar thing, and it always comes back to the same basic principles: having something to say, something you’re passionate about, people you want to converse with – and then getting started.

(Bonus: here’s the Top 10 most popular articles according to someone on LinkedIn. Check out the number of likes and shares).

Journalism, writing

Tips for (science) writing


The University of the West of England are running an interesting science writing competition and asked a bunch of writers for their tips for potential entrants. Here are mine.

When you’re really into a topic, it’s easy to think that everyone else will be and it’s hard to narrow it down to just a few aspects – everything is so fascinating. I have to cover all the bases to do it justice. (This counts double if you’re coming from an academic background).

Take a few moments before you start writing to think: what is my story really about? What is the one take home message that I’d want a reader to get from my story, even if they only skimmed it or read a bit? If you were to sum up your story in a sentence or two to explain to a friend or your mum – what would that be?

In film and business, they talk about the ‘Elevator pitch’ – you catch the executive in the lift, and in the one minute between floors you succinctly pitch your idea – enough to give a taste of what the story is about, what’s fascinating about it, why it’s important and how you’re approaching it – why it’s worth them investing. It’s the same principle in writing.

More than anything, it helps you, the writer, stay focused and clear on the purpose and point of your story, in your writing, research and interviews. Your readers – and editors – will be thankful for it.


Big questions from a first book

XKCD questions
Sadly not the questions in our book

Between December and May this year, my spare time has been spent working furiously on a book. The Big Questions in Science: the quest to solve the great unknowns is a popular science coffee-table book looking at, well, exactly what it says. You can read more about it in this feature we wrote for The Observer.

The book is a joint effort between myself and two friends and fellow science writers, Hayley Birch and Colin Stuart, and it’s now available to buy in hardback to decorate your fine shelves, prop up your wonky tables and, of course, entertain and enlighten you with our fine prose.

Shit just got real.

The book came about after the three of us pitched similar ideas through our agent and our publisher, Carlton Books, were interested enough to take a punt. The subject matter is inherently fascinating, giving an excuse to delve deep into questions we ourselves would like to know the answers to. And given how I spend much of my day job editing or in meetings, it was GREAT to exercise my writing muscles, particularly at a decent length and for such interesting topics.

Looking back, it’s been one heck of an experience and I’ve certainly learned a lot about the process of book publishing, my writing and myself. Here are a few of my lessons learned: Continue reading “Big questions from a first book”

Blogging, Editing, Journalism, writing

How we write about science

Every year for the Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize (now in its third year) we run a series of blog posts with our partners at the Guardian, offering advice on science writing from those of us lucky enough to be doing it as a day job.

This year I’ve had the pleasure of running the series, picking the writers, the format, the questions and editing their answers. In the first year we went for our personal tips, last year we asked for our favourite pieces of writing. This year I went for a straight Q&A format: several of the most commonly asked (at least to me) questions we get asked by those looking to break into the field – and exactly those on the minds of anyone looking to enter the competition.

We’re posting a couple every week and you can read all of them on the Guardian and the Wellcome Trust blog.

It’s been a real privilege to work with the words of such wonderful professionals, and such an inspiration to hear their thoughts. There are already several highlights for me, but I’ll save them to pick out when the series is over and the whole bunch are there to read. In the meantime, back to the editing…


The Story

The Story
"To thine own self be true"

There have never been so many stories, or so many ways to tell them. We can tell stories in the pub, on television, in books, through games, on stage, over mobile phones, on twitter, in newspapers — any time, place or object that we can share with others can be the birthplace of a story…. This is surely the most exciting time in history to be in the story-telling business.

I had a day off on Friday. Not to go on holiday or laze around or even to fulfill some chore. I took a day off to sit in a conference hall with some 100 other people to just listen to stories.

I’ve said before that learning from your peers is the best way to improve, and indeed to be inspired. That’s why I signed up for The Story. Sometimes the best way to improve your work is to learn from other fields, particularly those perceived to be much more ‘creative’ than your own. Continue reading “The Story”

Blogging, writing

Blogging science

A couple of weeks ago, I arranged for Ed Yong to come to the Trust for a lunchtime talk on science blogging. It was an interesting discussion and very timely given that we’re currently establishing a Wellcome Trust science blog. What was interesting from my perspective was that Ed is someone who blogs for his own highly successful site, but also for an organisation (he writes for Cancer Research UK’s Science Update blog in his day job).

Expecting a lot of questions on Ed’s Not Exactly Rocket Science site, I was pleasantly surprised that a fair number of people seemed interested in what blogging could do from an organisation’s point of view, which bodes well for interest in our own blog.

Ed talked about his reasons for blogging, how it differed from other media and gave his tips on how to run a successful blog. He made some excellent points:

Continue reading “Blogging science”


Positive thinking negative?

I just read this feature article (actually an extract from a forthcoming book) in the Guardian Weekend magazine. In it, Barbara Ehrenreich hits out against the ‘positive thinking brigade’ that surrounds cancer, and indeed most major illnesses or calamities.

I’m not entirely sure what to make of it, but it’s an interesting piece. The article focuses on cancer, but is actually about the perceived ‘American’ positivity that is being peddled — backed up by bad science — in society. Ehrenreich points out several contradicting studies and features accounts from different people who have had little benefit from positive thinking.

Continue reading “Positive thinking negative?”


Improving as a science writer

With the onset of a new decade, many people’s minds have naturally wandered back to ten years ago and just how much can change in such a relatively short space of time.

Back at the turn of the millenium I hadn’t a clue that there was anything in science outside of the lab bench, yet alone had an inkling that I would one day be working in that sphere. I’d enjoyed a History of Science module at undergraduate level and had a hunch that people were doing something like it somewhere — somebody had to be writing those non-academic paper pages in Nature. Nevertheless, none of my undergraduate tutors had a clue how I would get into it. ‘Do a PhD’ they said. Fat chance.

I’ve been in science writing, or science communication, for over five years now having stumbled rather than launched myself into it. In a way, I envy those that are entering the field now. The opportunities, the training and the support networks available are extraordinary. But the more people that enter the already burgeoning ‘SciCom’ field, the more those of us who are in it have to step up our game to keep up.

I once read that a wise man realises he knows nothing, or something along those lines. There are many times when I have no idea what a researcher is saying to me, let alone how I am going to explain this in 500 words. And like any writer, I always feel I can improve on my craft.

What keeps me going is the inspiration I get from my peers work. I learn by reading, watching and listening to the extraordinary discoveries being made every day in science and technology, and analysing how my fellow science communicators explain it in a compelling, beautiful narrative.

I hope to highlight some of these works in this blog, as well as the occasional thoughts on events and news that I come across. Today, the internet has more science blogs than you can shake a stick at (if you can shake a stick on the interweb). I’ve often wondered what I could possibly contribute to that. But with this blog, I’ll attempt to get off my arse and find out.