What You Need to Do to Become a Thought Leader

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Our society generally frowns upon bragging. Your mom may have even scolded you when you tried to toot your own horn. We recall her wisdom every time we are cornered by colleagues who blow hot air about how smart they are.

But can we surmount the “mom hurdle” and accept the fact that bragging, done right, can help you further your career and your business? Most assuredly. But don’t think of it as bragging, think of it as becoming known as a thought leader.

Let’s take a look at three content-delivery approaches you can use to launch a thought leadership campaign for yourself or the executives you advise:

  1. Speaking
  2. Writing
  3. Research

Thought leaders speak

Social Driver Chief Strategy Officer and co-founder Anthony Shop pursues appearances that spotlight his expertise in digital marketing. “My approach is not to ‘sell’ Social Driver’s capabilities or services as much as to educate [audiences] about what we have learned from working with a variety of clients,” he says. “Whether the audience will be composed of potential business leads is not my sole concern. I also am interested in an engaging discussion where the audience and I can learn from one another.”

Pro bono speaking opportunities can boost thought leadership and top-of-mind awareness. My own approach is to accept this type of engagement if it puts me in front of an audience that allows for an interesting exchange of views. One important note: no holding back when speaking pro bono; you still have an obligation to deliver meaningful content.

Video can support your speaking endeavors, too. Witness the Harvard Business School’s Amy Cuddy, who made a name for herself with a video that became one of the 50 most-viewed TEDTalks ever. “Your body language shapes who you are” featured research-based yet accessible content related to nonverbal communication.

Thought leaders write

“A constant article-writing stream keeps one’s visibility and credibility high and constant,” says Ken Lizotte, chief imaginative officer of emerson consulting group http://thoughtleading.com. “To produce only one or two articles means people will soon forget you. But keeping articles coming conveys the message that the author is a thought leader year in and year out.”

Once written, your articles need to see the light of day. Where to start? Some ideas about external publications:

  • Membership organizations to which you belong that publish newsletters and journals
  • Trade publications that cover your industry
  • An op-ed in your hometown newspaper
  • A column in the local business weekly

Also, don’t ignore internal publishing options. Although they doesn’t offer quite the same legitimacy, they do add to your portfolio while raising your search engine visibility. A few possibilities:

  • Your website
  • Your blog
  • An e-newsletter distributed to important clients and executives

Thought leaders publish research

Most of our moms reminded us more than occasionally to do our homework. Thank goodness she was so adamant, for that discipline comes in handy in our working world. Few things make you stand out from your competitors more than conducting research projects and disseminating the results.

Joyce Bosc, President of Boscobel Marketing Communications, regards her research as a pie: “We serve the whole pie in a whitepaper,” she says. “We divide the pie up into slices and blog them. We tweet bites about the blogs and the whitepaper. In some cases, we do events to share the research.”

Don’t think you need a PhD to pursue research. Dense, footnote-laden, academic language is not required. Settle on a topic in which you hold expertise and dig in with one or more of these four techniques:

  1. Interview luminaries in the field.
  2. Conduct surveys.
  3. Tell stories about your experiences.
  4. Use new media channels to gather opinions.

Once you’ve drafted your report, circulate it among a select group of trusted colleagues to check for errors and to gain valuable feedback.

Finally, be sure to integrate your research into your speaking and writing endeavors, taking full advantage of the speaking-writing-research troika.

Determine the right approach for you

How can you best use these three tools—speaking, writing, and research—to boost your thought leadership profile?

Allow me to share a personal story. Some years ago I queried a few trusted colleagues. Based on their views of my strengths, I decided to pursue the speaking and writing avenues. Only after I had systems in place for those two approaches did I then add research to the mix.

The point is to find the mix that works best for you.

You should also pay attention to your inner voice: You know what you are good at and what you like to do. In the end, this should be a pursuit you find pleasurable. Why weigh yourself down with tasks you detest?

It is possible to let your light shine while demonstrating the modesty that mom encouraged. Map out your plan for the speaking, writing, and research projects that will help you advance your thought leadership capabilities.

Act as if your career and business goals depend on it. They do, you know.

This article is based on Ed’s research report, But Mom Told Me Never to Brag: Overcoming the Thought Leadership Hurdles.

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