Director of Web & Interactive Content, Speaker, Host of 'Content Lab' Podcast
June 10th, 2019
Look, I promise I'm going to share a lot of honest advice and nitty-gritty tactics to help you become a thought leader. But before we dive headfirst into this topic, there are two things I need to get off my chest.
First, there is nothing in this world I loathe more than the term "thought leader." Maybe pineapple on pizza. Maybe. A large part of my angst comes from the fact that I most often see "thought leader" bandied about by folks who have no business calling themselves thought leaders in the first place.
(Still, it's the internet, so, in theory, I guess I could anoint myself Grand High Priestess of Words, Wombats, and Whimsy in my Twitter bio, and no one could stop me.)
Unfortunately, given that a suitable synonym for "thought leader" has yet to emerge in the mainstream, we're stuck with it.
Well, I'm stuck with it, so I'll play along and use the term for the duration of this article. Because, while the term now borders on self parody, it refers to something valid. Also, even though I do not like the label, I consider it a good thing that there are so many people out there who genuinely want to have a distinct, resonant voice and be known for bold ideas that challenge convention in their space.
And I want to help you do that, too.
Second, if you're looking for me to give you shortcuts to creating meaningful thought leadership content, you've come to the wrong place. We all stare at the blinking cursor on the blank page. We all delete way more than we publish. It's part of the process.
Which brings me to my first point of what it takes to be an honest-to-goodness thought leader.
#1: Accept That You Cannot Circumvent the Creative Process or the Commitment It Requires
You have to do the work. You have to put yourself through your own creative process. And there is no such thing as a perfect creative process that everyone can use. It simply doesn’t exist.
Whether you are writing blog articles, creating video content, or developing a nascent idea, you must find a process that works for you ― and fine-tune it. There is, however, a wrong way to go about being creative.
At the risk of sounding preachy and all-knowing, I hereby proclaim that the absolute wrong way to create content is to (wait for it) not create.
In a 2015 appearance on HubSpot's The Growth Show podcast, Seth Godin spoke of his unwavering principle to produce content every single day. When he wakes up, he does not negotiate with himself about whether or not he will write, only about what he will write.
As he sees it, most people’s impediment “is not that you don’t have time ― it’s that you’re understandably afraid.”
Fear of putting oneself out there and being vulnerable is natural and, Godin would argue, healthy. He goes on:
"If you can make a decision once, then the question isn’t should I do it? It’s what will I do? If you make the decision once to be a vegan, then you don't need to have a discussion with yourself every single night about whether or not to have a hamburger.
If you make the decision to blog every single day, then the only discussion I have to have with myself is what’s the best blog post I can write―not should I write a post.
As (Saturday Night Live Producer) Lorne Michaels has said, 'Saturday Night Live doesn’t go on because it’s ready. It goes on because it’s 11:30.'”
That is probably one of my favorite quotes about creating content, period ― and not just because I'm absolutely obsessed with Saturday Night Live. (Gilda Radner, forever.) You either make the commitment to create consistently (and on schedule) and stick to it, or you don't.
So, before you try to embrace any other "hacks" or tips on creating thought leadership content, you have to accept this.
You must establish a habit that requires you to produce. What you make each day (or twice a week, whatever schedule you choose) might not always be brilliant or poignant, but it will be original and it will cement a vital habit.
Developing high quality work takes time.
There is no shortcut to producing engaging, unique content, but producing nothing ― or producing infrequently ― is the quickest way to stay where you are and have no one pay attention to you.
#2: Stop Telling People You're a Thought Leader & Start Acting Like One
We are naturally wary of self-proclaimed experts.
And, as I've shared about myself, you might also find yourself skeptical of those in your field who profess to be thought leaders. Those who do this take up the mantle from a place of ego. They're telling you they're smart, they're experts, and they're worthy of your ears and peepers.
But you don't know if they are. You don't know them at all, actually.
I know my life would certainly be a lot easier if I could just walk up to someone and say:
"Hey, I know we haven't met, but I am like super good at words and content stuff. No no, you don't need to read anything to decide for yourself. Trust me, I'm a thought leader. It's in my Twitter bio."
Others will apply that label to you only after you've proven your worth― through the consistent dissemination of original, thought-provoking ideas over time ― on their terms.
If thought leader is the eternal internet glory you seek, then you need to adopt a posture of humility and helpfulness.
A real thought leader is a teacher, of sorts, who consistently delivers useful advice to their audience. They have earned their reputation through an accumulation of experiences, setbacks, collaborations, and insights, and a willingness to share them freely in a seemingly altruistic pursuit of helping others.
#3: Embrace Discomfort As Part of the Thought Leadership Storytelling Package Deal
The best thought leaders are also powerful storytellers. But not all stories are happy ones. In fact, many of the best ones are not. So, as you begin this journey, the first thing you must understand and accept is that you need to be willing to share your own discomfort.
It doesn't matter what you do, creation and leadership in any field are messy processes rife with complications. You need to be willing to admit your own struggles.
You need to accept that you stumble. And then you need to be able to talk about it and share those experiences with others in a way that is productive and showcases that you get it. You get where your audience is, and you can help them climb out of whatever hole they're in, because you were once in their shoes, too.
If you've read Marcus Sheridan's They Ask, You Answer, you've seen this in practice already. Marcus opens the book with a chapter called "The Fall." In it, he shares an honest account of how his business, River Pools and Spas, took a sharp downturn when the economy crashed in 2008 and 2009, but he does so in a very personal way.
He described the experience―how his bank account was overdrawn, how he sat in his car feeling like a failure, and so on―in such detail that you felt as if you were sitting right next to him, experiencing the moment yourself.
Could he have simply alluded to the fact that River Pools and Spas took a hit when the economy tanked, but focused more on the "Just look at us now!" narrative and the ground-breaking digital sales and marketing strategies he used to not only save his business, but make it one of the top fiberglass pool companies in the world?
But I'm convinced what makes that book the undeniable success that it is, is the fact that he put a very dark time of his life on display, in a way that communicated between the lines to small business owners reading his book around the world:
"I'm not another marketing 'guru' who is completely out of touch with what it really means to run a business. I have been you. I have been scared. I know what it's like to almost lose everything."
It's so easy to tell stories from the top of the mountain, without wanting to show the ugliness, fear, and/or pain of what it took to get there. Who wants to air their dirty laundry or the mistakes we made along the way?
Whether we want to admit it or not, we want to appear to others (especially those who we want as clients or customers) as if we were overnight sensations who got it all right on the first try.
However, the best stories you will ever tell will often be those that make you squirm in your chair a little bit before you begin. Not all the time, of course ― you can't always be an overwrought, Dynasty-esque drama queen whenever you sit down to write or take the stage. (You don't want to give your audience emotional fatigue.)
But if you want people to root for you and see your stories as (potentially) their own, you can't gloss over the messy bits ― the moments that lead up to the big payoff. You need to share them. Otherwise, you'll just be another "out of touch" thought leader wannabe, whose ideas "sound nice, in theory" but aren't relatable or attainable because you haven't "been there" the way they have.
Beyond showing your battle scars, tapping into your own fears and discomfort can be a way of exposing deeper truths that others in your industry are seemingly unwilling to acknowledge.
“Leaders are often expected to present an air of fearlessness. We’re supposed to show no signs of weakness or worry.
Basically, we’re supposed to be robots. But that's not real life."
She then goes on to share a very personal story about a time when, as a leader, she presented a falsely "fearless" posture with her team during a time when she was terrified IMPACT was outgrowing her.
Eventually, she came out the other side and was able to share this wisdom with others, based on her experience:
"Faking strength in the form of 'everything’s fine' holds you back. Acknowledge the unknown, put a name to your fears and focus on what you can control. Your future self -- and your current team -- will thank you for it."
"One afternoon Adam sat me down for a counseling session to help me grow as an officer, leader, and future commander.
He mentioned something I needed to improve on and my brain kicked into overdrive. I cut him off, telling him how I was already working on that…
I can remember his reaction, as this was not the first time I had done something like this. He said, 'Chris if you cut me off again I’m going to punch you in the face!'
I remember at that moment thinking, 'Why am I cutting off someone who is genuinely trying to make me better? Why can’t I listen? How do I fix this huge flaw?'"
Through his vividly-told story, Chris showed that he was only able to become a good listener by recognizing he was not a good listener initially. Thus, he gave readers permission to recognize this behavior within themselves instead of denying it, because it's OK. Great listening leaders are not always born that way.
On top of that, his admission made his later, more advice-focused points stronger:
"The complex, high-stress environments we all operate in today is too difficult for us to think we can do everything ourselves. The only way to attack this environment and achieve our true potential is to work together in a truly collaborative way. When we do this, we achieve better internal results and we bring more value to our clients.
This starts with actively listening to each other.
When taking over a new team, department, or organization, you need to understand the value of listening to your team. You will not be successful if you can’t listen to them and learn about them."
"I had never had a problem with anxiety or high amounts of stress before.
But there I sat on the side of the road, unable to stop freaking out about the insurmountable amount of work I had to get done that week. About challenging conversations I may have to have with clients. And on, and on."
Only once Dan established his own experiences with work-induced stress was he able to credibly pivot to providing guidance to others who may be dealing with the same types of issues:
"It seems that a lot of us put ourselves under a ton of pressure to be doing something significant and impactful with everything we do in our careers -- and that pressure of having to do that all the time is enough to drive anyone crazy.
But again, the most important thing to realize is that others are experiencing the same fears, stressors, and anxieties you are.
We get caught up in competition at work, to a point where we are afraid to be vulnerable with each other. Coworkers cease to be friends and human beings, and instead become competitors in a struggle to advance.
Talk to them.
Others who are in your role are the best people to open up to. You’ll be surprised at how similar your situations are. Odds are they are or have gone through the exact same thing."
A week after publication, Dan received a note from a client, thanking him for writing his article:
"Though I didn't know it, I think I needed to read that today."
However, any anecdote you share must be balanced with reflection. You can't share a story without spelling out very explicitly the larger context or lesson behind it ― more specifically, you need to answer the question your audience will inevitably have:
"This story is great, but why are you telling it? Why does this matter to me?"
To that point, your stories must also always have purpose and meaning, and be laser-focused on what your audience needs from you. (You not only want them rooting for you to be successful, they should see themselves in your story, as well. They should be nodding along saying, "Wow, they get it. That's me.")
If your story doesn't come to some sort of productive end for your audience ― in a way that helps them address their problems on their terms ― you'll come across as self-indulgent and out of touch with your audience.
In the video, Marcus talked about how traditional marketing agency relationships usually fail because the agency did not do a good job of fostering the two most important relationships that matter with their client― the CEO and the sales manager.
He received a number of comments in response to his video, but the one that made him go, "Yes, this is exactly what I wanted!" is not the one you might expect:
The fact that Greg Linnenmanstons disagreed with him was exactly what he wanted. Not because he was trying to be contrary for the sake of it ― but because he doesn't want to be the person who simply parrots out ideas that everyone blindly agrees with.
He wants to put opinions out there that "go against the grain," as he puts it.
"If you're putting an actual opinion out there, in most cases, someone is going to have to disagree with you," he says. "And you want that. Otherwise, you're just singing 'Kumbaya' together."
But being someone who says things others aren't willing to― either because it is a long-held belief that is never challenged (even if others think/know it to be wrong), or because no one has considered a particular perspective before― is a tricky thing to do effectively.
Highlighting the unseemly details of our respective professions or industries can be powerful, but we also all know a contrarian who looks to find fault simply to attract attention. And they stir the pot with such regularity, you begin to tune them out.
Their words become white noise, because you quickly realize they don't seek to add anything of value to the conversation; they simply want the spotlight.
Moreover, it's easy for others to perceive your opinions as coming from a place of personal bias, rather than seeking to resolve a problem for "the greater good." So, you need to position your message as coming from a place of correcting what everyone used to believe worked and was true― yourself included.
Put your opinions within the context of wanting only to see others achieve the success that they're looking for, not for your own personal gain.
Also, be strong in your convictions, but beware of presenting those convictions as absolutes, with no room for grey area, exceptions, or debate. An absolutist approach to creating thought leadership content is a great way to turn people off, rather than inviting them to engage in a meaningful debate.
#5: Stop Writing Like How You Think You're Supposed to Sound & Start Writing Like Yourself
The first piece of advice I find myself giving to almost every single budding content contributor who wants my feedback on their work is:
"This is great, but anyone could have written this. I need more of you in it."
Too often, I have work come across my virtual desk for review where it's clear someone sat down at the keyboard and put on a mask ―a mask of sterilized professionalism.
They use tired clichés and passive voice, and never take a stand on anything when giving advice. Instead they overuse wimpy, "polite" phrases like, "you may want to consider" or "ensure that you..." to the point where you wonder if they have strong feelings about anything.
The resulting content they produce may end up being accurate and helpful, but it's also likely a giant unmemorable snoozefest.
I get it, though.
Sometimes, this is a manifestation of insecurity. The writer may be someone who is younger or greener in a given field, and they've been asked to write public-facing content that targets an "above their pay grade" audience. Or, perhaps they're writing about a topic that is outside of their comfort zone.
So, they overcompensate with big words, jargon-filled prose, and a "See, I sound like everyone else!" mentality as a way to prove they are, indeed, an expert who should be respected ― even though they feel like an imposter.
Then there's the fact that, over the course of many, many years, well-meaning English teachers and professors taught all of us through their merciless red pen edits that individuality is not a virtue in writing. To be a well-respected voice, you lead with the facts and leave your personality at the door.
The opposite is true in the world of thought leadership. To earn the recognition of being a pioneering voice in your industry, you must package your ideas and yourself together. The two cannot be separated.
A sparkling, charismatic personality without a big idea is all fluff. And a big idea without a healthy showcase of the well-defined human being behind it will be the only thing that will be remembered ― you will be forgotten.
So yes, lead with facts. Tell stories that matter. Share research. Explain new tactics. But do so in a way that is distinctly you.
Embrace your quirks. Share small tidbits about yourself as they come to mind. Use your natural language. And then ask yourself every time you complete a draft, "Does this sound like anyone else could have written it?"
If the answer is yes, you still have more work to do.
Much like telling stories that aren't drawing upon happy memories, this will feel uncomfortable at first. But trust me when I say the emotional response you will get from being unapologetically you will make it easier over time.
Ultimately, Humanity Wins in the Content Marketplace
The reality is that consumers today are more guarded and skeptical than ever before. Brand loyalty has evaporated and distrust grows daily. In such a landscape, authentic, human voices are a vital tool for connecting with customers in a way that is lasting and durable.
I think that's why thought leaders have emerged as being so powerful in the digital age. No matter how much we try to hide behind our screens, we still all seek out expertise and help from those who not only have big ideas, but also feel the most human, and close to us in our values and fears.
Being genuine and undeniably human is how you stand out and make your ideas soar.
You can't just point at a broken system and say it's broken. You also need to have a willingness to admit you've made mistakes or, "Hey! We need to really rethink what we're doing here. In fact, I've realized I now need to rethink what I'm doing, and here's exactly why."
Furthermore, never forget that pretending to be strong and being strong are not the same thing. Celebrating our humanity ― and the struggles that come from working in fast-paced, results-driven fields ― is more genuine and relatable than feigned, superhero-like impenetrability.
So, be a human first. Then, be the thought leader.