How To Become a Thought Leader In 13 Steps

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How To Become a Thought Leader In 13 Steps

Mark my words: Thought leadership will be one of the most important elements to entrepreneurship and career development in the coming years. It essence, it falls under the umbrella of personal branding, but it’s so much more than that.

Thought leadership greases the wheels to some of the most difficult to accomplish entrepreneurial feats. It leads to better SEO, more organic incoming links, easier purchase decisions from customers, momentum for your brand, and the list goes on.

Why doesn’t everyone respond to my requests for meetings? Why are journalists not responding to my calls? Why can’t I land the big fish? The answer may vary, but a very big and probable component is your lack of thought leadership. It’s not enough to just be experienced and credible, but now the burden of proof is on your shoulders to show it off in modern ways.

Is this blatant self promotion? Sort of, yes. But ask yourself this question: does your story or experience have the ability to add value to others? If the answer is yes, then who cares whether the vehicle of delivery is self promoting? When you think about it this way, it’s your job to be a self promoter!

Thought leadership in today’s world has a lot to do with content creation and distribution. This article is a prime example of a notch towards hopefully better thought leadership for myself.

The idea is I write a useful article, which you read. Since I gave you solid information, you now trust and respect me – and that might lead to more business in some way, shape, or form. Whether you buy one of our startup consultation packages, web development, or any other “product” that I sell, or it could be as simple as the SEO benefits from the non-reciprocal link.

Remember that content creation can be anything from blogging to speaking on a panel at a local event. It’s any form of media or action that puts your story further into the marketable world in a way that translates to attention and hopeful credibility.

1. Know Your Place

The first step is to not forget you’re at the first step. You’re not going to start tomorrow and in a manner of weeks and be inundated with speaking engagements and press inquiries. You’re probably at the bottom of a long learning curve to becoming an expert in your field anyway, so be patient. As your startup and career blossom, your experience and expertise will too – and with all of that will come opportunities to show it off.

One of my favorite metaphors would be that of the arcade game Donkey Kong (Not the later versions, but the original versions from the 80’s). The idea is you have to get to the top of the screen to save the kidnapped Princess from Donkey Kong, who is throwing barrels and turtles at you. You start at the bottom and can see all the levels above you, including the top-level where you can see the Princess is in trouble. Your end goal can be seen right from the start, taunting you, yet you’re so far away. If you concentrate on anything other than the level that you’re at, you’ll miss the mark and have to start over. To get from level-to-level, you navigate past obstacles and climb ladders. The problem is ladders only reach up a single level before you have to navigate more obstacles to get to the next level. There is no hidden ladder that goes from level one to the Princess. You have to play the game all the way through.

The same thing is true with thought leadership.

You must be realistic. A new entrepreneur, a new startup, a new career – they all start at the bottom. As far as thought leadership goes, this means you need to attack things at your level. If we’re talking about writing, the levels look something like this: write your own blog, then write for other’s blogs, then write for a small magazine, then write for a big magazine, then write for a small national publication, then write for a big publication.

If we’re talking about speaking engagements, this would be throwing your own event and allowing yourself to speak, then speaking to college students, then speaking on a small event’s panel, then a big event’s panel, then a keynote speech for a small conference, then a keynote speech for a big conference, then a booking agent to do it regularly, then the graduation speech at some Ivy League school.

The idea is that you have to play the game based on the level you’re at. In most cases, you can’t skip steps. The big conference won’t invite you until you prove your worth at the small conference. The big magazine won’t let you write for them until they’ve seen your writing for a small magazine. The list goes on.

I’m aware it’s frustrating to start at the beginning. But here is the other option: you don’t start at all, and you’ll never become a thought leader. So, the competitive advantage you’ll have over others is you made the conscious decision to start now and not later. Thought leadership is about the accumulation of small wins, not blindly backing into lucky attention. Although this happens from time-to-time, it’s not sustainable.

2. Practice, Practice, Practice

Whether we’re talking about giving press quotes, writing articles, giving speeches, filming videos – it doesn’t matter. They all require practice. The more you study the craft and the more you prepare,  the better you’ll be.

The act of simply starting is going to do wonders for your ability to practice. Even if you’re just giving a speech to a local community college on a subject you’re passionate about, the experience is going to be valuable to you in the future. Alan Weber, Founder of Fast Company and former Managing Editor of The Harvard Business Review says:

“Before you write a book, go out and speak about it a lot; that will help you refine it down to something that is much more manageable nugget. The process of speaking about it actually forces you to edit it, because a group doesn’t want to listen to you talk for hours. It also forces you to understand what it is that resonates with the audience.” (Ready To Be A Thought Leader, Denise Brosseau)

Just because you’re an expert at something doesn’t mean when you go to put those thoughts to paper or speech that it will come out as well articulated as you understand it in your head. Whether you’re giving a simple speech, or writing a blog that no one will read, you’re practicing becoming a better coach. The better you are at coaching, the better you’ll be at thought leadership.

“When I share an aspect or a lesson that I’ve learned, it allows me to re-internalize it. I actually learn from myself. That moment of sharing it beyond just your own thoughts, kind of makes you realize what it was again, what you really learned from that experience. And it sort of drives it home for you.” – Dr. Nina Bhatti, former Hewlett-Packard executive. (Ready To Be A Thought Leader, Denise Brosseau)

3. Build a Team of Service Providers

Over the course of a thought leader’s career he/she will need videographers, photographers, editors, a network of other builders, and much more This isn’t something you can do all on your own. Start cultivating mutually advantageous relationships with vendors like this who can help you. Simultaneously, find ways you can add value to their careers in exchange. Always attempt to give them more value than they’re giving you. It will come back around, I promise.

For example, I trade office space with event planners, videographers, photographers, and writers. I took an asset that I had (extra co-working space), and leveraged it. Not everyone is going to have office space, but I’d bet money you have something of value to trade.

4. Read, Listen, Watch, Learn, Repeat

Read blogs, read books, listen to podcasts, watch YouTube videos, read tweets from other experts, etc. If you want to be known as an expert, you have to be an expert. Although it seems obvious, it’s not that simple. The world is changing faster than it ever has before, and it’s due to a combination of worsening attention spans and technology. The person that was an expert on search engine optimization last year is no longer an expert unless they never lost sight of the fact that they need to be a perpetual student of the craft.

“The best teachers are great learners, and I believe it forces me to be a great learner to be a great teacher.” – Chip Conley, founder of Joie de Vivre Hospitality, 2nd largest boutique hotel company in America. (Ready To Be A Thought Leader, Denise Brosseau)

Ask yourself who are the thought leaders at the stage of business and industry you’re in. Then check out their blogs, LinkedIn pages, YouTube channels, Twitter accounts, etc….write down the ten things about their presences you find most appealing, take the five that you can start doing yourself, and get to work.

5. Hunt Awards

Winning big awards starts in an awkward fashion: with you applying to win them for yourself. There’s nothing glorious about seeking borderline worthless awards for yourself. With that said, you have to start somewhere. People aren’t just going to randomly start mailing you golf checks and trophies – you’ve got to work yourself up to that. Much like the Donkey Kong metaphor in step one, know your place.

Keep your eye out for currently awarded startups and entrepreneurs. What did they win? Will it be an annual thing? If so, make notes when the application process was and come back later. After winning enough self-applying small awards the real stuff will start to trickle in. But very few things look better on a LinkedIn page or resume than an award and it will go a long way towards becoming a better thought leader.

6. Create an Alliance With Other Thought Leaders

You want to know who has a list of speaking engagement opportunities? Other thought leaders. Want to know how has a list of bloggers desperate for guest posts? Other thought leaders. Want to know who needs quotes from experts for their particular content? Other thought leaders. You’re starting to get my point…

Seek out other people with the same mission of becoming a thought leader and form alliances with them. These can be as formal as you want; meaning you could choose to verbally acknowledge it’s an alliance or you loosely trade opportunities without keeping score. An alliance works just like it sounds, you have each other’s backs. Your mutual success is intertwined and advantageous. When you get asked to do a panel: ask if they need another speaker. When you score a guest post on a publication’s website: ask if they need content from other writers. The list goes on.

Every time you throw a favor to another thought leader, the psychological and social pressure of reciprocation will take over, poising them with the responsibility to throw one back at you.

7. Humanize Your Stories

Augment your written and verbal arguments with short and relatable case studies using a hybrid of personal mistakes plus famous business people doing it correctly. Your own personal stories humanize your pieces and create unique takeaways. The stories of others add credibility to the arguments as well as borrows credibility from their brand’s momentum.

“Your success as a thought leader is predicated on your ability to engage others by honing your message and telling a great story.” – Denise Brosseau, Co-Founder Forum Of Women Entrepreneurs

Talking about your faults and shortcomings is your window to not only teach, but invoke empathy. It is an unspoken level of credibility that if you bring up failures they’re not only teachable, but they imply that you also have successes. Your lack of insecurity is a modest way of also emphasizing your successes without even needing to; which is debatably the most effective way to do so.

8. Add Some Swagger To Your Step

A thought leader is just that – a leader. People don’t want to follow boring people. I’m talking about attitude, fashion, articulation style, design principles, and controversy. Anything that helps brand you as someone interesting and differentiated. The idea is to have your own personal style. Call it ‘cool’, call it ‘hipster’, no matter what you call it: don’t underestimate its importance. Be different, subtly. Do so in a way that helps you stay more easily memorable without looking like you’re trying.

Another way that I put it to the entrepreneurs that I consult is to turn yourself into a cartoon character. There is a reason that cartoons only wear one outfit most of the time. There is a reason most of them only have a first name. There is a reason they have highly accentuated personalities that seldom stray from character. It’s to make the viewer (which is traditionally a child) memorize the character easier.

There is an inflection point for which once a viewer “gets” a character in a movie or show they are more likely to become a fan. The same thing is true with you and your company. Your style, your attitude, and even that of your company’s style and attitude should all be integrated with every piece of media. In other words: your attitude matches your fashion, which matches your social media voice, which matches your arguments, which matches the design of your marketing collateral and websites, everything. The better job you do at this, the more easily memorized you’ll be – and the quicker others will turn into your fans. Much like a cartoon character.

9. Document Any Type Of Social Proof

Here’s a quick lesson in psychology. Humans are lazy. We will continue to get lazier. What hasn’t changed is our desire to make smart decisions. The combination between our need to make smart decisions and the fact that we’re lazy creatures, means we use tools to help us make faster decisions. One of those tools is called ‘social proof’. The more social proof something has, the more buy-in customers or people will have in it.

The easiest example is how bartenders put their own money in tip jars at the beginning of the night. They do so because their customers will think many others have already made the decision to tip, therefore it feels more like the right thing to do than if there was no money in the jar. The same phenomenon is the reason why nightclubs force people to wait in long lines outside the club despite it being empty inside – because it implies to passersby that the place is cool.

Thought leadership is all about documenting your personal social proof. It’s decent thought leadership to give a speech to 500 people. It’s great thought leadership to give a speech to 500 people…and then take a picture of yourself with the packed audience in the background that ultimately gets pushed to your social networks. The crowd implies you have something smart to say, even if you were just testing the mic!

It’s not enough to just get the opportunity. When you write a guest post for a blog, get mentioned by the paper, give a speech, whatever it is that validates other’s buy-in of your “thoughts”, document it and find ways to blast it out and keep it around forever.

10. Use Multiple Forms Of Media To Tell Your Story

You’ve heard the adage ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’…well, a video is even better. People remember what they see more easily than what they hear, or read. So make the storytelling process easier on them, and give them what they want. In your quest to document your social proof, have a bend toward video.

That said, don’t just use video. Use podcasts, high quality writing, pictures, hold events – whatever you can think of. People learn more efficiently through some mediums more than others, so give your following options. They’ll choose to hone in on the ones that help them learn the best. What we want them to learn is that you are an expert worthy of a leadership role.

11. Niche Thyself

What keywords or phrases do you want to own? It should be an incredibly hard question to answer. If it’s easy it’s because you’re probably rattling off too much. A focused niche will make it easier to become a radical expert in that field. It will also help create a monopolizing mind-share in your following/customer’s/fan’s heads. By mind-share I mean are you the name that is thought of when someone says “residential photographer” or “female bodybuilder” or “mobile technology startup guy” or “Kansas City angel investor”? All of your social proof documentation, your cartoon character uniformity, your writing, your speeches, EVERYTHING, should go towards branding yourself as the premier thought leader for that niche. Too hard? You picked something too general. Keep niching it down.

Check out this Venn diagram. The overlap is the area of expertise you should first niche yourself down into, and then secondly create content that shows off your expertise in this area. Credentials proves you have some authority on the subject; experience says you have some history to call upon throughout the content creation process; and passion will make it easier for you to do it for a long time whilst making your content more exciting to consume.

How To Become a Thought Leader In 13 Steps

The idea for this photo I created came from a book called “Ready To Be A Thought Leader” by Denise Brosseau. It was a great book worthy of reading. She’s also the CEO of The Thought Leadership Lab. Check it out.

12. Make Baby Steps

A great thought leader isn’t born in a single night. If that were the case you’d already be a fabulous writer, videographer, photographer, speech giver, etc. These are all forms of art for a reason – they can never be mastered. Don’t be intimidated by your current skill-sets and just start small. When you first start out your following will probably be so small that it won’t matter. This will give you a safe environment to make mistakes.

13. LinkedIn is The Silver Platter For Which You Dish Up Your Thought Leadership Steak

There are many platforms and forms of media for you to distribute your documented social proof, content, awards, etc., but nothing is better than LinkedIn. It’s a personal branding heaven, and everyone’s invited. LinkedIn has come a long way in the last couple of years and most of the improvements empower thought leaders just like you. My suggestion is to get creative and leverage the platform in whatever ways cater to your swagger. These are the ways I personally take advantage of it:

Skill endorsements is social proof on steroids. I purposely don’t use all the skills that are available to boast because I want to be branded as a radical expert in a few areas, not mediocre in a lot. It’s also not just a number that goes up, but other’s profile pictures next to the numbers. The picture system was designed that way not just because it looks cool, but because it’s a more authentic endorsement if the person’s face is next to it.

How To Become a Thought Leader In 13 Steps

Publication listings are where you show off your writing ability and stand a great chance at implying niched credibility. The titles of the articles alone, even if no one reads them, subtly acknowledges that you know what you’re talking about. Also, showing off the names of the publications for which you’ve been published under allows you to borrow the credibility from those brands. It’s why hot girls are put on top of expensive cars – their hotness bleeds onto the car. In my case, shown below, the word Entrepreneur Magazine bleeds its hotness onto my personal brand and thought leadership.

How To Become a Thought Leader In 13 Steps

Videos and pictures take a resume into the modern era and allow your story to be told in ways that are more fun to watch. They also keep people on your page longer, turning it from a commercial about you into an infomercial.

How To Become a Thought Leader In 13 Steps

LinkedIn’s posting/blogging platform allows me to connect with my current followers and get in front of new ones. LinkedIn will actually promote the post on one of their channels, for free, if you hit a high enough conversion rate [enough initial viewers like the post divided by total impressions]. Their algorithm essentially forces your own network to test the virality of your post. Anything with a high enough viral coefficient is then pushed to their larger audience. In other words, LinkedIn is a genius.

How To Become a Thought Leader In 13 Steps How To Become a Thought Leader In 13 Steps

Honors and Awards is one of the few places in social networking that lets you just flat-out brag without it coming off too needy. In essence, LinkedIn is still very much so thought of as an extension of a resume. On a resume you brag – so this is one of few places to list those awards you’ve been hunting without being too cheesy.

How To Become a Thought Leader In 13 Steps

A Reflection On My Thought Leadership Rant

Speed is the accumulation of momentum. Momentum starts at zero. Don’t let this list or the skill-sets within it scare you away from starting. Thought leadership is an iterative process like everything else in entrepreneurship. Put something out into the world, gauge the market’s response, tweak it for the next time, and repeat…over…and over…and over again. One day you’ll look back and realize you’re a thought leader on a particular subject. That power will open doors, help you acquire unique experiences, sell products, and help others become better at their craft.


Image Credits:

Featured Image:

LinkedIn Screenshots Taken November 2014


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Weston Bergmann

Lead Investor at The Greenhouse

Weston Bergmann is a Kansas City angel investor and business incubator manager. He works with startup companies at the early-stage ... [Read full bio]

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