Last spring, I read this shocking statement from the book Homo Deus:
“In the past, censorship worked by blocking the flow of information. In the twenty-first century, censorship works by flooding people with irrelevant information. Information is no longer power. Today, having power means knowing what to ignore”—Yuval Noah Harari
We’ve all felt it.
The downpour of information, research, facts, opinions, and fake news.
In this storm, I’ve noticed my own habits, and the habits of those around me, shifting. More of us are looking for shortcuts to help us navigate through the information.
And those short cuts are often thought leaders.
Thought leaders are the people we know and trust to lead us through the storm of information… at least for the particular field or topic, we trust them for.
After watching this trend I became obsessed with the idea of thought leadership. I read every book I could find on the topic, as well as interviewed multiple thought leaders on the B2B Growth show to find the answer to this one question:
How do you become a thought leader? There are four major steps to become a thought leader:
- Establish a Professional Baseline: have a strong working knowledge of a specific field and it’s adjacent fields.
- Become an Expert: know everything there is to know on a narrow topic.
- Become a Contributor: add original ideas/research that expand the topic.
- Become an Authority: influence the thinking of others with your contributions.
That may seem simplistic, but there is a lot that can be unpacked in each of the steps above. I’ve taken the time to compile all I have learned from reading 20 books on the topic and interviewing a dozen thought leaders to provide a practical guide anyone can take to get there.
If you want to dive deeper, I’ll also be writing articles about how to become a thought leader at work, on social media, and on LinkedIn, as well as, the best books to read and what TED talks to watch. So stay tuned!
WARNING: You CAN NOT skip straight to being a thought leader without first becoming an expert and contributor. Many do and it’s what makes the term “thought leader” a little cringy at times.
Step 1: Establish A Professional Baseline
A thought leader is like a highpoint on the horizon. Like a skyscraper that stands above the rest of the buildings.
While everybody is in the race to be that person who stands higher, many ignore the foundation at the bottom required to reach such heights.
That’s where the Professional Baseline comes in.
You have to have a strong working knowledge of the industry holistically, and it has to be work that you have a general passion to become a thought leader in. It’s not enough to have only studied one narrow topic, you have to have a strong grasp of all the adjacent topics related to your topic.
For example, if you want to become a thought leader in the space of digital kiosks and interactive marketing displays in large retail stores, then you have a few major topics you ought to have a strong working knowledge of. Those areas would be marketing, technology, and consumer behavior. To be a thought leader in that space means you would have both worked and also become more than comfortable with all three of those broad topics.
Don’t get too hasty to skip the basics young Danielson.
Let’s look at a few ways for establishing your professional baseline.
3 Strategies for Establishing Your Professional Baseline
These are the three common areas most thought leaders had to lay as a foundation before they were able to move on to their fields of expertise.
1. WORK: Develop a Mentality of Hard Work
This should go without saying, but there are enough people trying to take short cuts that I’ll say it here anyway. Thought leadership can only be gained by those who are willing to put in the EXTRA hard work on top of what they are already doing. While most people go home at the end of the day, thought leaders continue reading, thinking, and experimenting.
Becoming and remaining a thought leader is not an easy path to take. You’ll want to count the cost before you pursue this path.
2. REACH: Aim to Be a Generalist First
This may seem counter intuitive, but to become a thought leader (the ultimate specialist) you should first seek to become a generalist.
In his book, Range: Why Generalist Triumph In a Specialist World, David Epstein makes a case for why specializing too quickly can become a recipe for mediocrity.
He goes on to explain how most of the best specialists who were masters of their craft were first generalists sampling multiple topics and covering a lot of ground. Yo-yo Ma, for example had learned multiple instruments before settling on the Cello. He just did so at a very young age.
“Everyone is digging deeper into their own trench and rarely standing up to look in the next trench over, even though the solution to their problem happens to reside there.”—David Epstein
If you want to be a thought leader, you need to be able to see beyond your narrow field to find those breakthrough ideas. Your breakthrough idea could be just on the other side of combining a general knowledge of various tools in the box before specializing in one.
3. LEARN: Get As Much Experience & Education as You Can
Working hard and being a generalist doesn’t go far if you are not working in the field or learning about it.
Despite the current backlash against formal education, a bachelor’s and master’s degree still goes a long way in establishing your foundation. Most schools’ curriculums cover a wide array of information that, while not always directly applicable, still gives you a strong sense of the whole topic.
For example, I went back to earn my MBA after already working in my dream job as a marketing director. And, while I didn’t learn anything new about marketing, the degree really rounded out my business acumen to have a greater understanding of how marketing plays a part in the success of the larger whole business. I discuss this more on the Unpolished MBA podcast if you want to dive deeper.
Formal education is not the only way, however. Today there are thousands of courses on LinkedIn Learning, Coursera, Master Class, and SkillShare, and other independent platforms that have fantastic material taught by world-class teachers. Most of the knowledge is out there for free or cheap.
As for experience, you will certainly want to spend as much time as you can working directly in the field related to the topic, but it’s not the only way to establish your professional baseline. When I interviewed Austin Belcak, a thought leader in the career space, he explained that he had to get started as a blogger and freelancer to make it into the job that catapulted him into his current topic of how to land dream jobs.
Tips For Establishing Your Professional Baseline
The best advice I have seen to establish this baseline comes from Patrick Lencioni’s book The Ideal Team Player where he emphasizes the core three character traits of people that you should hire, but I would go even further to say that these are the best three traits to pursue to be successful at all.
- Be Hungry: Prioritize learning above all else. Be aggressive in learning from books, people, events, and your own failures.
- Be Humble: It’s hard to receive critical feedback, learn new things, and be okay with making mistakes if you can’t let go of your own pride.
- Be Smart: Learn how to work well with others. There are hundreds of unwritten cultural norms we have to learn and master to navigate our way through life. You need to have a firm grasp of as many of them as you can.
Step 2: Become An Expert
This is where the real work begins. If you’re reading this blog post, then you likely already have the baseline established.
Thought leadership is the tip of the iceberg, while expertise is the massive amount of knowledge and experience that sits underneath the the water.
The process of becoming an expert on your way to becoming a thought leader is not to unlike earning a PhD.
While a PhD is a great way to become an expert (I’m still planning on earning mine), it’s not necessary to become a thought leader.
In fact, most thought leaders in the business world do not have PhDs.
But all REAL thought leaders do have substantial experience, expertise, and often connections in a particular field. That’s what you need to learn how to replicate if you want to become a thought leader.
Luckily, there is a fantastic path to getting there that doesn’t take a decade, but it may take a year or two depending on how much time you can put into the strategies below.
5 Strategies For Becoming an Expert
All five of these methods are best done together and done in order, even with some overlap. They are similar to what you would be doing if you did pursue a PhD but emphasize digital publication on blogs and social media rather than academic journals.
1. SELECT: Pick a Narrow Topic To Pursue
It’s a lot easier to become an expert in a small niche than it is in a large one for two reasons.
- It’s easier to become an expert when there is less material written on the topic.
- It’s easier to stand out when there are fewer experts to be compared to.
It’s not that you have to stick to this narrow topic all your life afterward, but it will likely be your life for at least a few years, so pick something that you are passionate about.
You will use this small niche of a topic to differentiate yourself and, once that is done, you can broaden it out.
How narrow is too narrow? If there are less than 10 books published on the topic, then it’s likely too narrow. The exception to this rule is if it is an emerging technology. If there are easily over 50 books you can find quickly on amazon about the topic, then the topic is too large. Pick a topic within that topic if you can. This is just a general rule-of-thumb that I have found useful when selecting your niche.
2. CONSUME: Read & Watch Everything On That Topic
You can’t be a thought leader without offering some unique ideas and it’s difficult to know which ideas are unique if you have not heard the whole conversation within the topic you’ve selected.
So, let’s get reading!
Here’s a list of ways I have found thought leaders become experts in their fields:
- Read every book published on the topic (hope you didn’t pick a topic too broad!).
- Watch every substantial video (documentaries, TED Talks, popular videos, etc).
- Go to Google Scholar and read every research article on the topic.
- Read and listen to as many blogs, podcasts, and news sources on the topic as you can.
PRO TIP: It doesn’t take as long to read 20 books on one narrow topic as you would think. After the first few books, you will find that there is a TON of overlap in material and you can begin skimming the pages for new information. Reading 20 books feels more like reading 8 when they are all on the same narrow topic.
Take the time to do this part. It may take ten years or you can hammer through all the information in six months. It depends entirely on the amount of time and energy you want to put into it
3. DOCUMENT: Share Bits of Your Journey Along the Way
You may become a thought leader faster than you think if you apply this step from the very beginning of your journey.
Most people assume you need to enter the social media scene as grand master in order to win influence, but it couldn’t be farther from the truth. The people who do that are actually the ones who are met with the most skepticism.
Instead, invite people to join you on the journey by telling them about your intentions to learn about a subject. Don’t announce that you intend to become a thought leader (it’s presumptuous) but you can announce that you want to master the topic.
Here’s what you’re first post could look like:
👋I need your help! I want to dive deep into the topic of ________ and I need some leads on the best books, blogs, and podcasts on the topic. What have you seen out there?
You can share screen shots of some underlined sections of books you think are profound, ask questions to see what people think about a certain nuance in the topic, or share your insights along the way.
Social media is also a great way to begin testing ideas. As you dive into the field of study and interview experts you will start to see missing pieces in the knowledge; there will be questions that don’t have answers, problems without solutions, gaps with what has already been said, and you will likely just have a unique take on the topic. Share those unique insights to see how people react to them.
Sometimes you will be corrected quickly and other times you might find that you have struck gold with your unique idea by the way it helps people.
By documenting early and often you can get a real sense of the market while they get a real sense of you.
4. INTERVIEW: Talk to the Current Experts On the Topic
You may think reading, listening, and watching everything ever said about a topic is enough, but if you skip talking to the experts themselves you will be missing it big time.
To become a thought leader, you will need the help of the people who have gone before you and they’ve probably learned a lot more since they’ve published their books, videos, podcasts, etc.
The best way to get their attention is to start a podcast on the topic. You can start one for free on anchor.fm. Start the podcast off by interviewing a few people you know you can get on the show and do a few solo episodes about what you have learned so far about the topic (documenting).
Then, reach out to the experts on social media with short and concise messages. You may be surprised by how many of them will respond.
Here’s an example:
Hi <first name>, I’m recording a podcast series on <niche topic>. I just finished your book (it was amazing!) and I would love to interview you about your thoughts on <main idea of the book or question you have>. Interested?
At Sweet Fish Media, we call this Content-Based Networking. It’s a game changing content marketing strategy and it works perfectly for this leg of your thought leadership journey.
5. SYNTHESIZE: Apply Your New Knowledge To People’s Questions
After reading most of the information out there and interviewing a few experts, you will begin to find you’ve learned a ton. Keep going! While you’re at it, you will want to solidify that knowledge through writing.
There’s a reason why schools assigned you papers to write. It really does help you learn the material.
It is also an AMAZING way to start to grow your thought leadership while you are still in the stage of becoming a thought leader.
Here’s what I mean.
People are asking basic questions about your topic on Google. In fact, you can go to Google right now and type in your keyword and let their autocomplete feature tell you what people are specifically looking for.
Let’s use “email marketing as an example:
You can see that people are looking for email marketing… software, templates, specialist salary, services, strategy, tools, and more.
All of those are keywords! You don’t need fancy keyword tools to figure out what people are searching for. And, by using Google the data will be better anyway.
You can also tease out more information by using single letters like I did below with the letter “a”.
You can do this with the whole alphabet to pull out 60+ relevant keywords.
These are the questions people are searching. Look up who currently ranks for those keywords and write an article on your blog that is better than theirs. Google will find it and rank it.
For more on how to write a rank worthy blog post, check out this video below. It’s the best blog methodology I’ve ever seen.
In this process, you will have gained far more understanding of your topic, have insight into what the market is asking about, and have begun to sew seeds for the marketing work you will need to do later to get recognized as a thought leader.
Tips for Becoming An Expert
- While this process doesn’t happen overnight, it can be accelerated depending on the amount of time and energy you throw into it. What most people assume will take ten years can be done in two or less if you push hard and/or have done many of these strategies already.
- Remember that you want to learn out in the open and let people know about your wins and failures along the way. People especially want to know about your failures because too many experts pretend to be perfect.
- Let your curiosity drive you. If you enjoy the process of learning then thought leadership will never be a chore. This process never really ends either, so you might as well enjoy it.
Step 3: Become a Contributor
Expertise alone DOES NOT equal thought leadership.
To be a thought leader means you have to know more than what is already known in your niche topic. You have to know the unknown.
To lead people’s thinking you have to contribute original thoughts through the form of new ideas, perspectives, research, insights, and other unique contributions.
This step of thought leadership will have a lot of overlap with the step of becoming an expert simply because you will see the gaps of knowledge, unsolved problems, and unanswered questions while you do your research. Once you dive into the depths of the topic these things will become evident.
Still, if you want some more help, I’ve listed four strategies to help you come up with unique ideas, refine them, prove them, and package them to be received by the masses.
4 Strategies For Becoming a Contributor
All four of these should be done in order for the best results.
1. IDEATE: Generate A Lot of Ideas To Find the Best Ones
There are a lot of ways to generate new useful and novel ideas. I’ll share a few of my favorites here.
Ask yourself these POV (Point of View) Discovery Questions:
- What is a commonly held belief in your industry that you passionately disagree with?
- What is something that people in my industry should start doing today that they are not doing already?
- What is something that people in my industry should stop doing today that they are currently doing?
You will find that the answers you come up with from just these three simple questions could be unique and useful enough alone to build to set you apart.
Another way to find ideas is to start with the problems in the industry. You will want to create a whole list of these problems to reference later, but here’s how to find them:
- Interview the people who actively work with your niche and ask them.
- Scroll through forums like Quora and Reddit to see what people are asking.
- Ask podcast guests what their largest challenge is.
- Pay attention on social media and see what people in that industry rant about.
Now that you have a list of problems, it’s time to find solutions. There’s a number of approaches to find solutions, including:
- Your own trial and error experiments
- Bringing a unique method from a different industry to address the problem
- Surveying or interviewing dozens of experts about the problem
- Doing original research to find empirically relevant results
You can mix and match multiple methods but the point is to come up with a unique approach to solving a problem the market cares about.
2. REFINE: Take Your Raw Idea and Improve It
All great ideas start somewhere and usually need some help to become useful to others.
Here’s a few ways you can get feedback to refine your ideas to perfection:
- Ask for feedback on small chunks of your idea on social media
- Test out your ideas with your best customers
- Get feedback from a focus group
- If you want to see if your idea will sell, run a Google or Facebook ads campaign to see if you can get people to sign up before it’s ready to go live.
- Create a Minimal Viable Product (MVP) or service and get feedback from the people it would help
You can take multiple approaches to refine your idea. The important part is that you put some work in before you package it and present it as your message.
3. PROVE: Build Compelling Arguments For Your Idea
There are a lot of bad ideas floating around the internet, so people have grown skeptical and are actively looking for reasons to discredit your idea.
Because of this, you need to provide evidence that your idea is valid. The more of the following ideas you can utilize, the more validity you create.
- Share how you have used the idea yourself and share the results
- Case studies of others using the idea
- Endorsements from other thought leaders or experts
- Valid research reports
- Submit your idea to contests for awards (if it’s feasible)
There may be a number of unique ways to validate your idea in your industry. It would be helpful to ask around to see what could “prove” your idea works to others by simply asking around.
For example, I remember overhearing a conversation amongst truck enthusiast about the new Tesla Truck that had just been announced.
They were debating how tough the truck really was and agreed that if it could finish well in the Baja 1000, a thousand-mile off-road race for trucks in Mexico, it would prove the truck was tough.
4. PACKAGE: Create a System for Explaining Your Idea
Once an idea is ready for the world, it’s time to dress it up and put a bow on it to make it easy for people to consume and understand.
What I mean by packaging an idea is to break the idea into multiple formats so it can be explained in multiple contexts. This idea comes from Matt Church in his book, The Thought Leaders Practice.
Every idea needs to be documented with:
- Concept Description: A few sentences explaining what the idea is
- Metaphor: An alternative way of explaining the idea by borrowing language from another industry
- Illustration: a diagram or image of some kind that gives a visual representation of the idea.
- Story: To show how the idea plays out in life
- Case Study: This shows evidence and a real-life application of the idea
With all these pieces in place, you will be prepared to flesh out your idea in social media, presentations, blog posts, and a book.
Tips for Becoming a Contributor
- It helps to create a folder (physical or digital) where you can keep a running list of your ideas to add to and modify over time.
- Let your growing social audience give you feedback as you think through your ideas. Ask them questions, make bold statements, and let the community help. Don’t be secretive.
- Get in the habit of scanning for opportunities in the form of ideas. Most of your ideas will be bad but if you have a habit of it you will get better at coming up with truly helpful and unique ideas.
Step 4: Become an Authority
There are a lot of experts with great ideas out there, but until those ideas are influencing others, you’re not a thought leader.
And, when it comes to the realm of influence, what we are really talking about is marketing. Marketing is the art of mass persuasion, but instead of persuading others to buy a product or service, we are peddling your ideas.
Strategies for Becoming an Authority
The best ideas in the world will go nowhere unless they can be discovered, remembered, and easily passed on to more people. It’s easier said than done though so below are four strategies to help you accomplish it.
FASCINATE: Attract Others With a Compelling Personal Brand
If your ideas are packaged well they are already sticky but the feeling people get about you as the leader is just as, if not more, as important.
In order to sell people on your ideas, they have to trust the source of those ideas (aka – YOU). Luckily, it’s easier to build trust with you as a person than it is a faceless organization by building a personal brand.
A personal brand is not just about having a logo and design identity, it’s about being known for something.
That something can certainly include visual aesthetics, but can also include your speaking style, mannerisms, types of works you use, music, what you stand for, or general feeling you leave people with. It’s the way people describe you to others.
How to build a personal brand could fill a whole book, but here are some questions to guide you through the process:
- Decide what you stand for. What are three things that are the most important to you?
- What are a few things that you are super passionate about that many others share an affinity for? (Avengers movies, chocolate, Coke Zero, etc). Talk about them every once in a while to help people find common ground with you.
- What are a few things you are obsessed with that are fairly unique? We all have unique things about us that make us interesting. Share them.
- What colors, sounds, music, shapes, and photos would you say best illustrate who you are? What is a distinct look that you can make your own?
- What are your core messages that you want the world to know? What do you want others to remember you for?
If you take the time to answer just those five questions above, you will be way ahead of everybody else in your field.
PERSUADE: Going Beyond Communication With Marketing
The difference between communication and marketing is that marketing always has the goal to persuade you to take action of some kind.
Effective thought leaders are always marketing.
The question is, what action step do you want people to take? While it depends entirely on your own goals for becoming a thought leader, here are a few of the most common end goals that we can then work backward from:
- Market a business: Using thought leadership to market an existing business.
- Start a thought leadership business: Essentially, productizing your ideas.
- Advance your career: Using Thought leadership to get your a promotion or a better job.
- Change public opinion: If you don’t like the way a group of people are thinking and want to persuade them otherwise.
- Generate awareness for a cause: You see a problem in the world and you want others to help you do something about it.
Whichever goal you have, it’s important to start with the end in mind and build backward from there. As a marketer myself, I often start with where my target audience currently is and where I want them to go. The trick then becomes building a series of breadcrumbs of information or experiences they need to have to bridge the gap between those two places.
For example, if you are a CEO of a B2B software company you may want to build up your own personal thought leadership as a means to promote your companies products. You might start by recording podcasts to discuss your original contributions with other thought leaders and break up that podcast into micro-posts on LinkedIn. Those posts get found and build awareness for your podcast where they will eventually hear a pitch to learn more about your companies software solutions.
So that marketing breadcrumb trail looks like this: Responds to LinkedIn Post > Subscribes to Podcast > Responds to Company Promotion > Becomes a Customer.
Marketing is all about creating journeys people can go on towards your end goal!
Good marketing is also about developing strong reasons why somebody in your target audience would want to take each step. Often those reasons have to do with educating your target audience with the most relevant information for where they are currently at in their own journey in the topic.
EDUCATE: Don’t Sell, Teach
We’ve all seen the stereotype of the sleazy salesman that nobody trusts.
As part of becoming a thought leader, you do essentially have to sell your idea, however, you don’t have to be a scam artist to close the deal. You simply have to be a good teacher.
Think about your favorite teachers from childhood. Did they make the subject come alive? Were they enthusiastic about you and your journey of learning the material? Did they challenge you in a good way? These are all the things you need to do with your audience.
To sell by educating you lead by giving value to your audience rather than leading by taking value. You endear them to yourself by being as helpful as possible. At some point they need to take the action you want them to take in order for you to continue helping them but that should be after you have been helping them (by teaching) for awhile.
Nearly all the content you produce should focus on teaching your audience what they want and need to know about your niche topic to get the results they want in that area.
REACH: Getting Your Ideas In Front of More People
Alright. The fun part.
This is where most people want to start, but without the foundation of the steps that came before, you end up become the reason people think thought leadership is cringey in the first place.
There are hundreds of ways to get your message out in front of more people so it helps to organize those ways into three major methods of paid, owned, and earned media.
- Paid Media: This is paid advertising, sponsorships, or any other way you can pay money to get in front of more people.
- Owned Media: These are the channels that you control like an email, address, or phone list that you have permission to contact at any time. Your website also falls into this camp.
- Earned Media: Any time you can get in front of somebody else’s audience it’s earned media. News mentions, social media, Google rankings, word of mouth, etc.
Here are some of my favorite techniques for each category.
- Build your social media following on LinkedIn by posting regularly AND engaging with as many other people’s posts as you can. I actually recorded a free three-part video series on how to get your first 10k followers on LinkedIn. Check it out here. (Earned Media)
- If you have an email list already, upload it to Facebook and have Facebook build a Lookalike audience to run ads to. Facebook is FANTASTIC at finding more people that are just like your most loyal subscribers. (Paid Media)
- Start a podcast to interview your target audience. This is the best way to create content AND build relationships with influential buyers or other thought leaders in your space. James Carbary wrote a fantastic book on this topic called Content-Based Networking if you want to learn more. (Earned Media)
- Get ranked for the keywords people are searching for in your area of expertise. Write the most in-depth and useful articles on the web to match the intent behind what people are searching for and Google will reward you with traffic every day for free. (Earned Media)
- Cross-promote your marketing channels so that people hear from you in multiple places. If you have built a large following in one place make sure to push that following to others. (Owned Media)
Hundreds of books are filled with all the ways you can build your following. Here are a few I recommend to dive deeper:
- Digital Marketing for Dummies by Ryan Deiss – You’d be a dummy not to read this whole book cover-to-cover. It has the best summary of all the most current digital marketing tactics
- The 1-Page Marketing Plan by Allen Dib – Probably the best primer about how to think strategically about marketing I’ve ever seen.
- The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing by Jack Trout and Al Ries – Tihs is one of the best classics on 22 ways to position your content and marketing to stand out from the crowd.
The topic of marketing is as deep as it is wide. So you will have to read up and practice consistently or partner with somebody who has.
Tips for Becoming an Authority
To finish the post, I want to leave three last tips that no aspiring thought leader should ever forget.
- Remember that gaining notoriety as a thought leader takes a focused effort over time. By the time you are sick and tired of your message, people are just starting to wake up to it.
- You have to continually innovate and learn to remain a thought leader. You never stop being a student.
- Share the spotlight with the others who have helped you become a thought leader and a lot of that light will reflect back on yourself, so be generous with your praise and recognition with others in your niche.
How Could This Post Be Better?
I’m always hungry for feedback and I would love love love to see yours in my inbox. Shoot me a message from my contact page if you have any information to make this post better.