How to Become a Thought Leader

The more prospects learn about you on their own, already aware of your expertise and primed to hire your graphic or web design firm, the less time and money you need to spend on selling your services. The easiest way to achieve that is to be viewed as a thought leader among those prospects you serve in the marketing field, which begs the question about your positioning. For example, only about a dozen people can really be experts in “branding,” so you’re going to need to find a niche for yourself. Once you do, you’ll know what to say, who to say it to, and how to find that group of people who will gladly give you their money.

So one method of being a thought leader would be to make 50 cold calls every week and say: “Hey, I’m a thought leader.” The only problem is that no expert pushes like that. Instead, they use pull methods that don’t depend on activity as much as placement, and that’s where writing and speaking come into play as ideal tools to establish your thought leadership and surface opportunities to impact prospects.

Becoming a Thought Leader: Overcome Your Reticence and Their Lack of Engagement

Mind Your Own Business ConferenceAll this sounds good, you say, but two objections immediately surface in your mind. The first is that you don’t know what to say. This may very well be simply a premature conclusion on your part. You may be smarter than you think, and to test that, live with yourself for two weeks, accompanied by a little pad of paper, jotting down all the cogent observations you keep repeating to your design business clients. At the end of that time period, you’ll know if you’re a thought leader or an order taker. If you are a thought leader, you’ll have captured several dozen seminal thoughts, each of which you can build into a file on your computer and start to develop further as one of them strikes you. If you are an order taker, look at your positioning and start doing the same things you’re doing now for a more related audience — in time you’ll start learning from the repeated exposure to similar but unique problems. So that’s a start with the problem of not knowing what to say.

The second objection you might make is that you’d be nervous saying it. This would apply more to speaking than writing, obviously, but there’s a key here that’s a lot more important than your delivery, and it’s this: having something to say is the most important solution to lack of confidence. Conversely, a prospect’s engagement with your thought leadership is directly related to the level of confident contribution you are making, and you’ll reel them in easily, even if you are not used to having a stage, so to speak.

So, you’re somewhere on the continuum between order taker and thought leader. If you are nearer to order taker, think about positioning your firm differently. If you are a thought leader, start addressing the prospects in your industry and they’ll listen. Here’s where to start that process.

If You’re a Thought Leader, Start Writing

If you get an opportunity to speak to your prospects, embrace it. But if you are searching for opportunities to build that momentum, start with writing, for several reasons. First, writing is something that can take as long as you need. The writing is the delivery, whereas the development and delivery are separate in speaking. Second, you can ask for help with research. In fact, you can even have others co-author or author the piece entirely. There are many intelligent contributors in academia who long for a platform and will often do it at no charge on your behalf. Third, writing forces clear articulation, meaning that there’s a lot of learning in the formulation itself. Fourth, an editor is far more likely to take a chance on you than a program chairman, simply because an editor can step in before you reach the audience. Finally, start with writing because it is not as terrifying to most people.

Next Step to Thought Leadership: Speaking

Speaking doesn’t necessarily reach more prospects than writing, but it fosters more human interaction and the event itself creates more immediacy. If you are having trouble breaking into the speaking circuit, here are some suggestions. First, start small. It’s not about who comes to hear you (in fact, the fewer attendees the better until you speak well), but about who you inform that you have spoken. Second, start early, which typically means thirteen months before the targeted presentation. That’s when a program chairperson has been chosen, and at that point the theme is typically determined. Pitch several ideas in keeping with that theme. Finally, the best way to pop up in the sea of choices they have is to co-present with one of your well-known clients. The program chairman will be more motivated to say “yes” to someone who is influential in the industry, and clients usually enjoy making a presentation to their own peers.

Developing Content Appropriately

When you get an opportunity to write or speak, do a few things well and you’ll be invited back. First, never pitch your services. Experts don’t do that, and it’s tacky to the audience and embarrassing to your sponsor. Second, give them real content that resonates because you really do understand their world. Third, be easy to work with behind the scenes. If you want to be one of those prima donnas, save it for when you really have the power to pull it off. Fourth, be prepared to do it for free at the start, for expenses after that, and then for a fee + expenses when you are widely viewed as a thought leader or the organizer is making lots of money because of your contribution. This is counter-intuitive, but the larger the crowd, the less you need to get paid (because there are more prospects).

“Pushing” or “Pulling” Prospects: The Difference is Astounding

Let’s go back to the beginning for a second, where we talked about the difference between “pushing” yourself on prospects, hoping to find an interested one, and “pulling” them to you with writing/speaking at the other end of the spectrum. Just one or two great “pulling” opportunities every year can be more effective than hundreds of phone calls and thousands of dollars of direct mail or advertising. So keep asking yourself whether any given marketing activity is positioning you appropriately as a thought leader, and begin investing your limited time and money in the right places. And be sure to publicize everything on your own website to take full advantage of every opportunity that comes your way.


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