Helen enlists the help of two experts to explain how to identify and develop thought leaders.
Back in 2013, David Brooks wrote a scathing profile of a thought leader in the New York Times.
“Many people wonder how they too can become thought leaders and what the life cycle of one looks like. In fact, the calling usually starts young.”
He goes on to write that thought leaders are “bathed in attention” from an early age. They spend their time clamouring for the spotlight, grasping at good ideas, only to miss the mark entirely.
It’s a brilliant, sardonic piece. But from what I’ve seen, true thought leadership looks very different.
A well-trained, expertly-positioned thought leader can deliver gold for journalists, and still market their company effectively. They deliver value for everyone involved - the writer, the company they represent and the audience.
Great thought leadership looks effortless. In reality, it takes a whole team.
I spoke to two experts who cultivate thought leadership for a living, and reflected on some of my own experiences, to share how you can do it too.
In this article, we’ll look at:
- Choosing your thought leaders
- How to train them (and why it matters)
- Understanding and demonstrating what it means to be a thought leader
- Mastering idea generation
Learn more about making thought leadership part of your wider editorial strategy here.
Choosing your thought leaders
When tasked with picking a thought leader from inside your company, you might make a beeline for the CEO.
As Alan Duncan, MD of Agile Communications points out: “CEOs are often great leaders, but they don’t always make the best spokespeople.”
Generally speaking, CEOs have a little bit of knowledge about everything. They understand how each department operates and comes together as a whole. But if it’s rich insight you’re looking for, that will likely come from someone who has specialised knowledge. Say, a service or product lead.
An expert in B2B tech PR and marketing, Alan has encountered hundreds of people who want to be thought leaders. Not all of them make the cut.
“You can be amazing at what you do, and still not be a thought leader."
He continues: “To me, a thought leader is someone who’s either doing something completely different or completely new. Their view is unique. And they differentiate themselves by sharing an insight into their vision, and their version of the world.”
High quality ideas and willingness to speak about them are fundamentals. Does your CEO have that? Or would a service or product lead be better?
Be mindful also of the diversity of candidates you select. If you’re only choosing middle-aged white men (because let’s face it, they’re usually the ones at the top of the business), what does that say about your company values? Are you only seeking extroverts? Those who push forward their opinions?
As we’ll come on to, media skills can be trained but diverse thinking must be actively chosen. Choosing your thought leader is about more than picking the best public speaker. It’s about picking their vision for the future.
How to train them (and why it matters)
You wouldn’t ask your marketing department to build your next product. But as marketers, we’re often asking people outside of our department to engage in marketing activities.
Before you start placing your prospective thought leader in front of the press or sending them a long list of interview questions for an article you’ll write in-house, you need to train them for it.
Alan knows a thing or two about media training. And when I asked him how soon company spokespeople should be media trained, his response was immediate.
“From the outset,” Alan shared. “Media training prepares company spokespeople to engage with the press. That encompasses everything from crisis comms to thought leadership. But the real idea behind media training is to give people confidence.”
As marketers and comms professionals, working with others in the industry often feels second nature. For someone outside of the department, this could be quite the learning curve.
Knowing what to say (and, equally importantly, what not to say), can go a long way towards bolstering your stakeholder’s confidence.
Just as important as the ‘how’, is the ‘why’. Your potential thought leader needs to know how to position themselves but also why it matters. If they’ve spent their career outside the marketing department, thought leadership could be entirely new to them.
You might also need to sell it to the wider company. In which case, results and industry examples are your best friend. Don’t be afraid to use competitor or industry examples to pitch the concept.
Speaking to Alan, he reflected on what thought leadership means for some of his clients:
“It's helped them stand out and demonstrate what they’re doing differently. One of them now does thought leadership for a living: they’re paid to speak at gigs, they can pick and choose their projects, and work on stuff they want to work on.”
Understanding and demonstrating what it means to be a thought leader
As you start to seek out external publishing opportunities, such as press and media, your thought leader will need to know how to work with journalists.
Senior editor and journalist Jess Davies recommends a solid briefing process to help your budding thought leader deliver a confident interview.
“It helps when interviewees are briefed on what you need for an article,” Jess shares. “Occasionally that doesn’t happen, and they come in blind. You can usually tell the ones that haven’t been briefed.”
The opposite of a nervous interviewee is one that parrots company lines. Or masks patchy perspectives with jargon. According to Jess, a candid conversation is most useful: “When the person you’re interviewing can relay things in layman’s terms, without falling back on jargon, that’s ideal.”
Mastering idea generation
You picked your thought leader for their ideas. But what happens if the well runs dry?
There’s an adage that says the best writers are readers. Your thought leader might not be the one holding the pen, but it’s safe to say that the best ideas come from people who are exploring lots of them.
Trade magazines, conferences and industry talks can all spark the next big idea. Marketing departments can also conduct market research or hire external researchers to inspire new thinking.
Create spaces where your thought leader can talk openly before they go public. Maybe that takes the form of an idea generation call before an interview, where trusted team members can hash out ideas and refine opinions. It’s something we love to facilitate at Incredibble.
Whether it’s with an internal team or a journalist, sharing your ideas can be intimidating the first time around. Jess has some pointers for cultivating an environment where people feel safe to share.
“Knowing the right questions about their work can help them feel more comfortable and enthusiastic about the interview,” Jess tells me. “When people sense you’re also interested and knowledgeable about their subject area, they become considerably more excited about talking with you.”
As an experienced business journalist, Jess has navigated pre-pandemic and post-pandemic interviews. The rise of video calling has proven to be a blessing in many ways, and Jess has used it to personalise conversations and make them more human.
“Now we've all shifted to video calls, it means people aren’t masking as much anymore. You often get to see a little corner of their home, and there’s usually something in it to break the ice.”
Jess goes on to tell me a story about a professor she recently interviewed:
“He had about 50 mugs on the mantelpiece behind him. I made a joke about having lots of cups of tea, and he launched into a fascinating anecdote about how every professor that comes to meet him around the world brings him a mug. It gave us a lovely, human footing to start our conversation.”
One of my last questions to Alan was whether thought leadership was still relevant in a saturated market.
“Absolutely,” he told me.
“While the media landscape may have changed, it's opened the door for us to access a greater volume of people. And I think that’s powerful."
David Brooks’ vision of a thought leader is cynical, but often true. Companies that rush the selection phase, don’t invest in training, and fail to bring new ideas to the table risk replicating Brooks’ tragic profile.
But when they do the opposite of those things, they contribute to the media landscape. One where thought leaders truly lead, and inspire the next generation.
And that’s the kind of thought leadership we all need.
How to extract original insights from your team
- Choose people from across the business with good ideas and unique perspectives
- Help them understand the purpose and importance of thought leadership, how to offer useful insight and, if necessary, provide media training
- Brief them well and build their confidence for interviews, whether with journalists or in-house or agency writers
- Bring new ideas to them and help them develop their own
Ready to add thought leadership to your arsenal of marketing tools? Check out our article on outstanding ebook examples to get the cogs turning.