If your goal is to add credibility and value to your brand while giving your audience deep insights, thought leadership should be your focus. What makes a great thought leadership piece? How can you surprise your audience every time? And most importantly, how can you make time to produce this type of content?
As the owner of RockBench Publishing and ReCourses, David C. Baker understands the formula for thought leadership success. He is a renowned speaker, writer and consultant, having spoken at multiple TEDx events, and his work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Fast Company, Inc. and other national publications. Baker recently published “The Business of Expertise: How Entrepreneurial Experts Convert Insight to Impact + Wealth,” which examines the process of becoming an expert and how to best leverage that expertise in the marketplace.
I recently spoke to him about what it really takes to position yourself as a “thought leader.”
The term “thought leadership” gets thrown around a lot these days, but so much of the actual content is very superficial. What’s the disconnect there?
When thought leadership first started as a content tool, as a way to attract traffic in an inbound world, it took the world by fire. It was enough just to generate content without it being amazing content because there wasn't all that much stuff out there, but that has changed dramatically.
One of the articles that I wrote for LinkedIn, that actually had more pull than anything else I had written, was titled “Quit Contributing to the Lame Content on LinkedIn” because I would go back to LinkedIn after being gone for six hours and I'd see this notification of all these new articles that were published, and I got nauseous because very little of it really resonated with me. The disconnect came from the fact that most firms are not very well-positioned, so the stuff they're writing about is just obvious.
The other part of it is that people are really nervous about offending readers, and so they don’t. They’re not willing to take risks. One of my techniques is to make sure that at the end of reading something, somebody is going to have a reaction that is either “Well, hell yes!” or “Oh, that wasn’t very good.” I don’t want any middle ground; I want people to have a visceral reaction one way or the other.
A lot of executives, business owners and creative agency principals say they are too busy to write. But you advocate strongly for writing fairly lengthy articles and sharing them widely. Why is this important?
I think the main reason is because anybody that would hire you for whatever it is that you do for a living has the right to understand how deep your insight is and how you think, and longer pieces are how it’s going to happen. I feel like you also need to give away your thinking, and a lot of my clients and readers revolt at that idea of giving away thinking.
My thought is you’ve got to do that so they know how you think, and then their response is “What are you selling if you’ve already given away all your thinking?” The distinction in my mind is that you give away lots of insights for free, but then you charge a ridiculous amount of money to apply it to their situation. I hate sales so much that I want to qualify myself in a prospect’s mind without having to convince them of anything, and so I overdo the content thing.
You’re busy consulting, speaking, and yet you find the time to write substantial content. You write whole books and lengthy articles for newsletters. How do you fit this into your schedule?
It’s important to be making enough money doing what you do for a living so that you don’t feel panicky when you switch that off and start writing. The other piece is that you have to develop a love for creating insight so that it’s not a second- or third-place choice. I actually find that I get emotionally imbalanced if I am not creating content. I get antsy; I get short-tempered. And the solution for that, for me, is to sit down and write something. I bring those two things together to make sure that I’m charging enough when I am earning money that I don’t feel panicked about not earning money when I’m developing insight.
Another thought would be the notion of repurposing content. For example, if I am going to give a talk and it’s the first time I’ve ever tackled that subject, then I’ll send it off to Rev.com and I’ll have it transcribed. I’ll publish that as indexable content to my website, which will attract some organic traffic, and then I’ll turn it into a blog post.
From there I may send it to my podcast partner and suggest he interview me on this, and then I’ll weave the content into something else. It’s about being efficient with the content by reusing it in many different ways and fresh contexts. This way you’re not really creating a thousand new pieces a year, but instead a hundred new pieces a year, which is more manageable.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the interdependency of a mindset of curiosity, continuous learning and producing excellent content. After finishing the new book, it struck me that the connection between those three things is expertise. What’s your favorite advice for “keeping your edge”?
The way I think of it is that I have to dive very deep and narrowly in my expertise, but in order to keep that fresh, I have to expand very broadly in a horizontal fashion, where I am not deep. I'm just skimming the surface, but I have to skim lots of surfaces. There may be 50 things that I would explore in a given day. The best way for that to happen for me is to read very widely. So I read five, six, seven publications every day, I don't mean books, I mean publications, and then listen to podcasts where I am consistently getting great thinking that just prods me to go deeper in other areas.
What do you think is the most important trait for hiring a marketing professional?
In terms of personal characteristics, I can never get away from the two that are most important to me: “Can I trust this person?” and “Are they respectful?” And then the flip side of that is I seldom care about somebody’s professional education. I don't care about how they got somewhere, as in how significant the firms are that they worked at. So those would be the bookends on both ends of that perspective.
I think the whole curiosity thing is one of the most important things to look for in who you hire. I don't have employees, but when I talk with people who do have employees, I really encourage them to assess how curious somebody is.
You also want to know how articulate they are. I don't mean how well they would speak in public, but I want to know if they can form a thought in writing. You cannot escape that nowadays. Just think about how important email or even text messaging is for anybody in any role.
Finally, do they have the courage to share their insights, to swim against the crowd? I'm finding that great employees come from so many additional places than they used to. If you keep your eyes open you're going to find great people, and when you do, hang on to them and create an environment that's very healthy for them.
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