What’s your thought leadership definition? In this era of self-appointed expertise, who gets to decide who is qualified to be an “expert”? Can you ever really think of yourself as one, without running afoul of the Dunning-Kruger Effect?

My personal thought leadership definition has just two parts:

  • Have thoughts. Develop original ideas that offer a fresh perspective on your work. Focus on finding your unique point of view. If a smart peer can’t argue with a statement, it doesn’t qualify.
  • Lead.  Hit publish and share your thought leadership content with the world regularly. Engage on social media. Write guest posts. Develop a strong online presence. Invite discussion and use the conversation to strengthen and further differentiate your insights.

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What Is an Expert?

David C. Baker is a consultant and author — and he’s pretty much an expert on being an expert. So we thought he was the perfect person to ask for his thought leadership definition.

To David, the answer was pretty simple. In the marketing world, a true thought leader is simply “somebody that is paid regularly for their thinking,” he says.

“They are generating on a regular basis a pricing premium for their work. So they are trying to separate themselves from all the other experts, whether it’s 10 or 100 or 1,000 experts who also experts on the same subject.”

However, it’s pretty simple these days for someone to declare themselves an industry expert — or a thought leader, or an industry innovator, or a disrupter or any other phrase people think makes them sound cool.

So in a world where appearances can be deceiving, how can you tell if someone is truly an expert? David says it’s all about trusting your gut:

“The best way to test it is just the instinct test, read or listen to what they’ve come up with as a point of view. Does it resonate or doesn’t it?”

How Do Experts Find Their Voice?

Jane Atkinson is a world-class speaker and speaking coach. We turned to her for advice on how experts can hone their voice, and figure out what they have to say.

To Jane, clients need to understand that they have to pick their lane. What she means by this is that people need to hone in on their areas of expertise. It’s not enough to have ideas; you need to figure out which of your ideas differentiate you from others in the marketplace. This is the essence of personal branding.

That’s why Jane advises her clients to “really place a stake in their ground and say, ‘This is my area. This is what I know about.’”

Of course, no one just wakes up a fully formed thought leader. In order to figure out how to authentically differentiate yourself as a thought leader, Jane recommends a tried-and-true way to narrow down your perspective: Write a book.

“Once you’ve had a best-selling book on a topic, then you can take your tribe anywhere you want to go with them. For starting out, you really need to plant that flag where you want it.”

How Can Experts Effectively Communicate?

Melissa Thompson and Annemarie Galeucia are both certified experts, with the PhDs to prove it. They’re the dynamic duo responsible for putting on the annual TedX LSU event, a hub for thought leadership in the Baton Rouge area.

They shared with us their advice about the expert conundrum — sometimes, experts on a topic have such an advanced understanding of their areas of expertise that it’s difficult for them to communicate on a level we mere mortals can understand.

When working with TedXLSU speakers, Melissa often does a thought experiment to get her speakers to boil things down:

“What’s the tweet that our social media team will write about you when you’re giving your talk? So in 140 characters, what’s the premise of your talk?”

Annemarie also recommends getting your expert to reflect on their journey. “I force them to reflect on their path to mastery of knowledge,” she says. It’s the same advice she gives faculty members as they prepare their courses for a semester:

“So the first thing I do is say, ‘If you understood this, what was the last thing you understood before you got to that a-ha moment? And what was the thing you needed to understand before that to get to the next step to get to your aha moment?’”

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