thought leadership definition

Well, Actually


What are your big (and little!) ideas about how your industry is changing? Why are you interested in your work? Those answers are probably cycling through your head all the time. If you think of yourself as a "thought leader" or an "expert," they definitely are.

Our second episode of Margins is inspired by a recent phone call. I asked a company CEO: "How do you think your industry is changing? Why are you interested in this work?" I was surprised by her answer: “Well, what would a thought leader say?”

That phone call got us thinking. What, exactly, is a thought leader? And in this era of self-appointed expertise, who really gets to decide who is qualified to be an “expert”?

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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 how to define an “expert.”

To David, the answer was pretty simple. In the marketing world, an expert 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 also experts on the same subject.”

However, it’s pretty simple these days for someone to declare themselves an expert — or a thought leader, or a industry innovator, or a disrupter or any other phrase people think up. 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 line. What she means by this is that people need to home 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. 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 emerges from the C-suite womb a fully formed thought leader. In order to figure out how to differentiate yourself, Jane recommends a tried-and-true way to narrow down your perspective:

“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 us 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?’”

Resources Mentioned in This Episode

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Lee Price is co-founder of Managing Editor. After 7 years as a content marketing consultant at Rep Cap, she started a thought leadership consultancy to help visionary leaders dig up and develop their big ideas. She's a proud University of Virginia fan, Twizzler enthusiast and feminist. She lives in Georgia with her husband and two young daughters. When she's not reading or writing, you can find her on Twitter @leevprice.


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