What does it take to be a thought leader?

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There’s this old Saturday Night Live bit, “Deep Thoughts with Jack Handey.” It featured observations like “Somebody told me it was frightening how much topsoil we are losing each year, but I told that story around the campfire and nobody got scared.”

Handey’s “deep thoughts” are good for a laugh, but they also illustrate what too many people forget about thought leadership: without true leadership, observations about an industry, profession, or trend, thoughts are just… thoughts.

How do you avoid offering platitudes where prescience is key? Here are a few tips:

Tip #1: Have something to say. No, seriously. 

Thought leadership requires a point of view, not just an opinion. Everyone has opinions, as the old saying goes. As a thought leader, you need to stake a claim on a particular perspective, and you need to show your audience your vision for the future.

Think of Bill Gates. For the past 20 years, since leaving his day-to-day role at Microsoft, Gates has positioned himself as a thought leader in public health. Using his foundations and non-profit investments as a platform, Gates has elevated himself as Innovator-in-Chief in public-health circles, participating in everything from discussions at Davos to interviews with science influencer and YouTube star Derek Muller.

It’s true that Bill Gates already was a celebrity and billionaire before he launched his thought-leadership odyssey. But his point of view–that previously intractable health problems, like malaria, can be solved with better data, smarter investments, and government champions–was fresh and new when he began talking about his “passion project.” Gates didn’t simply appoint a foundation leader and ask them to solve problems. He reframed the problems and offered a vision for how to solve them.

Tip #2: Choose your channels wisely.

Just as you’ve got to know your audience, you’ve got to know how to best reach them. Would a recorded video shared via your organization’s website help you deliver your message effectively? Does it make sense to join the LinkedIn Learning network to make your perspective discoverable? Is it best to try and place an op-ed in a local newspaper?

Assessing the best channel for thought leadership requires equal parts data analysis and intuition. For example, if you think you’ll deliver a great message via an Instagram Live event because you’re familiar with that medium, do your research: find out who follows you and whether you have the kind of critical mass that will help your message breakthrough on that channel. 

In contrast, if you know you’re better with the written word, look into Unique Visitors per Month (UVM) and readership rates for the print outlets you want to target, and find out whether they accept contributed content. Read examples of past contributor articles and make sure your voice is likely to be heard when you offer your own point of view to the editorial team.

Tip #3: Be prepared to engage, now and in the future.

Being a thought leader isn’t a one-and-done effort. It requires sustained ideation and an ongoing dialogue with your audiences. If you want to launch a thought-leadership strategy, be prepared to continue the conversation in every relevant channel over months, not just days or weeks. Remember the Bill Gates example? He’s been in software since the mid 1970s, and he’s been pushing a public-health agenda for two decades.

The good news about making a commitment to thought leadership is that though your point of view must remain prominent, your position on a given issue can change over time. In fact, that’s a mark of true thought leadership: being able to offer new insights and ideas over the course of months and years, based on new information and learnings. This isn’t about autocracy. It’s about authenticity.

Tip #4: Remember the difference between leadership and thought leadership.

Perhaps you’re considering developing a thought-leadership platform for yourself, because you’re passionate about a certain subject area. Or perhaps you’ve been tasked with creating a platform for a leader within your organization. As you set out to define the platform, start by thinking critically about whether the person you’re charged with positioning for thought leadership is truly ready for the role.

Not every organizational leader needs to be a thought leader. They can still share opinions via contributed articles, blog posts, public speaking appearances, panel discussions, and a host of other channels. Knowing what makes for a good opinion and what makes for good thought leadership is crucial. Understanding the difference will help you succeed no matter what.

Meghan Gardner is president-elect of the PRSA Oregon chapter and a vice president at Matter Communications, where she heads up the Portland, OR, office and oversees client accounts in industries including software, data, AI, healthcare, and security. Find her on LinkedIn and Twitter

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