Pick Up the Mic: How to Become a Thought Leader

Jake and I were in our mid-twenties, and we’d taken more shots together than I could count. He was the youngest manager at Google, a rockstar known for his silly dance moves and karaoke rendition of “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” the type of dude who would holler “models and bottles!” while jumping on tables in old Nike high-tops, a glass of champagne in hand.

So not your typical boss.

And yet people took Jake seriously — very seriously — for reasons I didn’t fully understand. Yes, he was smart, but everyone at Google was smart. What made this fratty mess so effective? Why did people, including me, look up to this guy?

It turns out that Jake was up to some unexpected things behind the scenes.

For one thing, he had been writing monthly “state of the union” emails to our entire team detailing the latest developments and milestones in our projects. If he went to an industry conference, he would type up five key observations about the competition, a couple trends that could lead to interesting partnerships, and three priorities he thought we should invest our money and efforts into. When an interesting report came out — especially if it was obscure and technical — it was Jake who’d forward it to the team with his two cents.

Pretty quickly, I realized the influence Jake was having. As his underling, I felt confident reporting to someone who knew what he was doing. As his colleague, I was becoming smarter by association. And the company’s higher-ups must have liked the emails too, because one day the Senior Vice President of our division promoted him to a prestigious position leading an entire team of engineers and product managers.

That’s when Jake turned his team update emails into an official newsletter that circulated through the company. People started referencing his newsletter for key statistics and team priorities. They started inviting him to meetings to get his take. Jake was now an industry analyst.

There was a time when being a traditional employee was enough to get by. Punch in, punch out, get ahead: that was the old model. But being a thought leader is no longer a luxury or nice-to-have — not for those of us who want high-growth careers with spectacular results.

I genuinely believe we all can be Jakes, without losing our roles and personalities in the process. The dude jumping on tables has a lot to teach us, so let’s break it down.

Bringing Ideas to Life

A thought leader is someone whose opinions are seen as meaningful, authoritative and influential within their field. We all have thoughts (beliefs, opinions, analyses), but these thoughts become the stuff of true leadership when they meet two key criteria.

First, they must be communicated on a platform, whether it’s official or semi-official. Jake’s ideas lay dormant in his mind until he gave them a medium. As

Alex Kouts, one of our recent public speaking experts on The Art of Charm Podcast, said, “The best ideas not communicated do not exist.”

And that principle holds true across history. Take Benjamin Franklin, for example. His epic rise from the son of a modest soapmaker to the best-known thought leader in early America depended on his close access to communication platforms. He started out as an apprentice at a printing press, where he snuck letters into his brother’s newspaper under a pseudonym, and over time became a newspaper editor, prolific publisher, printing press owner, and postmaster presiding over the first communications network in the US colonies. The central theme of his career is that he always had a platform to communicate his ideas.

Franklin gravitated toward the printing press. Jake gravitated toward email.

Effective thought leadership must also be shareable, so that it can influence multiple people at once. The most scalable and shareable views today come in the form of public, packaged online content, whether it’s text or (increasingly) video or audio. But it can also work on a smaller scale, as a speech at a private conference or a confidential email in a closed company. Whatever the medium, it must reach a group of interested people — in other words, an audience.

Communicated and shared: that’s the formula. But why? Why do your ideas need to be disseminated in this way?

The Perks of Thought Leaders

In short, because there are thought leaders and thought followers.

Thought leaders help shape their fields (even as they follow other great thought leaders — think about every guest on our podcast). Thought followers shape their industries as well, but by executing on the ideas of other people. If there’s one thing that ties high performers together, it’s that they have shifted from merely accepting information to creating it. Their salaries, happiness levels and professional opportunities reflect that.

Consider the perks that thought leaders enjoy:

  • Opportunities find you. It’s easy to meet people when you’re an authority on a subject. People tend to remember you, make introductions, and reach out for help on projects, because they need you in a unique way, given your special expertise. And we all know that prospective partners and managers Google you. If your search results show that you’ve published ideas about the very issues someone is struggling with, they’ll be more likely to take you seriously and bring you on board.
  • You land promotions and raises at work. A track record of thought leadership gives you an edge over your peers, most of whom do not consider themselves thought leaders. As a result, you’re more likely to receive promotions and recognition for your work. More importantly, you’re more likely to be included in meaningful conversations about the issues you cover, which will enrich and strengthen your career.
  • You can make side income. Thoughts, taken seriously, have a funny way of becoming businesses. A friend of mine was an engineer who learned a new programming language at work. He started coaching novices, which turned into an accidental business that let him quit his job and make a living off of his courses. Others get paid to speak about the subjects they love. Directly or indirectly, thought leadership increases your earning potential.

When you take an inventory of the opportunities thought leadership creates, it’s difficult to ignore the appeal. The natural question is: Where do you start?

Picking up the Mic

On the podcast, we interview thought leaders who have built their entire careers around sharing their ideas—people like Seth Godin, Tim Ferriss, Ramit Sethi, and Noah Kagan.

When they encourage our listeners to start sharing their ideas, we often hear comments like, “Easy for you to say! Seth’s a bestselling author!” or, “Yeah, but Tim Ferriss is famous. Of course people listen to him.”

Which is fair.

But here’s the thing: each of those people started out as ordinary guys, just like you. Then they grabbed the microphone. They Ben Franklin’d their way to a platform.

For you, the first step is simply picking up the mic, because no one is going to hand it to you. Choose a platform and go for it. You can access all of them for free or cheaply, because the damn internet takes away all your excuses. You can:

  • Start a podcast or YouTube channel
  • Start your own blog
  • Write guest posts for an online magazine or your company blog
  • Create a PDF download and post it on a subreddit
  • Self-publish an eBook on the Amazon Kindle platform or apply to the Kindle Singles program

As they say, the world is at your fingertips. The difference between a thought in your head and an idea in someone else’s is a few keystrokes. The moment you’re ready to share your expertise, the world is ready to publish and consume it.

How to Become a Thought Leader

The fact that it’s easy to publish your thoughts doesn’t always make it easy to create them (or guarantee that all thoughts are brilliant). We get that. Part of what makes thought leadership good is that it’s well considered, researched and articulated. That takes time and experience.

But one of the biggest hurdles to becoming a thought leader is just getting started. Without that first step, the best ideas will never find their voice. And as you know, we’re all about developing practical, fun, easy approaches to life’s challenges. So here are some tips on how to begin publishing your ideas immediately.

  1. Pick an audience that’s slightly less experienced than you are. Maybe you’re not an expert in your field today, but you can definitely be an authority. You don’t need 10 years of experience under your belt to be an excellent guide for people who are novices at your job or hobby. Speak to people who are at your level or just behind you, and approach them as equals — these people will be your early adopters, your tribe, and your initial audience.
  2. Interview experts and share your journey.
  3. Choose the medium that’s most comfortable for you. Pick a format that best fits your personality. If your most profound statements come out while you’re brainstorming aloud, you might try being a speaker, panelist, or podcast host. If you’re introverted or prefer to revise your words before speaking, consider a newsletter or blog. Make the medium work for you, and remember that the medium, in many ways, is the message. How do you want to reach people — and how do you want to be reached?
  4. Pick a niche. The more specific you can get in your thought leadership, the better, because specialization helps people remember your expertise. It also takes some pressure off, because you’re not expected to know absolutely everything in your field outside your specialty. Instead of being a “technology” expert, consider being an online video advertising authority. Rather than tackle all of sales, focus on the furniture vertical you’ve mastered. Whatever area of expertise you’re cultivating, focus in on it — even more than you think is necessary to start — and make that your area of specialty. You can always grow out from there.
  5. Be yourself. In other words, don’t pretend. The moment you feel like you’re being inauthentic, check in with yourself. As you work to become an expert, do you feel like you’re pretending, mimicking, making up facts, or getting defensive when someone challenges you? If so, take a deep breath and return to what you know best. When you wander into unfamiliar territory, acknowledge it and stay true to your experience. Be unapologetically clear about what you’re an authority on and what you aren’t, so that your audience has appropriate expectations. Ultimately, they’ll respect you more for it. To give your followers meaningful insights in addition to your own perspective, consider interviewing the top experts in your field. When you translate your own challenges and interests into thoughtful questions for an audience, you’re essentially inheriting lifetimes of wisdom as you share your education with your followers. By opening up your learning process to the public, you also become the source for those insights. The Art of Charm Podcast is a great example: the show became successful over the years in large part because we were the students as well as the hosts of the show, and because we learned and grew with our audience (and still do, to this day). So consider interviewing the people you respect and admire — they’re easier to reach than you might think — and discover how learning from the best and becoming an authority yourself go hand in hand.

A Final Word on Authenticity

The need to feel smarter, better or more influential before you share your thoughts will be your greatest barrier to becoming a thought leader. But if there’s anything Jake can teach us (besides how to code with a hangover), it’s that the key to being credible is being yourself.

It can be tempting to pretend to be more of an expert than you are — a temptation that usually leads to feelings of fraudulence and frustration. So how do you overcome the feeling of being an impostor as a new thought leader?

The answer is to embrace the fact that you’re new, and be transparent about the limits of your authority. Some of the best experts are the ones who embrace the difficulty of their work, and appreciate the big questions as well as the great answers. Sometimes breaking a problem down is more important than solving it — in fact, that’s exactly what many great thought leaders do. There’s no need to fake it till you make it, because you only “make it” as a thought leader if you resist the urge to fake it in the first place. As Jordan writes, “Authenticity isn’t the presence of something, but the absence of everything that isn’t authentic.”

So don’t worry about being Tim Ferriss, or Ben Franklin, or even Jake. Worry about being YOU. More than that, have fun with it. The best thought leaders are having a blast doing what they do — jumping on the table, articulating their thoughts, connecting with those around them. And they’re watching the opportunities and benefits add up.

Let’s Get It Started

So here’s my question: Where will you begin?

Will an article that caught your eye turn into a paragraph you send to your colleagues? Will the weird thoughts that hit you as you fall asleep become a newsletter you send out each week? Could you become the guy who tells the story of your team to the company as a whole?

Which ideas compel you? Which medium makes you feel most at home? Once you decide, that’s when the fun begins. All you have to do is pick up the mic.

Ella Banks - author of 7 posts on The Art of Charm

Ella Banks is a San Francisco-based writer and editor who works with tech companies and self-published authors. Previously, she was in product marketing at Google. In her free time, she runs the hills of SF and listens to vintage jazz.

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in Art of Personal Development, Self Mastery