This is a guest post by Allison Symonds, a PR Associate and Content Specialist at A.wordsmith.
A lot of PR pros are eager to tell you how easy it is to be a thought leader: “3 Simple Ways to Become a Thought Leader in 15 Minutes or Less,” “How to Become a Thought Leader in a Month or Less,” and “You Can Be A Thought Leader: The Secret To Being Inspiring.”
They’re wrong. Becoming (and being) a thought leader is not simple. It takes more than a few weeks, and there’s no one single secret. Thought leadership requires time, patience and hard work. Thought leaders have to shape, develop and nurture their own abilities. As communications advisors, our role is to help them figure out how. We’re there to help thinkers lead and leaders think.
Helping thinkers lead
Some of the world’s brightest minds remain in the shadows. Emily Dickinson is remembered as one of the greatest American poets of all time, but she was virtually invisible during her lifetime. A noted introvert, she published only 10 poems until her sister discovered nearly 1,800 compositions in the years after her death. Dickinson was a known introvert and by all accounts preferred to dazzle us gradually, but not all great thinkers are so eager to wait for posthumous celebrity. Unfortunately however, genius doesn’t always come with a great PR plan.
So how do we transform a thinker into a thought leader? A leader communicates with and influences followers. To grow, thought leaders-to-be have to identify and then focus on audience. Who are they trying to influence? How can those people be reached? Are they reading newspapers, attending conferences or listening to podcasts? Once an audience has been established, we prompt the client through the process of expressing their message. Knowing a story, telling a story and sharing a story are all different things, requiring unique strategies and skills.
Helping leaders think
On the other hand, sometimes people in leadership positions stumble with their message. Elizabeth Holmes founded the medical testing service Theranos in 2003. The company’s technology was said to have the “potential to change health care for millions of Americans.” She became a media darling and curated an image as a startup genius and thought leader, complete with black turtlenecks and speeches at the Clinton Global Initiative. In 2016, after a scandalous investigation into the company’s allegedly unethical methods and communications, she was banned by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services from owning or operating a lab.
Holmes is clearly a brilliant woman with a knack for leadership, but she took what still could have been an influential position and made mistake after mistake in identifying and presenting her message. With the appropriate communications support, could she have kept to the straight and narrow and still used that advantage to gain the respect of her most crucial audiences?
Though they aren’t typically under federal investigation, many clients come to me from prominent or leadership positions – startup founders, industry experts, CEOs. They have a soapbox, and perhaps even a mouthpiece, but they’re not quite sure how to translate their experience, expertise and power into thought leadership. Our team prompts them through that process by interviewing, researching and identifying the stories that these leaders didn’t even realize they had.
Leaders who aren’t thinking and thinkers who aren’t leading are doing themselves and the public a disservice. In this increasingly connected world, telling an impactful story and reaching an audience is both easier and harder than ever. It takes only three things: thought, leadership and hard work.
Allison Symonds is a PR Associate and Content Specialist at A.wordsmith, a boutique PR firm in Portland, Oregon, that specializes in thought leadership and brand storytelling. Allison guides both B2B and consumer clients in thought-ware content strategy, media outreach and the written word.