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Ways to Be a Thought Leader

9 steps to become a media darling

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook


To be called a thought leader was once rare. Thought leaders had a coveted status. But the term thought leader has become a common moniker—too common. It seems that everyone is touting himself as the next thought leader. But most aren’t. While a thought leader doesn’t have to be original, he does have to package himself originally. Your knowledge, skills, abilities, experiences, and yes, your thoughts need to be presented in a way that makes you worth listening to by your audience—and the media. To begin cultivating your thought leader status to be respected, heard and reverberated out into the world, follow these nine steps.

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1. Share your opinions.
Thought leaders have opinions on their topics of expertise that they share fluently and sometimes vehemently. They have a sense of how to shape a story. They position facts and research in an available context. They make statistics meaningful by interpreting them. We value people who give us perspective on things that matter most in our culture today. 

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and their first woman to sit on their board, spoke of the differences between men and women when responding to taking credit for their success. She said, “If you ask men why they did a good job, they'll say, 'I'm awesome. Obviously. Why are you even asking?' If you ask women why they did a good job, what they'll say is someone helped them, they got lucky, they worked really hard.” 

She’s to the point. We easily recognize the truth in her statement.

To follow her lead take a look at your field or industry and find something that irks or inspires you and start to formulate some opinions about it. Folk singer Joan Baez said, "I've never had a humble opinion. If you've got an opinion, why be humble about it?" Thought leaders aren't afraid to voice a strong opinion. The media seek guests who have opinions that help us ponder what’s important.

2. Predict the future.
Peer into your private crystal ball and share it in a press release. Ten years ago I told my literary agent that getting on TV and grasping at fame was going to become a national obsession. I wrote up a book proposal about how to get on TV, supplied anecdotes from my own experience as a publicist and media coach, and gathered statistics to show that this was going to be a hot new trend. He pitched my idea to all the top New York publishing houses. 

Alas, the traditional book industry didn’t buy it. It was too far ahead of its time. But guess what? Didn’t that prediction come true? Practically everyone is now scrabbling for his 15 seconds of fame. New reality TV shows are popping up every year. The Fishbowl Effect has become our current reality, where your iPhone video can make national news. 

Know that when you make a prediction you’re intrinsically ahead of your time—and most likely will get disapproval and pushback. No worries. Time will bear you out. The important thing is to stand by your word, continue to accumulate evidence and keep touting your prediction during your media appearances. 

3. Influence thinking.
Keep up on current events. Thought leaders can comment on national radio and TV on events as they happen. They are the first people the media call to put a story in perspective, to help shape thinking. They are often the people who pose the questions to ponder. They don’t necessarily have all the answers. What they have is a point of view that helps others to consider consequences, options, and directions to difficult or perplexing problems.

Robert Reich, professor of public policy at UC Berkeley, often comments on political and social problems such as how public higher education is being starved, which will result in a shrinking middle class. His clearly expressed and statistically well-supported opinions are regularly heard on MSNBC and NPR. He’s a great example of someone who is personal, energetic, and captivating. I’m particularly endeared by how he bounces up when he can’t contain his energy as he delivers his message. 

Your delivery and demeanor is every bit as important as the words you speak and can influence people subconsciously. Thought leaders are aware of how they are being perceived and work on refining their inner consciousness and outer appearance. How can you start to shape a conversation that’s at the heart of your business or industry and at the same time reflect who you are and what you think?  

4. Have a philosophy.
Have you noticed how many people have written a manifesto? It’s kind of becoming de rigueur. But many aren’t worth reading. They are trite or light. Your audience wants to know not only what you believe, but what you believe in. They want a philosophy that dives into their deepest longings—things that they feel that haven’t been expressed directly in a way that they can understand.

Manifestos are a sort of formalized philosophy. Wikipedia defines philosophy as "the most basic beliefs, concepts, and attitudes of an individual or group".

I love TED favorite Brene Brown’s The Wholehearted Parenting Manifesto, her leadership manifesto and my friend, photographer/writer Andrea Scher’s Superhero Manifesto. They are heartfelt, revere beauty and are wholly without pretention.

During every media appearance you want to make sure that your philosophy comes through loud and clear in a story, vignette or example so your audience has a sense of who you are. One of my favorite sayings is by Gandhi, “My life is my message.” 

When everything you do, say, are and think from your words to your website is in alignment then you’re completely congruent and your life becomes your message. This is what I have my clients and sound bite course participants put into practice before ever sending a press release out to the media. Often publicity hopefuls want to rush their offer to the media before all the pieces are in place. And that’s a big mistake. A reputation is easy to ruin and hard to regain. 

In her media appearance on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday, Brene Brown told a story about her daughter, Ellen. To my best recollection she said that Ellen’s teacher called her up to tell her she could tell whose daughter Ellen was by how she handled an incident in art class. As I remember it the teacher said, “You’re messy.” Ellen sat up straight and said, “No, I’m not messy. I’ve just made a mess.” 

Brown told this story to illustrate a point about self-talk and not calling ourselves names or saying derogatory things about the core of us, but to focus on behavior instead of being. It shows you that Brown is walking her talk by transmitting her values and behaviors to her daughter and it gives you a sense of who she is. Your philosophy should shine through your stories in a natural way in every media appearance.

5. Lead a movement.
My client, journalist and author David Sheff who wrote the #1 New York Times best-selling book Beautiful Boy, just wrote his second book called Clean, Overcoming Addiction and Ending America’s Greatest Tragedy. The title itself is an opinion. Sheff thinks that addiction is the worst problem in the U.S. today. You can tell immediately that he’s serious about this topic and wants to make an impact on this epidemic.

On his website he has a link to sign a petition to send to President Obama to end the war on drubs and declare war on addiction. Right next to that he has a link to an organization called Brian’s Wish to pull people together into a national movement to end addiction. 

Sheff believes that we’re fighting the wrong war and he is making his opinion known – backed with five years of research and facts. 

He’s just started his book tour and has already been on The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell, NPR’s Fresh Air and Weekend Edition to discuss his views and to shift American opinion with the facts, stories and statistics in his book, speeches, and media appearances. 

I media trained him to insure that he incorporated his most important points into every interview since he especially wanted to talk about this new movement. 

We also wanted to make sure he could stand firm on his controversial beliefs when challenged. We practiced worst-case scenario questions and surprise ones too so he could maintain his equanimity and stay on point during each media appearance. 

The media is interested in people who have inspired a movement. It shows that the topic has enduring value and interest if a substantial number of people have joined it. Spearheading a movement is so much more interesting than just claiming you have a big following. A movement shifts thought into action to create real and lasting change. 

6. Be controversial.
Another client of mine, Dr. Sara Gottfried, a Harvard-trained integrative physician, science nerd, yogini and author of the New York Times best-seller The Hormone Cure, speaks out on the overuse of pharmaceuticals for peri-menopausal and menopausal women. She says of women dealing with hormonal issues such as depression, lack of sleep, weight gain, mind fog, low sex drive, “You won’t find the answer in the bottom of a pill bottle.” 

Gottfried takes a stand against the practice many physicians have to medicate their patients to appease the problem without seeking the core issue or root cause that’s the source of the complaint. Instead she advocates lifestyle shifts: “How to think, eat, move and supplement.” 

Once you take a strong stance you can expect to be pitted against someone with the opposite view during your radio or TV interviews—because friction makes for good TV. Audiences love to see people pitted against each other because sparks fly and unexpected things happen—which equals good ratings. 

If you want to be controversial you also need to be prepared to be challenged and able to stay on message with equanimity and grace no matter how forceful or hostile the host or other guests become. 

7. Take both sides.
While you can choose to be controversial, you can also choose to appoint yourself the voice of reason and examine both sides of an issue. Susan Freinkel, a journalist who wrote the book Plastic: a Toxic Love Story, began an experiment that turned into an investigation of how plastic affects our behavior, our environment and our lives. The premise: To go one day without touching anything plastic. What she discovered? It was impossible—starting with her toothbrush and toilet.

Instead of taking one side to the story—plastic is evil. She explored how plastic is both a boon and a bane to the way we live in a New York Times Op Ed piece. In one sentence she played both sides of the topic: “In other words, plastics aren’t necessarily bad for the environment; it’s the way we tend to make and use them that’s the problem.” Op Ed pages thrive on people who take a strong stand on one side of an issue as well as those who can shed light on both sides in an intelligent, thoughtful or provocative way.

In our media coaching sessions together Freinkel and I focused on stories about how certain plastics are negatively effecting our health, children, land and seas, and also which plastics are safe and useful and help save lives.

On Fresh Air, she discussed both sides of this fiery debate with a level head. In other media appearances she backed up her findings with solid statistics and also by moving fascinating facts into the conversation like: “The average person is never more than three feet from something made of plastic.” And, “In 1960, the average American consumed 30 pounds of plastics a year. Today, just 50 years later, Americans consume on average 300 pounds a year.” Here is something a bit startling: “Just because a plastic is made of plants doesn’t make it ‘green.’”

By moderating the positives and negatives, by sharing information not widely known and educating us, and by using stories and statistics, you can become a trusted neutral source for change.

8. Coin a term.
During her appearance on The Ricki Lake show Dr. Sara Gottfried reached into her prop basket and pulled out a gleaming diamond Tiara, put it on her head and offered it to Lake, who said she didn’t want to take it off. Gottfried called taking uninterrupted time for yourself Tiara Time. It’s catchy and easy to remember. Can’t you just imagine saying to your BFF, “I need some Tiara Time right NOW.”

9. Announce your vision.
Your vision is how you see the world in the future. It’s what you’re aspiring to in the big picture. It incorporates how you are going to serve. For example, I’d like to see Aikido, a type of Japanese Martial Arts, which I’ve been training in for four years, incorporated into every school in the world. 

The principles of Aikido, The Way of Harmony, work as a way to polish the spirit, to turn lead into gold. The founder, Morihei Ueshiba says, "True victory is self-victory; let that day arrive quickly!” I believe that, through this practice we can eradicate bullying and practice respect, compassion, and self-mastery on a daily basis in our hearts, homes, schools, and communities. 

Declaring your vision during a media interview moves it out in a big way into the public eye. Not only have you taken a stand but you give thousands or millions of people a chance to take a stand with you. That in itself creates powerful change.

The point of being a thought leader isn’t just to get more media appearances, more sales, more followers, or more money. It’s an opportunity to make great shifts inside yourself and out in the world. So if you aspire to taking yourself and your business forward in small or big ways, then focus on these seven things. And even if it isn’t in your nature to be on national TV or to gain an international platform, just pondering these points will give you clarity for your business as you grow and change.  

Are you a thought leader? Tell us why.

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Susan Harrow is the author of Sell Yourself Without Selling Your Soul.

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