How To Become A Thought Leader From Square One

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Sam Tetrault

Content & Copywriter - Follow us on social media to stay in the flow!

Sam Tetrault

Content & Copywriter - Follow us on social media to stay in the flow!
Featured Image for How To Become A Thought Leader From Square One - SpeakerFlow

In this day and age, there’s no such thing as a jack of all trades. Whether you’re a professional, employee, or business owner, it’s never been more important to be an expert in your specific field. A thought leader is an individual or firm that is recognized as one of the best authorities in a specialized area. While all entrepreneurs agree becoming a thought leader is a worthwhile goal, knowing how to become a thought leader, in reality, isn’t always clear. 

Though its use and practice vary in scale, becoming a thought leader isn’t always simple. One becomes a thought leader through expertise, education, and reputation. This isn’t something that happens overnight. It takes dedication and know-how to become an “expert of experts.” It’s common to see influencers and aspiring gurus refer to themselves as thought leaders, but this is a title that’s earned.

However, thought leadership isn’t just about reputation alone. It also has the potential to pay in a very real, monetary way. According to LinkedIn’s research, a reported 60% of business decision-makers decided to give business to an organization because of thought leadership. Thought leadership can boost your growth amongst existing customers, and it can also attract new ones. No matter your industry, this is a goal worth focusing on. 

With that in mind, how do you become a thought leader from square one? If you don’t already have a lengthy resume or history of publicity, how do you get started? The good news is there are no barriers to entry for thought leadership. With a bit of targeted planning and real-world action, anyone can become a respected thought leader in their space. In this guide, we’ll break down the beginning, intermediate, and advanced steps to take you from zero to hero. 

Beginning Steps

To begin, you need to recognize that becoming a thought leader is far from one-and-done. There is no magic formula to transform yourself into a top-tier expert overnight. Reputation and trust take time to build, especially if you want your authority to be trustworthy. 

The initial steps below help you articulate what it is that makes you stand out. As mentioned before, you can’t serve everyone and do everything. As a thought leader, you need to hone in on your unique offering, skills, and expertise. 

Define Who You Serve & How

First, never try to please everyone. One of the biggest misconceptions about becoming a thought leader is that you have to be universally liked and trusted. In reality, you need to specify your focus to identify a clear, distinct audience. You can’t market your expertise to everyone or you’ll spread yourself too thin.

When you specify your focus, you can be more detailed and useful with the content you do create. Whether you’re posting on social media, writing publications, or speaking publicly, you need a clear audience in mind. When you’re a highly skilled expert amongst a specific audience, it’s much easier to market your worth. In other words, you can charge more for what you do. 

Network & Attend Events Within Your Focus Industry

Next, you need to put yourself out there. Thought leaders don’t spend their time in the office isolating themselves from others. While there is a time and place for everything, you need to actively network and attend events. Again, these networking opportunities should target your specific industry. When you put yourself out there, you have more opportunities.

A great first step is to interact with professional speakers who are already making an impact in your space. You can find events through the National Speakers Association (NSA) in the U.S., the Canadian Association of Professional Speakers (CAPS) in Canada, and the Global Speakers Federation (GSB). 

More specifically, the NSA has local chapters for those looking to target specific geographical regions. It’s also a smart idea to find events related to your specific industry, such as SHRM conferences for HR professionals. 

Launch A Personal Brand & Website

Another important step is to create a personal brand and a website. Not only is creating a personal website easier than ever, but it’s a necessary part of living in the digital age. While you can (and should) create social media profiles, you’re not fully in control of these platforms. When you create your own website, you’re in the driver’s seat with your branding, audience, and subscribers. Better yet, this serves as a digital portfolio and content hub. 

However, don’t slap together a quick webpage and click publish. Studies show that you have only 0.05 seconds to make a first impression with your online presence. While you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, users certainly are quick to judge web pages. For inspiration, browse these 25 speaker website examples that make the right impression. 

Participate Consistently & Across Channels

Building a website and social media presence is only the first step. From there, you need to actively participate and create a schedule for posting across channels. Not only can you show your audience that you’re engaged in your industry, but you’ll also learn more about your niche along the way. 

If you post and ghost, you send the impression that you don’t really care about the latest happenings in your space. On the other hand, when you share other content, create your own posts, and engage with followers, you’re a trusted member of the community. While you don’t have to post every day, define a schedule that works for your life. 

Speak For Free In Your Focus Industry

Lastly, you can’t expect to charge the big bucks right away. In a perfect world, everyone would be paid generously for their speaking efforts right off the bat. In reality, sometimes you have to do a bit of work for free to prove your value. When you speak for free in your focus industry, you build your audience and prove your expertise. This is also a valuable way to gain testimonials, feedback, and contacts.

While you don’t want to get trapped in a cycle of speaking for free forever, this is a great way to get your foot in the door. If you want to become a thought leader from square one, you need to start acting like a thought leader. That means speaking at events, showing up, and making a lasting impact. 

Intermediate Steps

Once you have a strong foundation, it’s time to create a more targeted strategy. This is when you put the pedal to the metal to become an invaluable part of your industry. Now that you have a personal brand and some trusted experience, continue to these intermediate steps below. 

Start A Basic Content Strategy

First, create a content strategy. Content strategies aren’t just essential for big-name brands. They’re also valuable for professionals and thought leaders of all shapes and sizes. Content marketing is the most powerful way to build your reach while educating your audience. 

What goes into a successful content strategy?

  • Blog posts
  • Graphics and infographics
  • Research papers
  • Instructional videos
  • Webinars
  • Downloadable content

Don’t worry about doing everything at once. Start small with a basic content blueprint you can stick with. Whether you publish one blog post a month or 100, create a plan to get your content into the world. 

Share Free Resources With Your Audience

Next, create free resources that you can share with your existing audience. This is another way to serve before you sell. If you can promote free resources tied to your content strategy, this is a powerful way to capture leads. Not only will your audience trust you, but they’ll be more likely to buy from you in the future. 

Free resources can be anything that gives value to your audience. Downloadable ebooks, webinars, e-courses, email subscriptions, and guides are all special ways to connect with your audience. A reported 50% of marketers who use free lead magnets report higher overall conversion rates. This means you should think of ways you can add value to your audience for free in exchange for their information. 

Collaborate With Existing Industry Experts

Additionally, it’s essential to collaborate with those already making an impact in your industry. These industry experts and influencers have an established connection with your audience. This means they have followers, social channels, and expertise you can tap into. Gaining exposure isn’t always easy, so it’s helpful to leverage other experts.

How can you collaborate with existing experts? You can start simple, like interacting with them on social media. You might offer to help them in some way, like providing a guest blog post or relevant insights. It’s all about building connections that turn into meaningful interactions. When you’re active in the community, people take notice. 

Expand Your Content Strategy Beyond Blogs

While creating blog posts is a great first step, it shouldn’t be your only step. Your content marketing strategy should include many different types of content. Not everyone likes reading blogs, and you want to cast a wide accessibility net. Though you can choose any type of content that works for you, video is especially effective. In fact, 66% of people said they prefer to watch a short video vs. read a text-based article.

Other ways to expand your content include creating podcasts, posting on different social platforms, sending emails, and so on. When you find new ways to connect with your existing audience, you make it easier for them to keep you top of mind. Again, it’s about meeting consumers’ needs and expectations. 

Offer Product & Service “Packages” For Speaking Clients

Last but not least, offer “packages” to make it easier for clients to identify what meets their needs. If you have an endless list of rates and offers, this overwhelms prospects and creates tension in your sales funnel. It’s all about making the customer journey as streamlined as possible. Since you’re positioning yourself as a thought leader, make it easy for speaking clients to hire you. 

For example, you might offer a base “package” with a keynote speech only. From there, you might offer a second package with both a keynote and copies of your custom workbook. The packages expand from there, including more of your content and expertise into a single offering. Everyone wants to feel like they’re getting the best value for their money. Your prospects are no different. 

Advanced Steps

Finally, when you feel ready, it’s time to progress to advanced steps. These steps take greater time and energy, but they also take your leadership to the next level. The work of an expert is never one-and-done. It’s an ongoing process throughout your career. 

Write A Book To Share Your “Big Idea”

One of the first advanced steps is also the most intimidating. While many aspiring thought leaders think writing a book should be one of your earliest steps, this isn’t actually the case. If you’re creating strong content for your audience, speaking can come first. Passion has the potential to outweigh credentials. 

While writing a book is a big undertaking, this is a way to share your “big idea” and sell yourself. Not only can you show (vs. tell) your expertise through a larger medium, but this also is a powerful marketing tool. Whether you hire a ghostwriter or put pen to paper yourself, writing a book upgrades your expertise and builds trust. Not to mention it’s a huge accomplishment!

Build A Reputable Client List

Next, you need a reputable client list. When you’re first getting started, it’s normal to have a limited (or nonexistent) contact list. This is something that grows over time, and it can take a lot of industry research. When creating a reputable client list, don’t be afraid to aim high. Interact with big-name clients in your industry, and make sure they keep you on their radar. Better yet, don’t be afraid to ask for testimonials and referrals. 

When your past clients refer new ones through testimonials and word of mouth, opportunities present themselves naturally. In the B2B space, 97% of customers cited testimonials and peer recommendations as the most reliable type of marketing content. As a thought leader, you have to do more than sing your own praise. You need other leaders to rave about you too. 

Conduct Your Own Research

Moreover, it’s important to conduct your own research as an aspiring thought leader. While conducting research might not be for everyone, it’s an opportunity you should take advantage of if you can. Research and statistics build real-world trust. 

For instance, take a look at the well-known speaker Jason Dorsey. While he’s known for his insights and speaking, he also conducts national and global research in his niche. Because he has firsthand experience researching generational differences, he’s seen as the top source in this space. This boosts sales, credibility, and expertise. People trust stats and numbers, so it’s always a good idea to have some of your own. 

Work Towards Applicable Awards & Certifications

Similarly, build authority in your niche by working towards relevant awards and certifications. These accolades often open new doors and establish you as the go-to expert in your field. The more impressive, the better. When you have awards under your belt, it’s much easier to secure speaking engagements, get media coverage, and build an organic following. 

When working towards these awards, focus on ones within your industry first. From there, you can also branch out to general speaking certifications like NSA’s Certified Speaking Professional. You might also strive to be inducted into the NSA’s Council of Peers Award for Excellence. These awards go beyond padding your CV. They generate real buzz. 

Outsource Everything You Can

Last but not least, take advantage of outsourcing. As the saying goes, time truly is money. The message that entrepreneurs and thought leaders have to “do it all” can be toxic. Having a strong work-life balance is the only way to avoid burnout, and you don’t have to always do everything. Instead, focus on your strengths and outsource your weaknesses. 

For example, you might outsource to an assistant to manage your social media platforms or to keep track of prospects. When you make time for the parts of your business that serve your goals best, you don’t have to compromise. You’re only one person, and it’s perfectly acceptable to leverage outsourced help whenever you can. 

Key Takeaways

Ultimately, the journey from square one to thought leader isn’t always a straightforward one. It takes a lot of ongoing work and patience, but it’s well worth it. If it was easy to declare yourself a thought leader and be done with it, everyone would do it. It all starts with establishing yourself within your industry. From there, branch out, explore new opportunities, and network.

Sooner than later, you’ll be an expert of the experts. As a thought leader, you’re highly respected in your space. Not only do opportunities flow more easily, but you also build a trusted reputation you can rely on. Now that you know how to become a thought leader from square one, it’s time to take action. 

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