Why 2021 wasn’t a good year for thought leadership

“Thought leaders are the informed opinion leaders and the go-to people in their field of expertise. They become the trusted sources who move and inspire people with innovative ideas; turn ideas into reality and know and show how to replicate their success. Over time, they create a dedicated group of friends, fans and followers to help them replicate and scale their ideas into sustainable change not just in one company but in an industry, niche or across an entire ecosystem.” – definition by thoughtleadershiplab.com

In my previous post, “Are you ready for a post-pandemic narrative?“, I made a plea to stop whining about COVID-19 related challenges and start seizing new opportunities. Which is extremely relevant for corporate communicators, content marketers, and thought leaders.

In a September 2021 survey by Edelman and LinkedIn, 3600 global business decision makers and C-suite executives across a wide range of industries and company sizes were asked about the impact of thought leadership, how it influences their perception and buying behaviors, and what attributes B2B audiences want to see from companies.

Over the past 18 months, we’ve seen a global cancellation of corporate events and conferences. With the absence of physical meetings and face-to-face networking opportunities, many companies and individuals have turned to delivering their messages using digital means, such as webinars, downloadable white papers, email blasts, and LinkedIn posts.

Photo by Kotivalo (CC BY-SA 4.0)

As a result, the pandemic has resulted in an excessive quantity of (often) lower quality content and, more recently, also a growing fatigue for virtual events. According to the report, almost 4 in 10 decision makers said there is more thought leadership content than they can manage or that the market is oversaturated with such material. This flood of digital content has also diluted its perceived value: 71% of decision makers concluded that less than half of the thought leadership material they consume gives them valuable insights.

On the positive side, more than half of the executives said that they spent more time-consuming thought leadership than before the coronavirus started its global spread – more than an hour per week. They still value quality content because it allows them to understand the trends affecting their industries and helps them generate new ideas for their businesses.

You may remember an article I wrote a few years ago about the sometimes thin line between a thought leader and an entertainer, in which I listed a few dos and don’ts for aspiring thought leaders. Some of these were confirmed by the respondents of the Edelman survey. When asked about the predominant shortcomings of low-quality thought leadership,

  • 46% answered being “overly focused on selling or describing products rather than conveying valuable information”,
  • 40% of them get bummed by “unoriginal thinking, or a lack of new ideas”, and
  • 31% don’t want content “authored by people who are not true experts on the subject matter”.

Building upon the definition I quoted higher on this page, thought leadership will need to start serving as an engine for change again. That’s why I believe that the 2022 secret code for pundits will include words like purpose, meaning, and engagement. And that true opinion makers will have to demonstrate insight, authority, and trust for being credible to business decision makers.

You may download the report here:

Thought leader or entertainer?

“You know that I’m a thought leader, because I’m wearing a blazer, I have glasses, and I’ve just done this with my hands…”

Maybe you’ve already seen the recording of a This is That TED-like talk by self-proclaimed thought leader Pat Kelly. And if you haven’t, take a look at the video below.

Unless you’re an alien without any sense of humor, you must have realized that this is not a real keynote. And observed that Kelly’s character is an empty shell with nothing to say, though with an impressive ability to deliver his message (and entertain his audience.)

Then, you also know that it takes more to being a thought leader than wearing the right clothes, putting on a pair of smart looking glasses, and making some gorgeous gestures with your hands. But, if you still believe you are one – or have an unstoppable ambition to become one – here are a few tips…

  • Stay ahead of the curve. Keeping Malcolm Forbes’ wisdom that “the best vision is insight” in mind, always base your opinion – and accompanying narrative – on trustable and traceable facts and figures.
  • When acting as a thought leader, NEVER deliver a sales pitch. Take the stance of a neutral observer,  and a dependable domain expert. Of course, when you’re explicitly speaking on behalf of your (or another) company there’s no problem to recommend or acknowledge the ‘sponsor.’
  • Never stop earning your audience’s respect. Show them that you are an authority on the topic, and prove them that you have the right to speak. But even when world considers you a champion, always stay your humble self!
  • Talk as often as you can with customers, end-users, and opinion makers. Listen to them and benefit from their insights and experience to further develop your expertise and evolve your narrative. Be careful with dropping names or citing facts or figures on behalf of any 3rdparty to make yourself look more important.
  • Create an elevator pitch, define your mantra and don’t be shy of repeating yourself – repetition is one of the tools to make your message stick. In the mean time, keep evolving your story and updating your content as technology and markets evolve.
  • Craft and deliver compelling content for a broad audience. Keep it simple and sweet, but don’t be fluffy. Be aware of audiences’ needs and expectations and remember, people are always looking for the WIIFM.
  • Build a personal brand, establish your social media presence (also as a follower!) and develop a multi channel content strategy. Try to create and share quotable quotes, tweetable data points, and impactful visuals.
  • And finally, invest in developing your storytelling and public speaking skills. Being able to create and deliver a compelling presentation is certainly one of the basic competences an opinion maker (or any business leader) needs.

Unfortunately, there is no college class or MOOC that will teach you how to become a respected thought leader. It takes a lot of insight, expertise, and communication skills. And, even if you (think) you have all of these, the next time you’re on stage and walk over to your laptop, your audience may still look at you as an entertainer…

thought-leader

As a final note, by writing this blog post and giving you the above tips, I am not pretending to be a thought leader at anything at all. Think of me as a singer-songwriter, who’s passion is to perform a good song, while trying to entertain his audience.

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