How to Become the Next Business Thought Leader

by Sheryl Nance-Nash

4 min read

Being the go-to expert in your field for the news media, industry events, and other speaking engagements is priceless for a small-business owner. It garners the kind of publicity that you can’t pay for, and it puts you at the top of the credibility charts. Even if you aren’t the authority in a particular area, but one of a handful, consider yourself fortunate.

Of course, becoming an industry guru is no small endeavor, but the returns on your investment can be huge. “It may be tough to carve out the time, simply given the multiple demands on small-business owners,” says Drew Plant of the PR firm Plant Communications. “But, in fact, the opportunity to become a thought leader may well be a way to level the playing field, given the relatively unfettered access to so many potential communications channels.”

Here’s how to be an industry thought leader.

Pick a Topic

An expert is someone who’s committed to teaching others something that will make their lives better, whether it’s business or personal. “An expert isn’t someone who is superior, but someone who chooses the path of teaching and does whatever it takes to get his [or her] message out into the world,” notes Drew Gerber, co-founder of Wasabi Publicity.

What does it take to be a thought leader? Choose a topic you are passionate about and have expertise in. Know your facts. Read, research, and absorb trends in that field. “Be able to quote stats and talk trends at the drop of a hat,” advises Nancy Shenker, founder of marketing company TheOnSwitch.

Strut Your Stuff

Everyone has opinions. “Thought leaders have to be prescient and they need to inspire some reaction,” Plant says. “That is, they need to be able to forecast what’s next in their niche and for those by whom they want to be seen as a leader.”

That may mean being able to discern the next challenges in your industry or for your clients or customers. “Authoritatively state your well-informed and thought-out case concisely, and do it across multiple channels — an article in a leading media outlet or your own blog,” Plant says. “Your latest bit of great editorial thought should then be repurposed, maybe on Twitter or Facebook, or maybe as a marketing piece to prospects or simply as a status update on LinkedIn.”

Whatever you say, your commentary needs to be interesting and creative enough to rise above the noise. “Not just the din of noise of others in your niche, but the multiple topics across multiple channels that we’re each bombarded with daily,” Plant says. “And then you have to keep doing that consistently, so folks can identify the pattern.”

Write a Book

Despite all things digital ruling the world, there’s something to be said for an old-fashioned book. (An e-book is OK, but print still has more cachet. You can, of course, do both.) “Your book must be relevant and interesting. It doesn’t have to be a best-seller, but it should impact everyone who reads it positively,” says Bill Corbett Jr. of Corbett Public Relations.

A book is a powerful calling card and an effective way to establish yourself as an expert. Self-publishing is easy and economical, too; however, Gerber says that having a book released by a well-known publisher boosts your audience’s confidence in your expertise. This is easier said than done, so self-publishing is a great option if finding a big name doesn’t work out.

If the idea of writing an entire book yourself seems overwhelming, team up. “Get 10 other experts to submit a chapter and you write two chapters. Now you are an author,” says Robert Smith, founder of PR firm Champion Media Worldwide. “Plus, you get instant sales when they promote the book to their client base.”

Talk, Talk, Talk

It’s not enough to write. Speaking is important to building credibility. Your talks should be captured on video and shared online.

If you’re not a natural, hire a coach. You can start small, speaking before community and local business groups like the Chamber of Commerce and Rotary Club. Do so for free, if it will get you going. Once you’re comfortable, pursue higher-profile industry conferences and seminars and begin charging fees.

Avoid Mistakes

Just like your business needs a business plan, you need a personal marketing plan for becoming a guru. “Those who have a plan will more rapidly and more easily achieve their goals,” says Corbett.

Set goals. What do you want to accomplish by being an expert? What target audience do you aim to reach? Develop a plan for getting out there. Decide whether this is something you can do on your own if you will need a PR firm to assist you.

Meanwhile, don’t confuse educating with selling. To be viewed as the go-to expert, you are expected to be neutral and an expert in a field, not merely your own product or service.

Says Fred Lizza, CEO of Dydacomp, which makes inventory-management software: “You are doing this for personal reasons, and the business reward will be visibility and increased traffic. If you become the go-to expert, you will sell more because potential buyers have developed trust in you and your reputation.” In other words, forget the hard sell.

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