Thought leadership can be a risky path to head down. What might begin with a singular focus on a new trend – whether it’s the Internet of Things (IoT), sustainability or otherwise – too often devolves into a jumbled and incoherent position that aims to please too many internal stakeholders and address the needs of too many audiences.
I was thinking about this while attending the Minnesota High Tech Association’s (MHTA) Spring Conference in May. A theme throughout the conference was digital transformation. It’s a broad topic – literally involving the use of any technology to transform any aspect of business – and it’s often discussed in equally broad terms.
But I was struck by how conference presenters took ownership of it. They weren’t bogged down in industry speak or overly complicated explanations. Each speaker presented a unique point of view on what digital transformation meant to their business and to their customers – in ways that were meaningful to both technical and non-technical professionals.
It was a good reminder that effective thought leadership must not succumb to merely hitching your wagon to a trend and making a lot of noise about it. Rather, it requires being purposeful, targeted and deliberate both in what you say and how you say it.
With this in mind, here are my three takeaways from the conference for creating thought leadership positions in times of change:
- Take a stance: Avoid broad general statements and the compulsion to squeeze industry buzzwords into your thought leadership position. Messages that try to appeal to everyone won’t resonate with anyone.
Focus your efforts on creating a unique and differentiating point of view that is relevant to your business and targeted to specific audiences. If your stance challenges mainstream thinking or offers up bold, new ideas on a subject, all the better. But make it your own.
A good place to start is with research and messaging sessions, which we often do for clients that are looking to carve out a niche position that separates them from others and resonates with customers. These activities can help you define a unique stance, crystalize your message and identify your points of differentiation.
- Tell a story: Be prepared to bring your thought leadership message to life through case studies, hypothetical examples or your own company’s experience. These storytelling tactics can help articulate your message, especially for new concepts.
Speaking at the MHTA Spring Conference, Land O’ Lakes Senior Vice President and CIO Mike Macrie discussed how the company is using digital transformation to infuse technology into agriculture. He put this into terms that everyone could understand by describing how autonomous tractors in farm fields are helping predict yields and recommend seed types.
- Deploy your experts: When a new trend emerges, it’s often quickly followed by companies rushing out to define it on their own terms and stake a claim in it. The result can be a mad cacophony of conflicting and confusing messages.
To help stand out from the noise, consider how you can engage audiences more directly using your people. This could include sending designated thought leaders to speak at conferences, trade shows or seminars. It could mean putting your executives on camera for media interviews, or even using your experts in creative ways on social media, such as through an “ask me anything” Reddit session or a daylong Twitter takeover.
Whatever route you take, make sure your experts are prepared. Arm them with messaging to help convey your key messages. Put them through media training and mock interviews to help them make the most of media opportunities and be prepared for hard questions. And give them presentation training to make sure their speaking engagements are in fact engaging and on-message.