Ditch the Spin: It’s time to back up your thinking

Armchair expert: A person who knows a lot about a subject but has little or no experience or real understanding of it. (See also: a podcast by Dax Shephard.)

We all know them. Those people who like to talk a big game, but don’t have the expertise or experience to back up what they’re saying. Call them what you will – armchair experts, influencers, Uncle David at the family dinner table…

Whoever they are, they’re frustrating as hell – and they’re not true thought leaders. True thought leaders prove their ideas. They have the knowledge to back up what they are saying, the intellectual humility to examine and critique their ideas, and the experience to be respected and understood as a thought leader.

If you want to build thought leadership that truly has a positive impact on your audience and helps you grow your business, you need more than just influence. You need the substance to back up that influence.

So how do you go from an armchair expert to a true authority?

Evaluate (or do) the research

Having evidence behind your opinions and ideas not only makes your argument more robust, but it also provides further context for your audience to really understand what you are communicating.

People like to see evidence in a number of ways, so consider what’s out there in terms of data and research. What concrete data or statistics reflect the point you’re trying to make? Can you leverage past studies to show why your approach or ideas work? Or have you found gaps in the existing research? Do you need to do more of your own research?

Take Suzi McAlpine, one of the local thought leaders we’re lucky enough to work with. When writing her book Beyond Burnout, Suzi did extensive research into what others were saying. Recognising that there was a big information gap regarding burnout in New Zealand and Australia in particular, she created her own survey exploring the aspects of burnout she felt needed the newest information. More than 1500 people completed the survey, helping to inform some compelling arguments and ideas around burnout that hadn’t been considered before. For example, although 61% of participants showed signs of exhaustion (a key indicator of burnout), very few people were taking up programmes aimed at supporting health and wellbeing in the workplace – highlighting that different approaches were needed. Check out Suzi’s book Beyond Burnout for more.

Reflect on your own industry. Is there space you feel is lacking exploration? Something that people need to know more about? Or do you know something but can’t find anything online that truly matches what you’re saying? Get out there and find that information first-hand! If no one has done anything similar before, that probably means you’re on the right path.

Gather real-life evidence

When you’re beginning to build thought leadership, it can be overwhelming to come up with new ideas or stories to back up those ideas. But think back over your years in business. The time you’ve spent living and breathing your industry has already shown you what works well and doesn’t, and what you’d like to see done differently. You’ve got endless knowledge that you likely take for granted.

Your day-to-day work isn’t just business as usual – it’s your testing ground. It’s the space for hands-on learning, where you can figure out your method, test it in a real environment, and perfect it so that others can readily use it in their own work.

For example, one of our clients, Q4 Associates, developed their Digital Colleague Adoption Framework as co-founder Maurice Dubey was in the process of writing his book Adopting a Digital Workforce (co-written with John Burns). The framework both emerged from Maurice’s extensive experience with clients and continued to be tweaked while working with real clients. Now, it forms the overarching framework for all the work they do helping organisations adopt digital workforces.

Communicate your authority

As people, we turn to the experts when we need help. We go to a doctor when we’re unwell; we turn to an accountant when we’re struggling with our business finances; we approach an architect when we need help with our house.

But in any industry, we have a huge amount of choice. You could have a dozen accountants within driving distance, or have been recommended to as many by your friends and peers. So if you’re not making a decision based on location (as you might for a doctor), how do you choose who to go to?

More often than not, you’ll choose the one you see as the authority – the one that seems like the best in their field. But you will only know that if they’ve communicated their authority well.

Let’s look at that in terms of your business. When you’re trying to build your brand’s reputation, becoming the authority in your field has immense power. After all, you tend to become the obvious choice for many people.

But for your target market to see you as an authority, they need tangible evidence of your knowledge, and the respect you’ve earned from your hard work. If you want to be seen as an authority, it’s your job to communicate your expertise and level of thinking consistently.

Think of your organisation’s website. Do you have evidence of clients you’ve helped and their success stories? Do you have case studies of your work? Do you stress how long you’ve been in the industry and your areas of expertise?

Then consider other platforms, such as LinkedIn, emails, or webinars. Are you consistently starting conversations or driving them forward? Are you consistently sharing new ideas, or helping your audience understand how your models and frameworks can be used?

It’s one thing to be an authority – but communicating that authority is a crucial step in improving your trustworthiness as an expert and encouraging more people to turn to you for inspiration and ideas.

Walk the thought leadership walk

Thought leadership isn’t just commenting on what’s going on in your industry; you can’t be a back seat driver. Thought leadership involves leading the way and showing others how things are done. A thought leader inspires, educates, and engages others – and it’s the evidence, experience, and authority behind you that gets people listening.