Thursday, May 2, 2013

Six questions for wannabe thought leaders

I work with several smart management consultants who are writing books to share their genuinely fresh ideas. They have the thoughts, and creating books is seen as the first step in becoming a leader in the marketplace of ideas.

It's not a wrong approach, because in the sausage-making of creating a book their ideas are tested and refined and made presentable.

However, there are some questions a potential thought leader should ask before picking up the pen to undertake a book or a blog or a website.

John Butman, author of Breaking Out: How to Build Influence in a World of Competing Ideas and founder of the content development firm Idea Platforms, Inc., offers some questions you should ask.
What is my purpose? People are driven to go public for all kinds of reasons, from the thirst for fame and fortune to the dream of leading a crusade. Those who gain genuine, long-lasting influence are the ones who want to create positive change for other people. So ask yourself: Why am I doing this? Idea entrepreneur Cesar Millan (he has built quite an empire around his ideas including books, tv shows, DVDs and merchandise) is a dog behavioralist ("the dog whisperer"), but his deeper motive is to reduce maltreatment of animals — and kids — in our society. The more you want to help others, the greater the influence you will have. 
How does my personal narrative convey the idea? For people to respond to an idea, it must evoke emotion. That's why idea entrepreneurs tell personal stories. Gandhi, who I consider a prototypical idea entrepreneur, spoke of being ejected from a first-class train compartment in South Africa because of his skin color. That incident was the genesis of his concept of non-violent resistance. If you can move people with an idea, they will embrace it on a gut level. 
How can people put my idea into practice? Ideas take root when we can use them in our everyday lives. Model the methods yourself and also enable people to adapt them to their own situations. Daniel Kahneman offers a complex theory of thinking but also gives practical guidance on how to make better decisions — as a result his latest book has received a great deal of attention. The more people use an idea, the more they will believe in it. 
Do I have enough supporting material? An idea has to be expressed in different ways for people to understand it as fully as possible, and in their individual way. You need to build out your idea with analysis, stories, facts and data, references, and examples. George Stalk, the strategy expert, has a rule of thumb for accumulation: gather enough material so you can talk about your idea for a full day — and keep your audience interested. The richer the understanding of an idea, the more meaning it will have for people. 
Who do I really want to reach? Surprisingly, many a would-be idea entrepreneur does not know who they want to speak to. Who will be most affected by your idea? Whose thinking and behavior do you most want to affect? Mireille Guiliano, author of French Women Don't Get Fat, wrote her book with the middle-aged, well-educated woman in mind. But she discovered that young mothers, teenage girls, aspiring women executives — even husbands and gay men — also responded to her ideas. The more diverse audiences you can reach, the broader your influence will be. 
How does my idea connect with a greater "thinking journey?" No idea is completely original. Most are improvements on an existing body of thought. All the most successful idea entrepreneurs stand on the shoulders of giants, and usually say so. In fact, it's important you don't try to own your idea. When you give as much of it away as you can, people will be more — not less — likely to credit you.
For some perspective, think of the people you consider genuine thought leaders, and try to answer these questions about them.

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