Becoming a Thought Leader 


These days many businesses claim to encourage the idea that their executives be ‘thought leaders’.

Thought leader presentations and speeches move a top executive from representing his or her corporation into a whole new league: someone leading the wider industry sector and general public opinion into uncharted intellectual territory. Someone who projects confidence and authority. Such trail-blazing wisdom is thought to reflect well on the company concerned: we employ smart people – trust us!

But what exactly is a thought leader? It’s someone who (a) has thoughts that are sufficiently ambitious and different from run-of-the-mill thoughts to deserve wider attention, then (b) delivers these thoughts in a memorable way.

Not easy in a business context. The tone and substance of a thought leader’s speeches must match the corporation’s own branding, yet also come across as something ‘different’. Radical or innovative thinking requires tough-love honesty and self-awareness. Such qualities are not easy to reconcile with keeping up the share price and safeguarding commercially sensitive information. Did I mention getting the draft speech past the corporate lawyers?

It can be done. How?

Two approaches work well.

First, a thought leader need not have – and can’t have – all the answers. Asking basic questions in a different way to get people thinking differently is often enough to project big-scale confidence and authority. Less is more.

One way to do this is pose a thematic bold question right up front. This catches the audience’s attention and gives a speech a thematic structure.

Here are some extracts from a speech I recently supported that startled a whole sector, to excellent effect:

Why do we in this sector do things the way we do them?
Why should we change?
Why do many large, comfortable, profitable businesses and sectors shrink towards vanishing-point so fast?
They are attacked – eaten alive – by ‘disruptive technologies’!
By people who look at things differently. By people who take risks.
People with new ideas. Ideas no-one else has ever had.
That’s a massive business issue now. How can you know if you’re in a business sector that has two big problems?
It’s doomed.
And, much worse – it doesn’t know it’s doomed.

Second, a speaker can organise a speech/presentation around a frank personal example of failure and success. Challenges and mistakes that might seem banal to a specialist audience go down well for the wider public, and open the way to drawing bold thematic conclusions:

Small to big. Big to small
Hope? Or Change?
What I did and what I learned
Knowledge to wisdom
And so on.

Note that both methods use one of the best tools in the public speaking kitbag: surprise. The speaker takes an unexpected tack, then draws wider conclusions that get everyone intrigued – and wanting more. A leader people want to follow.

Charles Crawford
REDgum Collective
Charles Crawford is the author of Speeches for Leaders

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James Freemantle

Company founder James Freemantle has worked internationally in communications and training for over two decades, helping people to experience dramatic improvement in their abilities to express, influence and inspire. Professional sportspeople, entertainers and executives rely on him to enhance their abilities in presentation techniques, personal branding and media training.

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