How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

10 First Steps: How Researchers Can Get in the Game

Friday’s essay (“The Wrong Kind of Serenity”) prompted a lot of feedback — some of it defensive. Eliciting the defenses was one of my goals in writing it. But the defensive feedback revealed one element of resistance I didn’t specifically factor into “The Wrong Kind of Serenity”: how researchers might in fact be too busy to intervene in debates they should intervene in … if they think about intervention as writing yet another takeout for a peer-reviewed journal. The contempt is still strong in many quarters of science for op-eds, threads, and any other format that isn’t scientifically sanctioned.

Again: Speed to market is critical. That’s why we’re seeing so many pre-print articles being marketed as discoveries, and why journals have suddenly discovered it takes two weeks to publish important studies, instead of two months or 12. If you feel confident that the debate won’t move beyond your intervention in a journal’s timeline — and that the journal has a better distribution network than an op-ed or other platform — by all means take your time. By which I mean: good luck, in the sense King George wished it to President John Adams in “Hamilton.”

Then again, the need to intervene in a scientific way might be just another manifestation of a protection mechanism. To that end, the most interesting response came from list member Cristina Lucas (shared with permission):

Bob – really, really dig this post. I’ve gone ahead and shared this with a few people I know doing interesting research right now, but struggle to find their voice. If this does not leave them fired up and inspired, not sure what will.

What scares me is how much “personality” — and “likeability” and “presence” and “relatability” — factor into how people find themselves in places of authority … these kinds of factors seem to mean a lot more to people than expertise. I’m sure many feel “too busy” to weigh in, but I also wonder how much of that is a protection mechanism for standing up and putting themselves out there in a way that makes them feel extremely vulnerable, exposed, and open to rejection if perhaps they are often the people that don’t have the “personality.” I talk about this often with friends of mine in the science community. That kind of courage takes so much work, and maybe even requires working through deep rooted issues of feeling worthy, good enough, and like they won’t be accepted. So, I wonder how these issues can be addressed/supported in meaningful ways as scientists try to find the courage to stand up and share their voice….I just have to imagine it’s a big roadblock for researchers. And, I don’t blame them. This stuff takes courage.

Thanks, Cristina. (My response to her is at the end of this email.)

So what about researchers who are just starting out producing public scholarship? It’s rare for them to achieve speed to market immediately. So here are the 10 first steps I recommend to these researchers to help them get there. Feel free to share these with anyone you know who might benefit from them:

  1. Author at least one paper published in a leading disciplinary journal (if you haven’t already). Researcher thought leadership flows from research credibility. Maintain and increase yours.
  2. Message all of your existing and forthcoming major research. Summarize each of your major articles in 125-word summaries — what are the major findings, why they matter and to whom, what solutions they suggest for which problems and what the next steps might be based on the findings. Between 125-140 words normally fits into a minute of relaxed speaking. You’ll find these summaries (and the habit of concision you’ll learn doing them) invaluable for interviews, conversations, talks and writing.
  3. Develop a concise, jargon-free description of your expertise and unique insights for decision makers. You’re an expert — but what does that mean to decision makers outside your institution/organization? Why is your expertise valuable to them? What unique insights, analyses, solutions or descriptions of problems do you have that will help them make better policy, investments, regulations or tradeoffs? A nonspecialist can’t find this information in your CV — they’ll need a concise (around 250 words), jargon-free distillation of it. It’s an essential definition for any expert; producing it will get easier the more you write. Speaking of which…
  4. Start publishing (more) for nonspecialist audiences. If you’re not publishing at all — and by “publishing” I mean writing publicly, not simply writing — start with a goal of posting 750-800 words a month for your own blog, a group blog, an organizational blog or for a Facebook group. It’s fashionable to dismiss blogging, but it’s still the best low-pressure way to a) build content indexable by search engines (increasing the search value of your expertise for decision makers, reporters, editors, conference organizations, other experts); and b) get feedback on your writing. As soon as you can, move your target up to 1,500 words a month.
  5. In your writing, prioritize problems and unique solutions your expertise allows you to see — not your new research findings. Pay attention to that tickle when you’re reading the news that says: Here’s what my expertise says about this. Write down what you’re thinking — your point of view — and spend 15 minutes outlining it into an evidence-based argument that details the problem but spends most of the real estate on options for solutions. These are the kinds of insight communications to which decision makers respond most positively — not communications of new findings from your research per se.
  6. Start working with a professional writer/editor. If your organization or institution has staff or contract editors, ask them to critique your writing. Tell them you don’t just want a copy edit; you want their help sharpening your argument and point of view as well as translating research into a problem-solution framework. Also schedule brainstorming sessions with them to vet and sharpen your writing ideas — building your sense of hooks and white space — for future pieces. You’re working with an expert at what will be successful in the media marketplace — so listen and learn.
  7. Become a “subject matter expert” (SME) citizen on a single social media platform (usually Twitter).
    • Make sure your social media account has your full and up-to-date information as an SME as well as a professional headshot (and good header photo, for Twitter).
    • Follow/connect with every other significant SME in your field using that platform.
    • Check your feed at least 3x/week for news and research relevant to your expertise/discipline.
    • Start reposting to your own account the content your organization’s other SMEs and external SMEs post that you think is valuable.
    • Also post content daily yourself, with comments.
    • Next, start conversations with your network about what you’re seeing — comment on their posts, pose questions to them, recommend other resources to them and their audiences. You’re not stalking them; you’re engaging them, networking with them, with the end result that they’ll recognize you as a peer (and recognize you when you meet at the next disciplinary or sector conference).
    • Don’t let this take more than a couple hours a week. Think of it as being at your field’s most significant conference, but online.
  8. Get media training. If a member of the media hasn’t already interviewed you, that opportunity is coming sooner than you think. Don’t be one of those embittered researchers who didn’t bother to learn how to play the game and then blamed the journalist for distorting their research in the finished story. It’s your responsibility to learn how to control an interview and stay on message. The communications staff of your organization should be able to conduct the training themselves or connect you with a firm that can do it. If possible, also request training on how to excel as a panelist — those opportunities will also be emerging for you shortly.
  9. Start giving presentations to nonspecialist audiences. If you’re doing that already, look for more opportunities to do it. These talks don’t have to be long. A 10-minute brown bag talk to others at your NGO, university or think tank or a 5-minute flash talk at a local science cafe or museum are both great ways to use time constraints to force you to start messaging your research and ideas as well as get feedback on your presentation skills and what you need to work on. Developing those skills will be essential as you start to get invites to appear on panel discussions and then conference plenary talks.
  10. Find a researcher mentor who’s already made the leap into thought leadership. If there isn’t anyone at your organization or institution, reach out to someone via LinkedIn or email and ask for a short video chat to get tips on how to position your research and your insights for more public impact. Chances are you’ll have a solid growth plan for the next year after that conversation.

These 10 steps are part of my series of white papers for researcher thought leadership — take my five-minute assessment and receive a plan tailored to your current level of impact.

Does confidence come before taking these steps, or through taking them? I’ve seen it happen both ways. Here’s my answer, tucked in my response to Cristina:

Cristina, thanks for the kind words about this email and for sharing it. I appreciate all of it.

Putting yourself out there is hard. It’s hard being vulnerable; it’s hard because most people aren’t very good at it at first, and it’s tough to be rejected or make mistakes; and it’s hard because (especially in academics) there are very few support systems for doing so, and still a lot of active opposition to doing so.

In that kind of climate, you have to give yourself license. It has to be part of how you think of yourself. “I am a person with expertise-based opinions, and I am going to share them.” Twitter is useful for this. But (and this sounds a bit harsh, perhaps), if one has issues about being accepted or accepting yourself that one can’t set aside, then being a public scholar or researcher is not going to make those issues better. The need to make a difference has to be more powerful than those issues.

Perhaps personality and presence factor into authority for nonresearchers. But people like Tony Fauci or Samantha Montano aren’t any more likable than anyone else. They’re committed to being clear, rational, evidence-driven and passionate. They succeed because they aren’t like everyone else.