How researchers get heard

How to Identify Your Organization’s Thought Leaders: Two Writing Tests

How do researcher thought leaders get attention for their insights? They write. A lot. And not just for their peers.

Image credit: Jubal Kenneth Bernal/Unsplash


My research has identified a dozen competencies and markers that distinguish researchers who are also superior thought leaders — people whose evidence-based ideas and solutions are leading significant change in the world and driving outsize value for their institutions or organizations.


Two markers out of those dozen appear to be indispensable for reaching thought leadership:

  1. Publishing multiple books for non-specialists around themes of interest to decision-makers.
  2. Publishing an average of at least 1,500 words a month for non-specialists, usually in shorter formats such as opinion or analysis.


“I don’t have time to write that much for non-specialists,” you will almost certainly say if you are a researcher or lead a research-driven organization. (And, probably, if you lead any organization, research-driven or not.)


Take a look at this chart of monthly publishing output in public venues from some leading researchers. Some of these figures are averages over a period of months during 2017–2018; some are for single months in 2018 I chose at random:



These are all incredibly busy people. Many run their own research institutes, labs and/or publications. Cowen and Grant also have podcasts for which they publish transcripts, adding to their indexable content totals.


I also looked at Martha Nussbaum and Kathleen Hall Jamieson. Both rarely publish opinion pieces. But both frequently publish books and then give numerous interviews to support publication.


The bottom line: Writing well a lot — and then publishing it all — will consistently fuel the public impact of you or your research-driven organization.


Publishing a lot makes sense if you want to have impact as a researcher. In fact, it exemplifies the essence of thought leadership: you not only have great insights, but you feel compelled to share those insights with the world.


And frequently publishing for non-specialists — even if it’s on your own blog — is invaluable for helping you develop a clear point of view, get a lot of media attention, land op-eds and speaking invites, improve your sense of narrative, write a book (or several) for non-specialists, or achieve any of the other markers of thought leadership.


Two Writing Tests to Identify Your Organization’s Thought Leaders


If the organization you lead has real thought leaders on staff, they’re already publishing — even before you sanction them to do so on behalf of the organization.


They’re writing for the organizational website or a private blog, long threads on Twitter or posts on Facebook, on Quora or Reddit, or for a private email list.


You might not know this; it might take a little digging for you to discover it. When you find some examples of what your prospective thought leaders are writing, send those examples to five people you trust who are in the media, on your personal board or in your donor circle. Ask these readers for an honest assessment of the writing you’ve sent them.


Here’s what they should tell you they’re seeing: an instinct for addressing big problems and an orientation to solving them, all expressed in jargon-free language with a clear POV, compelling and evidence-based arguments, and vivid examples.


They should feel as if you’ve just turned them on to an early warning system. They should feel grateful, and ask you for more.


On the other hand: The people you think are your organization’s thought leaders might not be writing enough, or well enough. If you know or suspect that’s the case:


  • Ask your communications director to ask these thought leaders to each write an 800-word op-ed for your funders/donors based on a piece of research (not necessarily theirs) and deliver the final version in one week.
  • You’re looking for a couple of qualities: an appetite to share insight, the ability to do so quickly, and the ability to do so in such a way that connects with one of your key non-specialist audiences — and that that audience can easily digest.
  • If your thought leaders pass this test, you need to clear the deck for them to do their thing by creating a culture and system that rewards it.
  • If they don’t, drop them from your list and survey your other staffers for potential thought leaders.

The inability or unwillingness to write frequently is a clear signal that someone doesn’t have the appetite, the discipline or the proper organizational priorities to be a thought leader within your organization.


Accept that those people are not your organization’s thought leaders — even if the verdict is about you.


Then, find and nurture the ones who are.