How researchers get heard
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Level 2 Researcher Thought Leaders: A Deeper Dive

This is the third in a six-part series on researcher thought leaders and how those just getting started should think strategically about improving their skills and impact in communicating with non-experts. If you haven’t already, please take my health assessment for researchers — it can provide you with a baseline that you can use to guide your development as an authority. Please also send me your feedback and read the other pieces in this series.

Yesterday I summarized the typical markers for both Level 1 and Level 2 Researcher Thought Leaders. When you get to Level 2, you’ve got a little game, some skillz, some recognition. But not an audience.

Unfortunately, most Level 2s typically stop there — in part because you need feedback on where you’re at and what to do next, in part because of time constraints and a lack of organizational or institutional support to make the leap to Level 3 (where consistent benefits and value begin to accrue to your career and organization)

Let’s start today with a deeper dive into what a Researcher Thought Leader Level 2 looks like across eight skills and competencies, and what the differences are between Level 2 and Level 3.

1. Translation of Research into Insights

  • Researchers who want their findings and expertise to have more impact need to be able to translate research into insights that non-specialists can understand and use. Unfortunately, developing this key skill often proves insurmountable.
  • At Level 2, you’ve learned how to routinely make these translations for your research and the research of others — at least in outline form, and at least for practitioner sectors that are key audiences for your discipline or organization.
  • However, you might still need editorial help to turn these outlines into tight op-eds, blog posts, talks or just bullet points — which is why it’s so important for emerging thought leaders to have good editors and communication support.
  • You might also still be lapsing into customary researcher caveating — “the curse of knowledge,” as Voltaire put it, talking about how people who know a lot about a topic can’t seem to help relating an overwhelming amount of that knowledge.
  • This habit creates confusion in many non-specialist audiences, which just want the bottom line.

When you get to Level 3:

  • Research-to-insight translation is coming much more fluidly to you, and you’ll be able to turn it into finished content much more fluidly as well.
  • Social media is also a place where you’re starting to attract significant levels of engagement through this kind of translation.

2. Strong POVs and Argument

  • At Level 2, you don’t just have findings; you’re also developing some strong arguments and clear POVs that apply your research and that of others to real-world problems and solutions.
  • However, you might still struggle to express these compellingly and to shake off researcher caveating.
  • Again, working with an editor (and publishing to non-specialist venues) will sharpen both your arguments and your comfort with expressing them.

At Level 3:

  • You’ll have learned how to message research and your expertise in a way that foregrounds the points decision makers need to know without distracting them with everything you know.
  • You’re developing abundant sets of POVs and arguments that flow out of your expertise; these POV/argument sets are building a wider foundation for you as a public SME beyond your research achievements.
  • In addition, these POV/argument sets are almost always problem-to-solution oriented — they are not simply about advancing research per se, but about framing real-world problems in illuminating ways and offering novel solutions that can break through the impasses of conventional approaches.
  • But you don’t just have arguments and stances; you’re leading with them in writing and speaking opportunities, and in the book you’re writing or thinking of writing for non-specialists.
  • You combine vision, applied expertise and willingness to share both of those. That combination is what makes research-driven thought leadership so compelling.

3. Writing for Non-Specialists: Cadence & Vehicles

  • Publishing frequently for non-specialist audiences is a hallmark of researcher thought leadership. It increases your personal brand, drives all sorts of opportunities and sharpens your ability to think in problem/solution frames.
  • You’re publishing an average of at least 750 words of your research-driven insights at least once monthly for external audiences, usually with the assistance of an editor or ghostwriter.
  • These pieces are usually on an organizational or personal blog, but you’re occasionally also placing them with external platforms as well (i.e., online media sites or traditional magazines/newspapers).

At Level 3:

  • You’ll be publishing more: an average of between 1,500-2,500 words of insight content per month for external audiences (video or text).
  • Often, you’re still using an organizational or personal blog or Facebook as the flagship venue for this publishing, but you’re also increasingly being invited by external media to contribute op-eds and/or articles on topics in your expertise wheelhouse.
  • Your publishing is directly responsible for generating speaking inquiries and requests for media interviews.
  • If you’re on staff with an organization, your writing is leading to better key performance indicator (KPI) metrics for the organization’s digital channels, including online conversions. (And your organization loves you for that.)

4. Public Speaking

  • Level 2s appear on academic and sector conference panels at least twice a year and ideally more.
  • Typically, however, they haven’t yet landed their first keynote opportunity or invitation to be a guest on an established podcast.

At Level 3:

  • You’re in increasing demand as a speaker to non-specialist decision maker audiences: keynoting at academic and sector conferences an average of once a year.
  • You might not have developed a “stump speech” just yet, but you have made at least one plenary address of at least 20-30 minutes to an academic and/or non-specialist sector conferences (such as an association or practitioner conference).
  • You’ve received increasing numbers of requests to moderate and appear on panels.
  • Typically, you’ve also been a guest on a podcast outside of their organization or institution at least four times in the past year. Those requests are now coming from podcasts with larger followings.

5. Media Skills/Appearances

  • Level 2s have typically received some formal media training from a communications professional—at least a half-day session.
  • They are being solicited by media at least quarterly for quotes or backgrounders.
  • These appearances are not always successful; Level 2s often still have trouble sticking to messaging during interviews. But they are getting better with practice.

At Level 3:

  • You’ll be fielding a lot more media inquiries — and growing more and more comfortable with both the volume and the experience of being interviewed.
  • Because you have had more practice and more training, you will understand better how to control interviews instead of being controlled by them.
  • On average, Level 3s should expect at least two requests quarterly for interviews, quotes or backgrounders.
  • Odds are that you will be the subject of at least one short profile before moving up to Level 4.

6. Hook/White Space Skills

One of the most critical competencies for researcher thought leaders is to develop an instinct for “hooks” (those news developments for which your research and expertise could elucidate new angles of analysis) and “white space” (your novel point-of-view on those hooks that’s valuable to decision making and that you could occupy to gain attention during the news cycles).

You need this instinct because your organizations and institutions often either don’t have communications staff who understand your expertise on this level or those staff don’t have the time to scout opportunities for you to intervene in current news and debates. Typically, researchers have to initiate these insights themselves.

  • At Level 2, you are now identifying hook/white space combinations germane to your research and expertise more frequently than you did a year ago
  • However, most Level 2s still need training in how to consistently translate these opportunities into killer thought leadership content.
  • Working with a good editor can help train you to become better at the translation; it can also help develop your hook/white space instinct as you begin to see what the editor sees.

At Level 3:

  • You’re seeing hook/white space combinations routinely and you can fluidly translate the opportunities you’re seeing into thought leadership content — particularly on social media platforms.
  • This combination is also sharpening your pitches to elite media editors and furnishing you with applications of your expertise to current events that you can use in panel discussions, talks and podcasts.

7. Social Media

  • There is no single prescription — only rules of thumb — for the strategic use of social media by researchers who also want to extend their impact. The operative word is “strategic.” For it to be useful, social media should be integral to your work and professional identity, not peripheral.
  • Level 2s typically use one social media platform almost exclusively to promote yourself as an SME — which means the content they post there is about their own research, significant research in their fields, and the work of their organizations.
  • As a Level 2, you’re also using the platform several times a week as a news and research resource and to engage other SMEs in your field(s).
  • Your distinct POVs and arguments are becoming clear in this channel.
  • Your collective followers across all social media accounts you use professionally typically falls between 1-3K.

At Level 3:

  • The big change is that you’ll have developed and implemented platform-specific strategies to grow your audiences and increase their awareness of your status as an SME and a thought leader.
  • That work will be reflected in a boost in your follower count across all platforms to between 3k and 10k.
  • At Level 3, you will also be sharing content on at least one other social media platform (e.g., LinkedIn if Twitter is your main platform), but you still won’t be regularly publishing content there.

8. Lead/Partnership Generator

  • If you’re on staff at a research-driven institution or organization, key strategic functions of that organization might be beginning to recognize the value of your thought leadership content.
  • For example, development might be using some of it to steward donors and nurture leads and potential partners.
  • However, organizations don’t typically recognize the value of Level 2 Research Thought Leaders themselves to partnership, donor or sales lead acquisition. Your thought leadership doesn’t have enough gravitas for that — yet.

At Level 3

  • The organization will be relying more heavily on your content to generate leads and on you to talk with prospects for funding, sales or partnerships.

Tomorrow: Four reasons you might get stuck at Level 2.