How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

Ten Key Steps You Should Take to Get to Level 3

This is the fifth 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.

  1. Author at least two papers published in leading disciplinary journals (if you haven’t already). Researcher thought leadership flows from research credibility. Maintain and increase yours.
  2. Message all of your existing and forthcoming 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 fit 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 or organization? Why is your expertise valuable to them? What unique insights, analyses, solutions or descriptions of problems do you have that help them make better policy, investments, regulations or tradeoffs? A non-specialist isn’t going to find this information in your CV — they’ll need a concise (about 200 words), jargon-free description of it. Level 2s often still lack this essential self-definition for any expert; producing it will get easier the more you write. Speaking of which…
  4. Double the average monthly word count you publish for non-specialist audiences. Why? Isn’t 750 words a month enough? Not if you want to increase
  • the search engine ranking of your expertise,
  • your visibility to media,
  • your visibility to conference organizers,
  • your visibility to collaborators,
  • the amount of raw content you have to post and converse about on social media, and
  • your ability to respond to breaking events with a timely opinion piece.
    Writing or doing short video more — even for an organizational blog — is still the best low-pressure way to level up on all of these things and get feedback on your thought leadership content. As soon as you can, move your target up to 1,500 words a month — two substantial pieces of analysis content for non-experts a month. You’re aiming for 2,500 words a month on average at Level 3.
  1. In your writing and/or videos, 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.
  2. Work with a professional writer/editor. If your organization 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.
  3. Commit to impact on at least one social media platform. Whatever platform you’re on (and LinkedIn and Twitter are our two recommendations), here is a list of steps to take:
  • 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).
  • Make the commitment to use these channels for a minimum of 90% SME-focused content. Cut way back on the personal content.
  • Follow and connect with every prominent SME in your field.
  • Schedule time daily to read the platform for news and research relevant to your field/discipline; repost content from them that you think is valuable, adding your own value-add comments when appropriate.
  • Start conversations daily with your network about what you’re seeing — comment on their posts, pose questions to them, recommend other resources to them and their audiences.
  • Also daily: repost your organization’s or institution’s content.
  • Develop a target list of SMEs and media in your field with whom to initiate conversations multiple times weekly on- and offline.
  • Respond ASAP to conversations that influencers, SMEs and media initiate with you.
  • Ideally, develop some quarter-over-quarter or year-over-year targets to measure your growth on the platform: followers, engagement with your tweets or posts, follow-ups that result in offline conversations. This last step is strategic, not skeevy. These online relationships will benefit both of you as much as the people you meet IRL at the next disciplinary or sector conference.
  1. Get more media training. You still need professional guidance on how to control an interview and stay on message. The time to get that is now — not the day before a big interview. 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 be emerging shortly for you. Don’t be one of those embittered researchers who didn’t bother to learn how to play the game and then blamed the journalist or the moderator for distorting their research.
  2. Double down on public speaking opportunities and training. Knowing how to give a compelling talk is one of the most important skills you will need to make public impact. Knowing how to tailor that talk to almost any length — from 5 to 30 or more minutes — to suit context and changing circumstances is gold. That’s why you should accept every opportunity to speak — 5-minute flash talks at a local science cafe or museum, 10-minute brown bag talks to others at your organization/institution, 15-minute talks to funders on the larger implications of your research. Use time constraints to force you into concision. Aggressively solicit feedback on your presentation skills and what you need to work on. Consider a course from Duarte on crafting presentation narratives.
  3. Find a mentor who’s already made the leap into researcher 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 Skype 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.