How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

TTLT: How to Use 5 Minutes

As researchers and research communicators, we’re always explaining. Our fear: If we don’t explain, our authority vanishes.

Sometimes it’s better not to explain. To simply market our authority.

And to understand when you have the choice.

Yahoo! Finance interviewed Tyler Cowen for five minutes recently, ostensibly about his new book on the underappreciated virtues of big business.

It is not, shall we say, a textbook performance of The Message Box.

It is a master class in how an interviewee can take control of an interview to market authority.

The questions are very softball. I’d bet Cowen got them in advance. He might have even suggested them. Such is the state of media in 2019.

None of that matters. Cowen controls the interview to the point that you can see the interviewers (who are sympathetic) actually sag and give up any pretense of being challenging about halfway through.

Cowen obtains control in two ways:

  1. He attacks the premise of everything thrown at him. Cowen’s standard response: whatever prevailing wisdom says matters — about CEO pay, MMT, the federal deficit, breaking up big tech, and the evils of big business — is wrong. At times, the very premise of your question, dear interviewer, is wrong. I’m going to tell you what really matters.
  2. He’s brief. Cowen answers eight questions in a five-minute interview and spends no more than 27 seconds on any one. (I timed all of them.) His discipline is remarkable.

For the first question — “What are the misconceptions people have about big business?” — Cowen doesn’t list even list the misconceptions. He simply says:

  • Most misconceptions are held by elites, not ordinary people, who have more common sense. (A brilliant move — attack elites — which wins over common folk and creates anxiety and lean-in on the coasts.)
  • There’s a long list of complaints against big business, which I dispense with factually in my book. (Translation: I’m not going to bore you with these — you should really buy my book.)
  • For the most part, big business is one of the more trustworthy institutions in modern society. (Most researchers would try to define “trustworthy” here — cite a poll number or explain study findings. Cowen doesn’t linger in such sticky details. He just makes a declaration and moves on. If the interview were more challenging, I’m sure he’d have a number at his fingertips, but he doesn’t feel the need to justify his claim. The claim is all.)

Cowen has made a decision before the interview: the interview is going to be about marketing the book, and himself as expert who has written this book that you should read.

Cowen has lots of ideas. He has research, and reads and knows a ton of research written by others.

But he cites none of that, shares none of that during this interview. He simply makes declarations.

Q: “What would you say to AOC?”
Cowen: “You’re the Donald Trump of the left. You’re harming your own party. We need sound governance based on good economics. Go back to school.”

In five minutes, an expert can bore you to death through explaination.

Or they can have confident, brief, memorable opinions and remind you they have a new book out. They can market their authority.

It’s true that, the shorter the time you have to speak, the simpler the messages you must deliver in order to be heard.

For researchers, though, the real question with brief, high-leverage opportunities — interviews, podcasts, panel discussions — is whether you should be explaining anything at all, or just establishing and marketing your authority as a research-based expert to follow.

Takeaway: Develop messaging, yes. But also get comfortable developing and declaring evidence-based opinions that you can back up more fully later if you need to. And understand that people connect with personal brands.

You’re the trojan horse, carrying your ideas and solutions and paradigms.

Be the authority. Get them to let you in the gates.