How researchers get heard
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Why Level 2s Get Stuck There

This is the fourth 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.

Researchers who are interested in thought leadership have a strong sense that their hard-won expertise and insights are going to go to waste if they don’t share them more widely. They want to create real change.

The skills you will acquire to hit Level 2 build an essential foundation toward Level 3 thought leadership status — which is where you will have the platforms and the opportunities to make change happen.

But there are lots of reasons you might not get to Level 3. Here are the main ones I encounter in my work with researchers and organizations:

Time. You can’t imagine writing more than one blog post a month, talking to reporters weekly, tweeting more than 2-3 times a week, or spending two months developing a killer 10-minute talk for non-specialists versus one for your next academic conference. Jumping up to Level 3 takes intention and commitment — like writing a dissertation or a book; and the impact and rewards that leap generates are substantial. Cal Newport’s Deep Work ​can help you prioritize and focus for maximum impact; it’s an excellent resource as you think about how you can fit more thought leadership activity into your week or month. Newport is a highly productive academic who also blogs and speaks for general audiences.

Culture. Many researchers are penalized for spending time communicating about their research with non-specialists — by their tenure committee, for instance, or their research-first organization. The good news: More and more research-driven organizations today feel the pressure to turn their research and expertise into thought leadership content to reach decision makers, funders and other key audiences. Have a conversation with your communications staff and leadership about how they can help have your research have greater impact outside your organization or institution. Ask about training in public speaking or presentation narratives, writing for non-specialists, and/or using social media platforms effectively. Show them what you’re already doing and the models for impact you emulate. If necessary, make the case that thought leadership exposes your research to decision makers and makes your future research directions better — by giving you feedback that may make your future research questions of higher relevance to decision makers.

Lack of support. However, too many organizations still offer little to no formal support for researcher thought leadership development. If you’re in this situation and want your expertise to have wider impact, ask your organization what it can offer to set up coaching for you. Becoming a researcher thought leader is easier and faster with organizational support — primarily because your efforts can be amplified by marketing and communications staff. But obviously, many researchers clearly get it done on their own, starting by writing a lot for non-specialists.

The idea of becoming a ‘thought leader’ still makes you want to throw up a little. Let’s face it — it’s an abused term, claimed by more than a few charlatans. Know this: No one who is a real thought leader calls themselves that. They’re creative researchers and thinkers, they want their research and ideas to have impact — and they want a strategy for getting there. That’s it. “Thought leadership” is simply the content and networking you create and undertake to implement that strategy. Gagging on labels you don’t need to use just makes it harder to embrace your goal.

Tomorrow: 10 steps you can take to get past these obstacles and make the move to Level 3.