Stand Out: Breakthough Ideas & Build a Following
I just read Stand Out: How to Find Your Breakthrough Idea and Build a Following Around it by Dorie Clark and it was awesome. Since I’m currently building a community of bacon loving, jersey rocking, sports fans at Bacon Sports getting better at engaging and growing the community is always top of mind. I’m also always coming up with ideas, but it’s finding and executing the right ones that’s important. This book covers all that and more and is great for anyone who’s an entrepreneur, marketer, wants to build an audience/community/following, runs a startup, or wants to do something with their ideas.
When I read books on my Kindle I’m always highlighting sections that have the most value so that I can go back and read them again. Below are my highlights from Stand Out: How to Find Your Breakthrough Idea and Build a Following Around it. Hopefully you’re able to get as much value from the passages as I did.
In the event you end up reading this book drop me a line on Twitter @RobCressy and let me know what you thought about it.
- I’ve read over 100+ books on marketing, being a creator, entrepreneurship and sports. Click HERE to see the list.
- Click HERE to read the book notes I created aka the best takeaways from each book.
Most recognized experts achieved success not because of some special genius, but because they learned how to put disparate elements together and present ideas in a new and meaningful way.
Developing a reputation as an expert in your field attracts people who want to hire you, do business with you and your company, and spread your ideas. It’s the ultimate form of career insurance.
Thought leaders strive to make an impact, and that requires them to get outside the ivory tower and ensure that their message is accessible and actionable.
When you’re a true thought leader, it’s not about advancing you—it’s about advancing your ideas.
Building a strong professional reputation is the best way to protect, and advance, your career.
Whether you work inside a corporation or as an entrepreneur, today’s challenge is the same: how to add so much value to others that they fight to have you on their team.
To succeed in today’s economy, you don’t have to be a worldwide superstar, but you do have to be deliberate about identifying the place where you want to make a contribution and starting to share your ideas. The competition is fierce, but if you even begin to develop thought leadership, you’ll dramatically outpace your competitors, most of whom never even try.
Our value isn’t as robots, executing tasks. It’s as thinkers, who make connections and spark new insights and change the world by seeing things in new ways.
It’s about solving real problems and making a difference in a way that creates value for yourself and others. True thought leadership is a gift. It’s a willingness to be brave, open up, and share yourself. It’s a willingness to risk having your ideas shot down, because you genuinely believe they can help others. It’s a willingness to trust that your generosity will benefit the world.
In today’s crowded marketplace of ideas, you need to be able to show others—quickly—why they should listen.
True thought leaders are driven by asking questions that others have not, and question assumptions others take for granted.
Finding the next Big Idea is about cultivating a questioning mind-set.
To find a Big Idea, you have to question the assumptions that are keeping everyone else in check. You don’t succeed by following the rules and thinking exactly like everyone else; you need to ask “what if?” and “why not?” Try to put yourself into the mind-set of an outsider, who doesn’t know all the rules. What would they make of how things are typically done? Are there practices they might find counterintuitive or outmoded? Might there be a new or different way of doing things? Finding that answer could be the seed of your Big Idea.
ASK YOURSELF: What are others overlooking? What are the assumptions underlying your field? Have they been questioned or tested? If so, how long ago—and have circumstances changed in the interim? What questions do “newbies” in your field often ask that get shot down or dismissed? Is there a way you could take their questions seriously? What would that look like? What’s the conventional wisdom about how to do things “the right way” in your field? What if it were actually the opposite? What would that look like? What do most people in your field think would be impossible? Is it really? Or is it just difficult? What research project or initiative would—if you successfully undertook it—change how your field operates?
If you can find a way to help people prepare for the future—to provide real solutions to upcoming challenges—people will clamor for your practical insights.
One of the best ways to develop a reputation as an authority in your field is by staying on top of trends, informing others about them, and sharing your take on what they mean and how we should adapt.
ASK YOURSELF: What are three trends shaping your industry? Are they short-term or fundamental? How would you describe them to an outsider unfamiliar with your field? In the coming years, how will those trends change the status quo? What should smart companies or individuals do in order to thrive in the future? How should they prepare? What steps should they take? Are there companies or entities that have handled change particularly well? What can you learn from their example? What innovations or new developments do you know about that most others do not? Where is the locus of innovation in your field? Particular regions or companies or divisions or think tanks? How can you ensure that you stay close to the work they’re doing?
Developing a Big Idea doesn’t require genius. What’s required are skills that many professionals already have—the ability to ask good questions, to challenge assumptions, and to listen to your gut instinct that alerts you when the rest of the world is overlooking something.
ASK YOURSELF: What personal experience have you had that’s changed your view of the world? Think about the jobs you’ve held, the projects you’ve worked on, or the body of work you’ve created. What question logically arises from the ones you’ve tackled before? What experiences have you had that others in your field most likely have not? How does that difference shape your view of the industry?
Scoble suggests choosing one segment to specialize in so that your coverage can be much deeper than that of even the better-funded establishment players. TechCrunch may cover nanotechnology, for instance, but if you write exclusively about that subject, you’re going to rapidly outstrip them and become the definitive source on the subject.
ASK YOURSELF: What are the topics you feel passionate about (even if they don’t seem like clear professional moneymakers)? What topics are you a “local expert” in—that is, not necessarily the best in the world, but better or more knowledgeable than those around you? Have other people built careers around any of the above topics—and if so, how? (Homemaking and baking didn’t seem nearly so lucrative until Martha Stewart made her mark.)
How can you distinguish yourself enough to get noticed? That was the problem facing Rachael Ray, and as her example shows, it’s often a matter of reframing your expertise so that what’s banal in one setting becomes revelatory in another.
Ray is—as she freely admits—“grossly under-qualified.”6 But she’s an expert in something different, not high-end French cuisine or molecular gastronomy, but the art of making food easy and accessible to regular people.
Your expertise doesn’t have to include the most prestigious diplomas or accolades; sometimes you just have to know how to do something different in a given context, and do it well. Think about who needs your skills or approach, but doesn’t typically have access to them.
If you change the context and compete in a space where you’re unique, as Rachael Ray did, you may find yourself a hot commodity. You’re injecting fresh ideas and energy into the discussion; you’re offering something genuinely different, and that gives you a competitive advantage. ASK YOURSELF: Is there a way you can differentiate yourself from others in your profession? What is the traditional background of influential players in your field? Is there a way to leverage being the opposite of that? Is there a realm you’re interested in where your skill set is rare or hasn’t been fully utilized in the past? What weakness can become your strength? Is there an area where you don’t have credentials or expertise, and could that become a selling point?
ASK YOURSELF: What topics within your niche do you want to learn more about? What books, Web sites, or podcasts can teach you the most about them? How can you test out your ideas in low-risk ways (conduct a survey before creating a product, write a blog post before penning an entire book, conduct an informational interview with someone who has previously done what you want to do, etc.)?
If you’re strategic, like Ear, you can leverage your niche expertise into a broader role as a thought leader. The secret is thinking through related areas where you can add value.
ASK YOURSELF: Once you’ve established your expertise in a niche, what are the adjacent areas you could move into? How can you begin to solidify your credentials in the new areas (writing blog posts or op-eds, giving speeches, serving on committees related to those disciplines, etc.)? What are upcoming news events that will make your expertise relevant? (For Ear, the trial of Khmer Rouge leaders might trigger media interest in his work on criminal justice, for instance.) How can you capitalize on those moments (reaching out to existing media contacts)
If you’re able to offer data that is new, accurate, and revealing, you’re very quickly going to become a sought-after source.
When you put in the time to gain knowledge and share it, you’ll be recognized for it.
Depending on your field, conducting research and writing reviews can be one of the fastest—and cheapest—ways to become a trusted source. Reviewing rarely requires a graduate degree or special licensing. Instead, it takes a willingness to spend time, a genuine interest in the field, and a desire to help others make the best decisions possible.
In her spare time, she was an entrepreneur running product review sites for everything from camcorders to ovens to laundry machines. In 2011, at age twenty-six, she sold her group of review sites (by then, she covered twelve product categories) to USA Today.1 Most people who are shopping for a product or service won’t have the interest or ability to dig that deep. So when they discover that you’ve done the work for them, they’ll likely be grateful for your efforts and quick to recognize your superior expertise. That’s a fast path to becoming a recognized authority.
ASK YOURSELF: What area or question do you feel passionate about researching? Think about what research your field could benefit from. What do you—and others—wish you knew? How could you find that out? Think broadly; it could involve field research, case studies, interviews, focus groups, number crunching, or other methods. Are there products, services, or businesses that aren’t being reviewed sufficiently (or at all)? What would you do differently? Is there an existing place where you could contribute your knowledge? If not, could you create a venue where people can collect and share information?
To have the greatest effect in your research, go against the current. Look for the stories no one else is telling—or the ones that haven’t been discovered yet.
ASK YOURSELF: Who are the usual information sources in your industry? Who else is knowledgeable, but doesn’t often get asked for their insights or opinions? How can you reach out to them? What on-the-ground field research can you conduct in your area of interest? Who can you visit or interview about their experiences? Is there a hidden “good news story” in your field that most others aren’t aware of or talking about?
So how can you make your research count so that it justifies the effort? The secret is getting your research process to do double duty. Done right, research can both educate you about a given industry and put you in contact with the most influential people in it. That way, it’s an investment in professional development and network building, so you can afford to spend more time on it.
As the social media strategist Gary Vaynerchuk told me, “It’s not good enough to just produce long-form content; you have to put out microcontent to drive awareness to it.” He might write a blog post about a given topic, and also create a video and an animated GIF about that same topic. If you really wanted to maximize your effort and attract more viewers, you could also create tweets promoting your blog, video, and gif; Facebook posts; an audio file; a short video on Vine to complement a longer one on YouTube or Vimeo; and the list goes on. If you’re going to take the time to create something, you owe it to yourself to make it amazing—and ensure that the right people see your work.
When Fidelman takes on a client, he doesn’t write about them directly. Instead, he interviews leaders who work in his client’s industry and uses the interview process as a form of networking. One of his strategies is to create elaborately researched posts that identify the top twenty-five leaders in a given field or industry (“The 25 Highest Rated CEOs That Are Hiring Now,” or “Meet the Top 20 Most Social CMOs of the Fortune 100,” or “The World’s Top 20 Social Brands”). Creating each list, he says, takes at least one hundred hours. That may seem like a mammoth undertaking, but he’s convinced of the value: It gives him the opportunity to build relationships with influential people who might be useful connections for him and his clients in the future. Plus, he’s developed a precise system to leverage his time. He starts with four hundred to five hundred names of possible contenders and narrows them down on a first pass by their Klout score, which measures their online influence. (He hires two freelancers from online sites such as oDesk or Elance, at a cost of $5 to $6 per hour, to check and recheck the scoring.) That’ll reduce the list to a more manageable one hundred, at which point he evaluates whether each potential influencer talks about the subject in question (such as crowdfunding) more than 50 percent of the time. If not, he eliminates them from contention. Then, he and his contractors cross-reference other social metrics—their Kred scores, Alexa rankings, how popular their blog is, how often they’re retweeted, how often they’re quoted or mentioned in Google search results, and more. Fidelman is aiming for seven or eight data points, which he turns into a weighted average. Then he narrows the list to twenty-five, and runs a final check to make sure the finalists haven’t gamed the system by purchasing fake Twitter followers. His last step is a spot check with industry insiders: “Do these top five sound right or not?” Once the list is solidified, Fidelman ensures the effort won’t go to waste. He uses a graphic designer in Eastern Europe, who charges only $10 an hour, to turn the influencer list into an infographic. “I try to make my content shareable as much as possible,” he says. “I might create a SlideShare about it. I think, how do I repurpose this information so it spreads far and wide?” He’ll even follow up by asking each influencer for one tip about succeeding in their field, and will put them into an e-book. He sets up a landing page for the e-book and requests the e-mail address of people who’d like to download it. “That gets leads for my client,” he says, “and most of the top twenty-five are helping me promote it because they’re in it.” He’s managed to leverage the most powerful people in an industry to generate leads for his client. Spending one hundred hours to create one blog post sounds like madness, but it’s a winning formula for Fidelman. “The whole reason is to pay it forward to these influencers,” he says. “If I recognize them in a big way, they’ll repay me or my client fivefold. I develop pretty strong relationships with ninety percent of them. If I know the most influential people in an industry, it makes me more valuable to my clients.” The whole process is a carefully constructed win-win. Fidelman provides interesting research to the public (most readers are quite interested in who the top players are in a given industry, as evinced by the hundreds of thousands of views his posts have generated). He gives public recognition to thoughtful professionals who are at the top of their field. And in the process, he educates himself about various industries and builds personal connections that may be valuable to his clients or prospective clients.
ASK YOURSELF: How can you make sure your research accomplishes multiple goals (as with Fidelman’s use of writing for professional development and lead generation)? Can you create a system to leverage your time investment (getting help with certain areas of the research, writing, or publicity process)? How can you spread the results of your research even more widely? Are there ways to create spin-off content (e-books, infographics, SlideShares, etc.) from the original
Some of the most significant ideas come about when someone sees a problem in a new way—often by combining disparate elements that initially seemed unrelated. That’s where your unique gifts come into play; no one has the exact same training and background as you do, so no one else can see a problem exactly the way you do. Bringing your whole self to the challenge—everything you’ve done and learned before—is what will allow you to combine ideas into exciting new forms.
Bringing a fresh perspective from a different profession or tradition can often lead to major creative breakthroughs. The best practices of one discipline might expose the shortcomings in another. Borrowing a technique and applying it to a new question, or cultivating a renaissance mentality, might provide surprising insight. Ultimately, you can’t afford to see problems the same way everyone else does: difference becomes your competitive advantage.
ASK YOURSELF: How can you leverage your past training to bring a new perspective to your current endeavor? Could the perspective of another field shed light on the questions you’re working on now? What would mathematicians (or chemists or philosophers or political scientists) say about the problems or opportunities you’re facing? Thinking beyond what you’re doing now, what other areas have you always been curious about? Are there a lot of people with your background in those fields, or could you contribute a unique perspective? Have technological advances made something possible in your field that wasn’t before? How can you gain the skills you need to take full advantage of that? What questions are you able to ask (and perhaps answer) now that you couldn’t before? What change or trend is most upsetting to the elite in your field? Why are they so upset—and can you get in on it?
When facing a challenge, ask yourself: How can you fill the gap between what’s available now and what people actually need? Is there anyone, anywhere, who has solved a similar problem? When you look to what others have done, you can often find unlikely sources of inspiration. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel; you can simply adapt the most relevant parts to new circumstances.
If you want to develop breakthrough ideas, something outside the norm, you need to be willing to live outside the norm.
If you can explain things well and make them relevant to a broader audience, you can become a recognized expert.
If you can create a holistic framework that engages people’s beliefs and shows them how to take action, you can create a valuable tool in their lives.
Allen believes there are five stages “to get anything under control, whether it’s your kitchen or your country.” First, you need to collect everything you’re dealing with—gather all the scraps of paper, and jot down all the random ideas or notes. Next, you process it. If it can be done in less than two minutes, do it. (Send a congratulatory e-mail to Tim! Download that album you’ve been meaning to buy!) Otherwise, plan if you’ll delegate it to others or defer it. Then, organize what you’ve gathered, because many projects, such as writing a book, are more complicated than just one step and require lists and folders to keep things straight. At this point, you review everything weekly to ensure you’re staying on top of your projects and obligations, and finally do—that is, make choices about your next actions.
ASK YOURSELF: How can you help others in your field do things better or more efficiently? What are the principles behind the best practices you espouse? Can you explain the underlying premise of your philosophy? What are the simple things that are stumbling blocks for too many of your colleagues? What’s holding back their progress? Can you break your recipe for success into discrete steps?
ASK YOURSELF: Have you read all the seminal books in your field? If not, make a list and start reading them. What did they leave out? What additional knowledge could you contribute? Is there a way to distill your field’s fundamental knowledge? What are the most essential pieces you’d put into a short guide? What do most people misunderstand about your field? What errors do they make, and can you help redirect them? Can you create an “operating manual” for your area of interest? What does everyone need to know or do? What are the steps they should follow?
Creating a framework means helping others think about a topic—whether it’s influence, productivity, or bicycling—in a new way. It can also involve creating a system that enables your idea to spread. How do you make it easy, even desirable, for others to get involved?
ASK YOURSELF: How can you make it easy for others to learn about and share the message? Are there tools you can create (such as Millspaugh’s worship guides and recommended reading lists)? How can you leverage the power of your institutional affiliations to get momentum for your issue? Are there communication mechanisms (such as newsletters or conferences) or public platforms (resolutions, endorsements) you can use?
BUILDING A FOLLOWING AROUND YOUR IDEAS
CREATING SOMETHING OF real value to others is the starting point of thought leadership—but you can’t stop there. You could have the best idea in the world, but it won’t have much impact if no one’s ever heard of it. There’s just too much noise and competition out there for good ideas to gain traction by themselves. If you genuinely believe in it, it’s incumbent upon you to build a strategy for spreading the word.
CREATING YOUR PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT GROUP
She started her career as a journalist, working for The Wall Street Journal and NBC News. Seeking to enhance her skills, in 1988 she formed a professional development group made up of six other reporters. They’d trade advice on how to cover breaking news, and who the best sources were. “I had more, better quotes that contributed to a better story, and that was huge,”
To be as efficient as possible, each meeting has a specific structure. The participants convene on Skype and speak in the same order each month; each member offers up a need (something others can help them with) and a resource (help they can offer to others). Their colleagues then respond if there’s a match (you need a Web site designer and I know a great one). That’s a typical meeting. When crisis hits, personal or professional, the group comes together. When one member was up for a big job, the group focused like a laser, just as they did when another member’s daughter died. The group has certain rules that members adhere to. It’s confidential; there are no referral fees; and when you make a commitment, you’re expected to keep it. Members keep notes on their colleagues’ needs and resources, and will often bring them up months later if a new opportunity has arisen. “You ask yourself, ‘Am I giving as much as the others are?’” she says. “It sets a standard.” It’s not a quid pro quo, but there’s an expectation that members will contribute.
ASK YOURSELF: Who do you respect among your peers? Make a list of them—people you know who work in your industry or sphere. For each, write down one action you can take in the next one to three months to deepen your relationship (schedule a call, take them out for lunch, connect at an industry meeting, etc.). Could you benefit from developing an active peer group? Who would you want to invite into your group? Which colleagues would fit together best? Are there shared interests or values? Don’t immediately announce your idea and issue invitations; create informal opportunities for them to mingle to see if there’s chemistry and a positive exchange of ideas. What rules or shared understandings would be most important, from your perspective? What kind of insight or help are you hoping to receive—and what kind could you give to others?
Any prominent person is going to be busy and overwhelmed with requests, however. You need to be crystal clear in identifying whom you’d like to meet, understanding your value proposition (i.e., why they should make time to meet you) and communicating that effectively, and then building genuine connections with them.
The previous year, he had an audacious goal: connecting with best-selling author Daniel Pink. “I started doing things to get on his radar screen, so I could build a relationship with him,” Corcoran recalls. He signed up for Pink’s newsletter, read his blog and all his books, and connected over Twitter. “Eventually I got up the nerve to ask him to be on my podcast. He was guest number five, and I’d hardly had any big names prior to that.” He asked at the right time—by design, because he knew authors are more likely to grant interview requests when they’re promoting their books. Pink, who had just launched To Sell Is Human, agreed to the chat. “If you do it over Skype, you can see each other, and it’s almost like you’re in a coffee shop, except you’re three thousand miles away,” Corcoran says. “It’s helpful [to the conversation] if there are visual cues. But I also want to build a relationship with them; I want them to see my face, even though Dan was in Washington, D.C., and I was in San Francisco.”
But where he truly excels is in the follow-up. Many people would conduct the interview and leave it at that; after six months or a year, the celebrity guest may dimly remember their name, but that’s about it. But, as Corcoran points out, the secret is turning that initial connection into a real relationship, as he did with another podcast guest, Internet entrepreneur Andrew Warner. Corcoran researched him intensively prior to the interview, studying up on his background and reading everything Warner had written. When Corcoran learned Warner was soon moving to San Francisco, he jumped into overdrive: This was an area where he could add value. He provided Warner with restaurant recommendations, advice about neighborhoods and apartments, tips on upcoming events, and introductions to people in the city. Corcoran even helped Warner’s wife, a consultant for socially conscious companies, make professional connections in the Bay Area. Eventually, the Warners invited Corcoran and his wife over for a double-date brunch, solidifying the relationship. “My relationship with Andrew started with the podcast interview,” says Corcoran. “I never would have had any excuse for having an hour of his time.” But today, they’re friends. Corcoran follows up, whereas most people don’t. But most important, he doesn’t take a one-size-fits-all approach to his networking. If he wants to build a relationship with someone, he makes an effort to understand them first. He asks, “What does this person need right now?” In the case of Pink, it was publicity for his new book, so a podcast interview was a welcome invitation, rather than an onerous obligation. And Warner, moving to a new city Corcoran knew well, needed help with the basics—where to eat, where to live, and how to get connected to the entrepreneurial community. High-level people are bombarded with messages and requests all day, so it may—even if you’re trying to do them a favor—come across as another burden if you don’t think it through carefully (do they really want to meet that person you’re suggesting?). But well-timed, thoughtful help is invaluable, and earns you a place at the table.
Connecting with busy people is never easy, but if you make it a consistent part of your schedule and show others why it’s worth their while, you can build a substantial network faster than you might imagine.
ASK YOURSELF: Who are the well-known people you’d most like to connect with? Make a list. How can you begin researching them in depth (read their books, subscribe to their e-mail newsletter, etc.)? What strategies can you use to make a connection (interview them for a podcast series, join an organization where they’re involved, attend a conference where they’re speaking, etc.)? Once you’ve made a connection, how do you plan to stay in touch and keep the relationship alive? How can you add value to these high-level contacts? What do they actually need (publicity for their upcoming book, connections to other thought leaders or reporters, restaurant recommendations, introductions to potential clients, advice about an upcoming trip they’re taking, etc.)? Is there a new channel or platform that you can use to connect with people (as Horovitch used Google+ Hangouts)? They may be particularly inspired to sign on because they’d like to learn about it, too.
One of the most popular Forbes posts I ever wrote was an interview with Robert Cialdini—yes, that’s how we first connected—called “How to Get Someone to Like You Immediately.”4 The secret? He says it’s to find a commonality—any commonality—fast. It could be something as simple as the fact that you live in the same neighborhood, or you both like running. One particularly powerful bond is having a shared alumni connection, something consultant Robbie Kellman Baxter learned firsthand.
ASK YOURSELF: What are the strongest brand affiliations you possess? Have you worked for a prominent company, written for a major publication, attended a prestigious school, won a major award, built relationships with prominent leaders, etc.? When was the last time you updated your LinkedIn profile? Update it with your relevant affiliations to make it easier for people to find you, and to showcase your background. If you don’t currently have strong brand affiliations, what’s your target list? It may be too late to attend an Ivy League college, but with effort, you can certainly get a blog or op-ed published in a major newspaper, or take a leadership role in a prominent civic association. What other organizations do you care about or would you like to get more involved with (such as business networking groups, the local chamber of commerce, etc.)? What are the ways you can “go deep” with your key affiliations? Is there a way to volunteer your time or get more involved? Are there ways you can maximize the networking potential of your affiliation? Can you volunteer for the membership committee (where you have to reach out and connect with participants), rather than a more behind-the-scenes role?
Creating content and interacting online is essentially a way to put out a beacon so that like-minded people can find you. “You can use the power of social media, in particular, to amplify the signal of what you’re working on,” he said. “What’s your passion, what excites you, what questions are you grappling with? You can put a light out to others: here’s somebody we ought to reach out to.”
The ability to share ideas with a new audience is one of the most compelling aspects of blogging. “The blog is something I get to write—I don’t have to write,” says well-known author Seth Godin, who posts on topics ranging from marketing and branding to living a meaningful life. “I get to write every day, and it reaches over a million people. It’s a really powerful tool for me that I would write, even if it was read by five people. The act of writing clarifies my thinking a great deal.”
One of the mantras of business networking is that you should always try to give value before you receive it. But many people overlook the fact that giving doesn’t have to take place in person;
Repeat exposure often leads people to feel more positively about a given person or object. If I like a stranger simply because she rides the same commuter train in the morning and I see her every day, I’m certainly going to feel even more positive about someone who shares useful insights with me day after day.
ASK YOURSELF: What do you want to write about? If you don’t already blog, make a list of possible topics. Try to come up with ideas for ten to twenty posts at the outset, to get you started. Think about the most common questions people have about your field, misconceptions people hold, emerging trends you see, or interesting shortcuts or ways to “hack the system.” What tips have enabled you to be successful? What current news stories have implications for your industry? In the next week, set aside ninety minutes on your calendar and write a post. You can share it on your own blog (if you have one) or via LinkedIn. See what response you get. What ideas do readers seem to connect with? What blogs do your target audience read? Make a list of outlets you’d like to write for, and research online to find the e-mail address for their Web editor. Ask your friends or search LinkedIn: Do you know anyone who writes for those publications? If so, see if you can score an introduction. If not, write to the Web editor cold, send him/her a few links to existing posts you’ve done (so they can make sure you write well), and offer a few catchy suggestions about what you’d like to write for them. Reach out to at least two in the next month.
Regardless of the platform you choose, you have to build an audience by creating interesting content, having conversations and interacting with readers, and staking out a defined niche for yourself. What do you want to be known for? Use social media to start conversations with the content you create, and engage with others who are writing or sharing information about related areas. “Even if you’re into the weirdest, most esoteric thing in the world, there are probably at least fifty other people in the world into your thing,” says Scoble. “Build a club and find them, and put blog posts on Google so people find out.”
ASK YOURSELF: Where is your audience now? What are they reading/listening to/watching? What social channels does it make the most sense for you to prioritize, based on what your audience is consuming and your own personal preferences? (It’s no good forcing yourself to make online videos if you hate being on camera.) What new platforms are emerging? Can you jump on board now, before the competition catches on? What sort of content should you create in order to “build a club,” as Scoble says? What will attract people to you and your ideas? Who are the key reporters in your field? Create a media list. Write down all the newspapers, industry journals, bloggers, TV and radio outlets, etc., that have influence in your industry. Now go online and identify the right reporter(s) for each, and create a spreadsheet with their e-mail and phone contacts. How can you make those connections? Start following your media list on Twitter. Make a plan to retweet their stories or comment regularly to start building a relationship.
You have to ask yourself constantly, “How can I reach more people?” If someone asks Robert Scoble a question via e-mail and he answers them back, that person will be grateful and may think Scoble is smart and helpful, but unless she’s a blogger or journalist or extremely networked person, that knowledge won’t get around. If you want to build your reputation as an expert publicly, it’s far better to follow Scoble’s lead and answer questions or share ideas in a way that everyone can see them.
ASK YOURSELF: How can you reach more people with your ideas? Can you repurpose your content into a variety of new forms, such as infographics, podcasts, SlideShares, videos, tweets, Instagram images, etc.? Challenge yourself: How can you take one piece of content and distribute it on five or even ten different channels? For instance, you could record a podcast interview, write a blog post based on your conversation, tweet out the best quotes from the interview, create a SlideShare explaining a key concept that was discussed, and create a one-minute online video explaining your biggest takeaway from the conversation.
ASK YOURSELF: If a book could serve as a calling card for you, what message would you want it to convey? What does the world need to hear? In addition to spreading your message, how could writing a book help you achieve your professional goals? For Lydon, it attracted clients; for Hynes, it landed her a job. How does a book fit into your objectives? How will you make time for writing a book? If you’re serious about the idea, set aside time on your calendar and test out different writing strategies (times of day, amounts of time) until you learn what works optimally for you. What’s your angle? You’ll probably need to narrow down your topic by focusing on a particular aspect of your field (as Lydon did with tactical urbanism) or expressing a point of view (as Hynes did with Don’t Make Art, Just Make Something).
BECOME A CONNECTOR One of the best gifts you can give is to connect people who can benefit from knowing one another. If you’ve accrued a wide network, you probably know people who’d like to meet. Taking the time to facilitate it builds your own reputation as a giver, but it also allows amazing new things to happen—conversations, transactions, and innovations that wouldn’t have been possible without the introductions you provided. If you can develop ways to connect colleagues or match “buyers” with “sellers” (of any kind), you can create a powerful community that surrounds you, and is grateful to you, but isn’t about you.
ASK YOURSELF: Which people, or types of people, would most benefit from being connected to each other? What challenges do they face? What questions do they need answered? How can you be helpful to your community? What kinds of assistance would benefit them most? How can you help them connect with each other—and you? What’s the best method to bring them together (online, in person, via Skype, a combination)?
Identify the problem you want to solve, and think about ways you can bring others together so they can connect and learn from one another. It could be online or in the real world. One fun strategy is hosting dinners (or brunches, or cocktail parties) for people you think should meet.
ASK YOURSELF: What needs or concerns does your peer group or community have? How can you help them (e.g., win publicity, obtain new clients, answer legal questions)? How can you add value to their lives? What opportunities can you create, online and off, for your community to connect with one another? How can you spark interaction and conversations? What tools can you create to make it easier for them to accomplish their goals? For Belsky, this ranged from a high-tech Web site featuring portfolios to the very low tech (a paper organizer).
ASK YOURSELF: What will you do to support and encourage the next generation of talent? Could you take on an intern, or group of interns, to help with a project? What would it look like? How could you create a great learning experience—for them and for you? Alternatively, would you be interested in interning or apprenticing for someone else? Whom would you choose? What would you like to learn? Who would be your ideal mentor? How will you get noticed by that person and build a relationship with him or her? How can you add value for him or her as well?
MAKE IT FUN Finally, as you think about making an impact with your work, it’s also essential to ask yourself: how can we create something people can’t wait to participate in?
Charlie Hoehn, author of Play It Away, writes about his realization that business meetings are infinitely more enjoyable if you schedule a game of catch with someone instead of just grabbing a coffee. Similarly, if you can find a way to organize something different—and fun—you’ll prompt people to want to come to your meetings or take part in your initiative. At that point, you stand a very good chance of having your idea go viral, because people want to talk about what excites them.
Part of it was the climate that Samuels and his cofounder, Hilary Allen, sought to create. Participants all wore name tags that also read “I’m looking for” and “Ask me about,” which provided easy conversation starters. “Right away, it was about creating a welcoming space and engaging with people,” he says. “How could we do something that would help people feel engaged and connected?”
We have to make it a priority for all regulars to be welcoming, and that’s a cultural shift we’ve adopted for SoJust.” As soon as you attend three meetings in a relatively short period of time, you’re pulled aside. “We remind you about the culture and how welcoming everyone was,” says Samuels. Now you’re expected to act like a host and be similarly welcoming to others. “The magical part is that if you focus on welcoming everybody, you’ll invariably welcome those who need it—demographic outliers, like someone who’s older when most people are younger, or people of color in a mostly white environment.”
Samuels was successful because he realized that if he was going to succeed in bringing people together, it would have to be a social event they actively wanted to attend. In the much-heralded “attention economy,” it’s more important than ever to ensure that people opt in—that you’re creating something so valuable, they choose to seek it out. When Samuels provided the opportunity for tired and overworked nonprofit organizers to connect with like-minded peers, relax, make friends, and have fun, they couldn’t resist.
ASK YOURSELF: What would motivate busy people to want to come to your events or join your cause? What’s in it for them? How can you make your group more inclusive and welcoming to all? What will you do to help others take ownership of the idea or issue and get actively involved? How can you make your ideas fun? Set a timer and brainstorm for fifteen minutes.
Some people won’t want to pay anything for your work—much less what it’s actually worth. Ignore them, says Sethi. Five years later, he offered a course for $12,000 and received only ten complaints out of more than a million people who saw it advertised. “I learned how to communicate the value,” he says. “The right people love it because in this world, you’re not trying to appeal to everyone. You’re just trying to get the right people. That’s been a transformative lesson I’ve learned.”
Take time to research how the thought leaders you admire support themselves. Most provide a mix of products and services; you should think of their offerings as a sample menu from which to glean inspiration. What opportunities feel most interesting, or most comfortable, to you?
ASK YOURSELF: How can you best communicate the value of your work? Who would be most receptive to that message? What can you start doing now, for free, that will eventually lead to paid work? What’s your strategy for converting those opportunities into revenue over time? Do you feel confident enough to start monetizing? If you’re concerned that you don’t deserve it, or worry that you’re selling out, that ambivalence will come through to others and you won’t be successful. Reach out to successful, trusted colleagues for a reality check. Are your concerns justified, or are you holding yourself back? Can you segment your work so that some parts are expensive and other parts are free or low cost (ensuring that people of different means can access your ideas, and helping you expand your audience for the future)? Are you charging enough for your work? Remember that in many contexts, price creates the perception of quality.
ASK YOURSELF: Where will you “go deep” in your hard work? You can’t excel in every area. Gary Vaynerchuk researched social media channels obsessively, and Tom Peters gave multiple speeches per week. What will you emphasize? What’s holding you back? Angela Lussier knew she couldn’t succeed as long as she was afraid of speaking, so she joined Toastmasters and got the help she needed. What are you afraid of, and how will you overcome it? What are you going to do today to get started? It’s easy to come up with ideas and make amorphous future plans. But what are you going to do right now to start finding your breakthrough idea, honing it, and bringing it to the world? Good luck, and congratulations.