Some Serious Thoughts about Thought Leadership

The debate still rages over whether leaders are born or made. A more useful debate is over what makes someone a leader, especially a thought leader. We say it takes a powerful idea, the conviction and skill to convey it and the opportunity to express it.

The debate still rages over whether leaders are born or made. A more useful debate is over what makes someone a leader, especially a thought leader. We say it takes a powerful idea, the conviction and skill to convey it and the opportunity to express it.

Thought leadership requires a powerful idea, the conviction and communication skills to convey it convincingly and the opportunity to express it.

Clear thinking and leadership are too often examined separately. However, powerful ideas without effective messengers are wasted energy. Effective messengers without powerful ideas are wasted vessels. Effective messengers of powerful ideas without platforms are wasted opportunities.

In her latest book, “Leadership in Turbulent Times,” Doris Kearns Goodwin traces the paths to greatness of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. All four yearned deeply for greatness and displayed strong leadership traits at an early age. However, they didn’t become great until they found their issue and pursued it with conviction, skill and resolve. For Lincoln, that issue was the extension of slavery.

Almost everybody is familiar with Lincoln’s story, but it is often forgotten that he spent the decade before his election in 1860 as president in a political wilderness. Lincoln devoted himself to his law practice by day and to deepening his knowledge about philosophy, science and math by night. It was the equivalent of a self-taught graduate course on everything.

Sensing the nation was lurching toward a crisis on the issue of extending slavery into newly minted western states, Lincoln plunged into the subject, including reading every commentary on slavery written by the men who framed the US Constitution. While riding circuit in central Illinois, Lincoln quietly became the leading US expert on the subject of the legal footing of slavery in America.

Lincoln’s views on slavery changed markedly from when he served one largely undistinguished term in Congress. The change came after a “long period of work, creative introspection, research and grinding thought,” according to Goodwin. 

Mastery of a subject, as Goodwin points out, is critical to leadership. “What is well-spoken must be well-thought,” she writes. Clear thinking is the product of hard work. “Without that labor, without that drudgery, the most eloquent words lack gravity and power.” His late-night homework enabled him to formulate a policy that would prevent the extension of slavery, while allowing it to remain in the Old South. Articulating that view from essentially the point of view of the Founding Fathers was striking for its originality and authenticity.

A key to Lincoln’s success in advancing this point of view was “his uncanny ability to break down the most complex case or issue into its simplest elements,” Goodwin explains. He honed this skill as a trial lawyer who reduced complicated legal matters to language and concepts that could be conveyed in an intimate conversation with jurors. Lincoln made jurors feel as if they were trying a case, not him.

Another Lincoln trait was simplicity of expression. “His language was composed of plain Anglo-Saxon words and almost always without adornment,” Goodwin says. Lincoln also was an unequaled storyteller, whose captivating tales established rapport with listeners while delivering profound messages in easy-to-grasp punchlines.

Lincoln’s creativity, knowledge, conviction and ability to communicate would have gone for naught without a platform. He found one in debates with his Illinois arch-nemesis, Stephen Douglas. Public debates were the social media and cable news shows of Lincoln’s day. 

Even though Lincoln didn’t win a seat in the US Senate, his taking points altered the national debate on the extension of slavery – and arguably the course of US history.

Goodwin’s book traces leadership and crisis through American history – a Civil War, stifling monopolies and corruption, the Great Recession and civil rights. But her implied intent in the book is to force a deeper evaluation of where leaders come from and the traits that leaders share.

Thought leaders don’t have to be point persons on events of historical proportion. They can be people who foster greater understanding of perplexing social, economic or technological problems – and the people who provide potential solutions. Through subject mastery and elegant, authentic expression, thought leaders can communicate complicated subjects and move the needle on public awareness and support for a point of view. 

Thought leaders must have the conviction of their views, the ambitious drive to share their views and the resiliency to withstand criticism for their views. Thought leaders are the people in the public arena described by Teddy Roosevelt. They are out there, willing to endure wounds for what they believe in the service of bringing clarity or fresh perspective to a serious subject.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.


The Power of 1 Voice: Everyone Is a Spokesperson

Everybody with has a possibility of being a spokesperson — even if they don’t realize it at the time.

Everybody with has a possibility of being a spokesperson — even if they don’t realize it at the time.

[This article originally appeared in the March edition of PR Tactics]

On Thanksgiving evening, I watched shoppers hold their smartphones high above their heads as others jostled, pushed and complained. While someone was recording them, cashiers good-naturedly answered questions about their stress levels. They were also sympathetic with those shoppers who were frustrated that some early bargains were already sold out.

Once uploaded to YouTube, people might largely ignore that content, or it could easily appear on “Good Morning America” the next day. How plausible is that? A survey of professional journalists by Arketi Group found that 91 percent of journalists say they use the Web to search for news sources and story ideas, and 34 percent admit to spending their time online watching YouTube.

If the content is interesting enough, then someone will pick it up. In my experience, it first emerges in a community discussion on Reddit, where readers pick it apart from every conceivable angle. Then The Smoking Gun or BuzzFeed gets wind of it, helping it go viral. In hours, days or sometimes months, traditional journalists see it pop up in their news feeds, prompting another wave of attention. 

In an era in which everybody spends their time gathering and disseminating information to their respective spheres of influence, everybody who those quasi-journalists come into contact with has a possibility of being a spokesperson — even if they don’t realize it at the time.

While it is common for organizations to have policies prohibiting personnel from speaking with the media, how can they enforce these policies when every word could end up on Twitter, Facebook or someone’s blog? What guidance can they give someone who is snapping pictures or shooting video on company property, or a customer who is thrusting a smartphone in their face while asking questions?

Every employee can benefit from guidance and training in an organization’s messages and delivery techniques. The CEO probably knows more than others, but 100 or 1,000 employee voices have the potential for an even greater impact – positive and negative.

Sticking to command and control communications policies that attempt to funnel all communications to approved spokespeople is counterproductive. Consider the power of people throughout the organization welcoming the chance to tell a consistent story that taps into their passion. Then consider the risk of those same employees who are left to flounder in an environment in which they are under constant scrutiny.

Interacting with storytellers

This all became clear to me several years ago when I helped an oil and gas exploration company pursue shale plays throughout the United States. In Texas, people were enthusiastic about extracting oil and gas by fracturing – or fracking – the shale thousands of feet below the surface, but people in areas such as Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio were suspicious.

Out front of this effort were the “landmen,” the corps tasked with securing contracts with landowners. In a series of training sessions designed to help educate landowners, build trust and diffuse anger, we heard early warnings of how smartphones were changing everything. The landmen described landowners holding their smartphones up and recording their interactions – some were well informed and some were aggressively unfriendly. 

What had been a messaging and education training session evolved into something that closely resembled a media training session. If everyone – including the community that we were seeking to influence – was a journalist with the ability to reach a worldwide audience quickly, then all of our frontline people should be trained to interact with those storytellers.

With practice, many of the same techniques that are effective in managing interactions with professional journalists can be equally effective with citizen journalists. Here are five tips for all employees to keep in mind:

  • Prepare for the unexpected. Unlike most interactions with professional journalists, which are planned and scheduled, interactions with citizen journalists can come at any time. This means that organizations should keep the lines of communication open with people throughout the organization who interact with the public. If you are not providing them the information or context they need, then you are setting them up to look foolish, and you will look foolish, too.
  • Define what you want out of these interactions. It comes down to three questions: What do you want your community to know? What do you want them to believe? What do you want them to do as a result of the interaction? Left untrained, employees may not think that the person recording them with a smartphone presents an opportunity to build awareness or encourage positive feelings. Establish objectives and you will realize that it is infinitely easier to achieve positive outcomes.
  • Practice three-dimensional storytelling. Typically, message guidance from organizations is long on claims and short on personality, which reinforces negative perceptions that many companies are self-centered. Change that by working with your community of spokespeople to make your messages personal. First, whittle down your messages to three or four ideas that are central to what your organization is all about. Next, come up with proof points – data that makes those messages bulletproof. Finally, challenge spokespeople to come up with anecdotes, experiences and observations that make the messages tangible, human and authentic.
  • Think beyond messages. If a person is thrown into a tense situation, then it is only natural that their facial expression, posture and tone of voice will reveal feelings of anxiety and stress. Good luck with having people perceive your information positively in that situation, as negative non-verbal and voice cues will trump the meaning of what you’re saying. Through role play – preferably recorded and played back – your employees can see how they interact and can practice maintaining an optimistic overall disposition, even in chaotic situations.
  • Use bridging techniques responsibly. With some practice, spokespeople throughout the organization can grasp the idea that they can manage interactions by bridging to the ideas they want to emphasize. The potential downside of this technique is that it can seem evasive and manipulative if people ignore the questions. We recommend spokespeople always acknowledge the question and briefly respond in 10 seconds or less, then bridge.

Most organizations have a few trained spokespeople ready to interact with the media. When journalists call, they can funnel the questions to the approved spokesperson. Few organizations disseminate these skills broadly so that every public-facing person knows how to handle challenging questions with the expectation that any interaction could be recorded for a worldwide audience.

This loosening of the command and control approach to the role of spokesperson is the next step in our profession’s evolution. Organizations that adapt and train frontline personnel will multiply the impact of their communications. 

Which is louder: the voice of one spokesperson or the combined voices of all your employees?

Making Something Real by Storytelling

If an author can turn a summer 90 years ago into a page-turner, issue managers can follow suit with storytelling to make their messages compelling for contemporary audiences. 

If an author can turn a summer 90 years ago into a page-turner, issue managers can follow suit with storytelling to make their messages compelling for contemporary audiences. 

Vacations offer a chance to relax and read books. They also offer a reminder of writing styles designed to entertain and inform.

Bill Bryson, who has authored books as disparate as Shakespeare andAfrican Diary, writes in a style that invites readers to share whatever journey he takes them on. It is a style that blends meticulous research, storytelling and bright writing. He can write about anything because he can write.

The lesson here is that what sells is not how much you know, but how much you convey in ways that readers will consumer.

I just devoured Bryson'sOne Summer in America, the rollicking exploration of 1927 when Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic, Babe Ruth swatted 60 home runs, the modern musical and television were born and silent movies succumbed to talkies. What could have been a dull recitation of an exciting period became an entrancing, hard-to-put-down romp through an age when Americans fretted about Italian extremists and one man perfected the art of legal electrocution.

Bryson didn't use glimmering language. He leveraged the power of interesting details to tell a story, adding a dash of humor. It is a spellbinding combination.

It is worth noting Bryon's milieu is non-fiction. He is the author of A History of Nearly Everything, which he truncated to A Short History of Nearly Everything andA Really Short History of Nearly Everything for the attention-deficit crowd. He isn't making stuff up. He is making a bunch of facts comprehensible and enticing.

The skills Bryon most manifests are 1) curiosity, 2) the ability to make connections and 3) the skill to weave what he discovers into a story.

"I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to," Bryson writes in the opening line of his hysterical autobiography, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid." He describes a "curious time" in the 1950s in America when no one knew that DDT, cigarettes and nuclear fallout weren't good for you.

His subject matter is irrelevant to his expertise. He can make a summer seem like a dream, a continent appear irresistible and his own Midwest childhood a magical experience. What he can do best of all is communicate.

His writing talent should be a talisman for issue managers trying to communicate complex and controversial material. Command of subject, the ability to zero in on interesting and cogent content and the skill to wrap it all in a satisfying sandwich of storytelling can make a huge difference in connecting with an audience.

Redirecting the Corporate Video

If you storyboard your corporate video as if it was a silent movie, you will ensure that imagery carries the day, not a bunch of talking heads.Corporate officials think in terms of messages, but for video it's better to think about images and stories.

Videos are in vogue because more people have access to devices that can access them. Plus, "watching" is becoming as or more popular than "reading." Video is a communication channel sweet spot.

However, many corporate videos hit a sour note because they are designed to send a message, not leave an impression. People may hear a message, but they are more likely to remember a striking image or a great story.

Storytelling as Your Elevator Speech

You need to be able to make your pitch in 30 seconds. Just as important, your elevator speech needs to focus on why what you do is important to your customers or clients. 

The elevator speech has taken on added importance as more people realize you have only one, fast-moving moment to make a memorable first impression.

But the last thing you want is a first impression just about you. That first impression needs to center on how your work uniquely benefits your customers or clients.

This difference parallels the evolution from advertising to content marketing. Instead of shouting a message, you deliver useful, relevant information. The elevator speech, in its slim 30-second format, needs to follow the same pattern. Don't shout, solve a problem.

So instead of rattling off your list of services or products, your elevator speech should focus on a simple story about how you helped a client or customer. You only have 30 seconds, so offer just enough detail to showcase your value.

People have a hard time remembering lists of things or key messages without a lot of repetition. They can and do retain the essence of a good story. And stories are a tried-and-true way for people to absorb complex information, put it into context and coat it with a positive feeling.

Staff meetings and marketing retreats often stress the need for a solid elevator speech that everyone in an organization can use to underline a brand promise or identity. Too often, the elevator speech exercise in a staff meeting or retreat is just that — an exercise, not a new habit.

Rarely can a group write concise prose that conforms to the way different people actually talk. And elevator speeches need to be more than a glib tagline. A story with the right stuff can be told in various ways to the same effect. It is a perfect answer for a widely accepted and commonly used "elevator speech" in your organization.

Adventures in Storytelling: Good Things Come in Small Packages

(Reprinted with permission by the Wave One Group.)

With planning and focus, 90 seconds is plenty of time to tell a concise and meaningful visual story.Back in the Ice Age of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, I learned a couple of road rules as a newly minted TV news reporter: find the “people angle” in every story; and keep your stories focused and short.

The ‘people angle’ I got right away; brevity and focus were another matter. Countless times I would return from a 2-3 hour shoot, only be told by a show producer, “I need a minute-45 for the pack and the lead-in.’’ In English, this meant: write 15 seconds of copy for the anchor to introduce your story, then write a 90-second news story, which would include a couple of short interviews, voiceover narration and an on-camera transition. The tight deadlines of TV news meant I’d usually have an hour to write, narrate, and edit my story.

I often chafed at the 90-second story rule. Ninety-seconds isn’t nearly enough time to tell a strong story, I’d cry. I need more time! Sometimes my begging worked and I got an extra 30-45 seconds; usually I didn’t. But over time, I learned that with planning and focus, 90 seconds was plenty of time to tell a concise and meaningful visual TV news story.

I Know There's a Story in Here Somewhere...

(Reposted with permission from the Wave One Group.)

There’s a certain trajectory our projects typically follow: story discovery; project planning; pre-interviews; filming; story production; editing; client review; final delivery. Most of the time the path from planning to completion is pretty smooth. But there’s a moment during our process where we can predict, with pinpoint accuracy, when a client’s story begins its slow slide from memorable and meaningful to mediocre. It’s the moment when the client looks at a story for the first time.

“I love it! It’s perfect!” exclaims the client. “But I just have a few things I'd like to add."  

Let the slide begin.  

"Can you add a couple more interviews? What about adding more pictures? How about we throw in some more facts so people will really understand what we’re talking about?”

Whenever you cram your story with extra facts and figures and there’s no compelling reason to do so, you quickly turn your emotionally compelling piece into a long, boring video brochure. 

A Well Spun Tale

Walter Breunig receives a George Washington gavel, one of the highest honors accorded by the Freemasons, on his 113th birthday. Photograph by John Moore (Reuters) The world's oldest man, who attributed his longevity to eating two meals and an aspirin every day, died of natural causes in Great Falls, Montana. He was 114.

Walter Breunig was a railroad man who married an aptly named telegraph operator, Agnes Twokey. Known as kind and humble, Breunig found himself late in life appearing on News Hour with Jim Lehrer and a question-and-answer segment in the magazine, Men's Journal.

A friend said at his funeral that Breunig "taught me all things in moderation will help lead to a long life and that hard work and a modest living are enough for a happy life."

Confined in his later years to a nursing home, his caregivers said Breunig was lucid to the end and unafraid to face death. The governor of Montana mourned his passing.

You probably never heard of Walter Breunig, but nevertheless read his story. Rich in detail, sparing in words, the story is irresistible. Good stories always are.

Storytelling is one of the most powerful, yet largely untapped sources of communication.

We learn important lessons by listening to stories when we are young. We tell stories with interesting details and facts to amuse or inform friends. Somewhere along the line we forget how to tell a good story as we concentrate on squeezing our "message" into 140 characters on Twitter.

Rediscover this tried-and-true source of illumination and entertainment. Tap on your own experience and tell stories that draw your audience toward you as you make your point

Whether in a speech, letter or video, fascinate readers, listeners and viewers with a well spun tale.

Taking the Pain Out of Publishing

It's a challenge but it can be done: Coaching inexperienced office mates on how to write for group publications.Better to perish than publish? Giving birth to the quarterly magazine or an annual report can be a painful experience. Too often staffers for nonprofits and government agencies find publishing a chaotic and frustrating process, especially if everyone in the office is involved.

It doesn’t have to be. Use the publishing experience as a series of teachable moments about writing and print production. There’s more than one way to manage the project, but try these steps:

1. Set the ground rules
If the department head decides as many staffers as possible should be involved, make it clear not everyone has an equal voice. The designated editor – or lead copywriter – should listen carefully to others. But it should be made clear by leadership that the editors are the “deciders.” Too often this is not the case.

2. Select the messages
Determine what the key messages are for the publication. These become the backbone of most stories. Then determine a list of potential stories that can help carry key messages. Take a quick survey of staff and other contributors for ideas. Also, remember to stay relevant. For example, determine what questions the public may be asking about services and products and turn those into stories.