6 Habits of Highly Effective
Thought Leaders and Keynote Speakers

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When I was a COO, one of the books we would give our new management to read as part of their development was the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven Covey. It is a self-help classic. To this day, I doubt there is a week that goes by where I don't think about at least one of the habits.

A moment of creativity a few weeks ago got me thinking... Do thought leaders do things that others don't? Yes.

Are those habits already commonplace among those hoping to develop their thought leadership skills? No.

Would writing them in a blog article be useful to those reading them? Only one way to find out. So here they are. Except there are 6 rather than 7.


The problem with the term thought-leader is that it implies that you don't have to do anything but think interesting thoughts. That is simply not the case. Anyone can talk a good game. If you want the curators of big stage conferences to take you seriously, what you say is only going to get you so far. Why? Because doing is proof of caring, doing makes your insights sharper and doing gives your words more weight.

What's more, if you don't do, not only will your material dry up very quickly but the world will move on. I for one feel that's a terrible waste.

Someone whom I think epitomises this is the Founder of the Uncertainty Experts, Sam Conniff. A few years back, he wrote a rather successful book about pirates. I thought it was so brilliant, I invited him to open TEDxClapham 2018. Is he still standing on stages talking about pirates 4 years on? Nope (though if he was, I find it highly likely he'd be doing it rather well). At the time of writing, he is fully immersed in the science of uncertainty; making him even more interesting as a potential speaker as a result.

There are two relevant lessons to note here:

  • Sam is the first to admit that he is still relatively new to the science of uncertainty, yet he still speaks and writes about it. Why? Building a thought leadership persona is more about sharing your take on your subject than it is sharing the subject itself (which in most cases we can all get off the first page of google). This is why developing your leadership voice is so important.
  • Curiosity is a thought leader's secret weapon. Great thought leaders have a thirst for knowledge which leads me nicely onto my second habit.

Ask Questions

If you ever find yourself in conversation with a thought leader, the chances are you will find yourself doing more of the talking than they are. One of the things I learned as a door to door charity fundraiser was that there is always someone controlling the direction and the dynamic of the conversation and if you ever want to work out who is in control of it, ask yourself who is holding the mic? The person with this metaphorical microphone will decide when the other person can contribute and the fastest way to take control of a conversation is to be the person asking the questions.

Great thought leaders ask lots of questions. That is why you will often find that in conversational scenarios it's highly likely that the spotlight will feel like it's on you rather than them. While this might be to deflect the attention from them, in most cases it's because of their insatiable curiosity.

It reminds me of a wonderful quote by Dale Carnegie...

'To be interesting, be interested.'

Create Content

Funnily enough, this is something I need to address on my thought leadership programme tomorrow. We have some brilliant minds on the programme - one of the favourite parts of my job are my Friday sprint coaching calls which regularly result in me being the one that has my mind blown with the insights that they want to share. The problem is, very few of them are sharing these insights online. Instead, they are saving these insights for their talks, waiting for the perfect time when in fact, it might be a piece of content that they post online that ends up being the reason why they end up on stage. I've spoken to two thought leaders in the last week who have landed big stage presentations because of something that they have posted on social media.

Thought leaders are, in their very essence, content creators and there are several benefits of sharing content online:

  • First and foremost, it's an opportunity to sharpen the saw. One of the things that I've noticed having forced myself to write this blog once a fortnight is that not only am I becoming a better writer, I'm becoming a quicker one too.
  • It's a chance opportunity to test your content. Perhaps take likes and reach with a pinch of salt, some of what I consider to be my best content dies a death on here, but the comments are often incredibly useful.
  • You never know who might be reading it and as I was reminded last week, just because something isn't 'liked' it doesn't mean it hasn't been noticed. It might not be a curator, but more likely it will be someone that your message will have helped. A future follower no doubt.

At this point tomorrow, those on my course who haven't read this post will no doubt come back with, but what if someone steals it?

Firstly, 99.999% of people are too busy, don't care enough and have got too much going on in their own lives for the thought to even cross their minds. Secondly, if they do, they don't have your unique perspective on what's being shared. Thirdly, in my opinion, the cost of not sharing it is far greater. I'd get them to reflect on the fact that perhaps it's not the content theft they're worried about, but the vulnerability you can create by sharing something that means a lot to you.

Seek Those You Don't Understand and Listen

A few years ago, I worked with a brilliant entrepreneur called Jess Butcher who was working on a talk on feminism which she knew was going to spark debate when it was released. I think it takes a huge amount of courage to speak on a subject that is going to divide opinion and I remember getting on a call with her towards the end of the programme, after the first draft had been written and she said, 'Alex, I've invited a few friends around for dinner who I highly respect but who disagree with my point of view. I'm going to read my TEDx talk to them and learn from their perspectives so I am both more knowledgeable and better equipped.'

Actively seeking out and listening to the opinions of those who don't believe the things you do might be uncomfortable but it will make you a better thought leader as a result.

Acknowledge Your Limits

When I was the Curator of TEDxClapham, I came up with this concept called The Expert Test. It came about because I was getting so frustrated when interviewing potential speakers who felt the need to give the impression that they knew it all. It made them lose all their credibility.

If you asked David Attenborough how much he knew about the natural world, what would his answer be?

My guess is, 'very little' in the grand scheme of things. To me, an expert is someone who is can begin to comprehend just how much they don't know about their subject as much as what they do. The test was whether or not they were confident enough to own and admit to shortcomings in their knowledge.

Acknowledging the limits of your arguments isn't something that stops on the stage, an audience is far more likely to respect, remember and build trust with a thought leader that's got the confidence to be open about it. Remember, you don't have to be the expert you have to be an expert.

Rehearse, Refine, Repeat

There's a reason why world-class comedians appear to be so effortlessly funny.

The answer lies in their preparation strategy. The hard work is done in the months if not years leading to the big stage testing their jokes to small audiences in the back of dingy pubs and seeing what works and what didn't. I interviewed a comedian last year who told me that they would give a joke three chances before deciding whether or not it belonged in a bin.

Thought leaders do the same, they are constantly rehearsing and refining their content. Be it in conversations with friends, podcast interviews and in low-stake environments where if it doesn't go down well it doesn't matter.

That is why saying yes to every stage in the early part of your journey is so important. There is no shortcut on this front, which is also why getting into the habit of creating content in all mediums (writing, video, in-person) is so important.

Those people who walk on stage and deliver mind-blowing material with ease are most likely to be the ones who have put in the most work.

Remember, there is no substitute for hard work. Start now and you'll get there quicker.

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