Build your email list: I’ve seen many TEDx speakers experience the disappointment of putting hours upon hours into their talk only to get a few hundred views on YouTube. But if they had an email list in the tens or hundreds of thousands, they would have an instantaneous audience for their talk as soon as it went live. While there are many forms of communication and marketing that can play pivotal roles in building one’s influence as a thought leader, the single most powerful asset is an engaged email list. When I receive media opportunities I have the ability to drive thousands of people to that media because I have an engaged and devoted list of followers. Everything else grows from there.
As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Neil Gordon. Neil Gordon’s approach to communication has transformed the lives and careers of executives, influencers and thought leaders around the world. His clients have gone on to receive six-figure book deals, a doubling of their speaking fees, and appearances on syndicated TV shows like Ellen and Dr. Oz. Neil helps people define the true purpose of their communication and he teaches them how to deliver their message in a way that affects positive change in their audience. His style, described as “persuasion with heart”, is helping ordinary people achieve extraordinary levels of success every day. Prior to his current practice, Neil was a member of the editorial staff of Penguin Random House where he with worked numerous New York Times bestselling authors.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
When people meet most content creators, they figure they’re speaking to a former English major from a school like Duke or Amherst. And when they find out what I do they figure that the shorn man in front of them loved reading his whole life.
And they would be wrong…
I hated reading as soon as I got my first book report in 2nd grade. My reading comprehension went from the 99th percentile at the beginning of elementary school to the 54th percentile by the beginning of junior high. The first time I took the SATs I got a 330 verbal score, which put me in the 5th percentile.
Fast forward to my college graduation and I could hardly read anything at all.
But when I moved to New York City I needed an escape from the subway so I labored my way through books.
And something happened…
I had a complete worldview shift around what was (and wasn’t) possible in life. And because of the significance of this shift, I realized that there was tremendous power in words. But I didn’t know why some words were more powerful than others…
But I figured it out, and everything changed.
Because of my earlier struggles with reading, I was able to dissect language in a way that other people could not. I then got an editorial assistant job at Penguin when I was 27. One thing led to another and now I help speakers, New York Times bestselling authors, and other kinds of thought leaders to completely transform their messaging.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?
When public speakers come to me, they usually have enough evidence to demonstrate that they’re a good speaker — people respond well to their content and often pay them to present it. But a recurring theme among many of them is that they know deep down that there’s a richer opportunity to be had. They know they know their stuff, and they know that there are others out there who provide less value than they do but are somehow more successful. They feel they’re missing their chance to truly empower their audience in a way that will have a lasting impact on them.
Whether I can help them to have this far greater impact is ultimately contingent on whether they are what we can consider a thought leader.
By their nature, a thought leader shows others a different way of solving a problem. The general population may embrace conventional wisdom around how to solve that problem — like the education professional who thinks the only way to help a student to grow is to test them — and the thought leader has an unconventional solution instead. At their core, they are somehow disrupting how we achieve the outcomes we seek.
I can only help certain people to double and sometimes quadruple their speaking fees, get thousands of shares of their articles online, and secure six-figure advances with book publishers. The recurring theme among all of the individuals whom I actually can help to achieve these outcomes is that they have challenged some sort of conventional wisdom. The techniques I share with them not only help them to empower those who had previously embraced the typical way of doing things, they help me to laser in on whether someone can truly lead others into newer, more impactful thoughts moving forward.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
By the time I was 40, I had developed a variety of skills around creating content and messaging that by a variety of standards had real value. And yet I found myself driving for Lyft throughout LA because I just couldn’t crack the code of how to attract others to my work in a viable way. So even though I had learned some things about marketing and had an interesting idea of how I could marry my skills to the marketplace, I had struggled enough in the 10 years I had worked for myself to be afraid to give it my all. I only worked part-time on my marketing and kept driving to make ends meet.
Then on the evening of August 25, 2017, a Friday, I was driving as usual and a pair of women requested a ride to the Hollywood Bowl. If you’ve never been to LA, then you won’t know the parking lot that plagues the streets around the Bowl before and after a show. I was stuck waiting to get out for over 20 minutes, all the while I was missing opportunities to pick up more fares on a Friday night.
But after about 15 minutes of waiting, I decided I had enough. I turned off my meter, eventually got out of the gridlock, drove home, ordered some takeout, and took the weekend off. I then threw myself into my marketing efforts full-time that Monday morning.
Within a week I launched my funnel and started booking discovery calls immediately. I began having five-figure months, the following year was my first six-figure year, and my business has grown exponentially with each successive quarter.
And I’ve never driven for Lyft since.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I had just arrived in New York City after having graduated from college about a month prior. I showed up at a temp agency to get work and the receptionist looked me up and down before suggesting that I make an appointment and come back at a later time.
What I haven’t mentioned is that I had shown up in a t-shirt, shredded jeans, and old sneakers.
My lesson in that? That when in a professional environment, your potential is to a great extent determined by how people perceive you.
And that it’s probably a good idea to invest in clothes that don’t make you look like a homeless person.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define what a ‘Thought Leader’ is. How is a thought leader different than a typical leader? How is a thought leader different than an influencer?
Per the above, a thought leader is a person who offers us an unconventional, myth-busting way to solve a problem of intrinsic societal value. They somehow disrupt how we achieve the outcomes we seek.
Where thought leaders and regular leaders differ is that a regular leader is charged with the task of shepherding some sort of outcome for a specific group or population of people. The leader of a company strives to direct their organization to a certain form of commercial success. The leader of a government aims to foster desirable outcomes for the populace. But a thought leader’s work is governed not by achieving a certain outcome in a certain situation but rather redefining our relationship to a problem as a whole. A leader of a company seeks to facilitate a profit, but a thought leader challenges the assumptions we make about how a company might be profitable in general.
The key difference between a thought leader and an influencer is that a thought leader must have an idea about how to shift our response to some aspect of society but the only criterion necessary to be an influencer is that they have a following. There are plenty of teenagers on Instagram who are influencers because they have a certain kind of presence so others are attracted to that presence and will consume things recommended by them on their platform. The only teenage thought leader I met was a young woman who had an idea about how we could compel corporations to support more charitable causes. At the time she spoke regularly on how we as a society could solve that problem.
Can you talk to our readers a bit about the benefits of becoming a thought leader. Why do you think it is worthwhile to invest resources and energy into this?
Ultimately this work centers not on how it will benefit the individual but rather on how it will benefit society as a whole. We can return to the example of the teenager, her work was meant to affect those who benefit from philanthropic initiatives. This means that the real benefit is based on culturally significant problems being solved. A thought leader’s value is ultimately defined by the impact their work has, and so it is worthwhile to become such a leader because of the positive shifts that will happen for others in response.
Let’s talk about business opportunities specifically. Can you share a few examples of how thought leadership can help a business grow or create lucrative opportunities?
It’s common for entrepreneurial gurus to speak to the value of others wanting to do business with those they know, like, and trust. But given how many of my people do business with me within an hour or two of learning of my work, I’ve found that knowing and liking aren’t as important as trusting. They invest in my products and services because they trust that I will help them to achieve goals they deeply care about achieving.
Yet another point that is commonly made in entrepreneurial circles is the value of social proof. People are likely to trust those whose work inspires testimonials and other favorable responses from viable sources.
Given all of that, because a thought leader’s work is defined by the impact their ideas have on society, their impact plus the far-reaching nature of their work inspires unparalleled trust in others. They aren’t just good at what they do, their work inspires countless instances of society somehow being better off as a result of their insights. This becomes a breeding ground for rather powerful business outcomes.
Ok. Now that we have that behind us, we’d love to hear your thoughts about how to eventually become a thought leader. Can you share 5 strategies that a person should implement to become known as a thought leader in their industry. Please tell us a story or example (ideally from your own experience) for each.
- Challenge an assumption commonly made by others around how to solve a problem: Thought leadership is defined by one who disrupts the way people typically solve a problem. This means that it will be necessary for you to bust some sort of myth around how to do something. In my own work, I challenge the assumption that the more information someone provides, the more they empower others. This isn’t true. People aren’t empowered by information, they’re empowered by the belief that change is possible. For example, people know that smoking is bad for them, but they’ll only quit if they believe they can. Information is merely a tool for implementing change — but none of that change will happen simply because they know something to be true.
- Distill your idea down to a single cause-and-effect sentence: I once saw a TED talk that featured a woman describing how her company created low-cost medical devices for the developing world. But she missed an opportunity because she instead shared three things her company did rather than distilled everything down to an essential secret sauce. Conversely, one of the stickiest sentences ever written is line 18 of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War: “All of warfare is deception.” We still hear this in popular culture 2,500 years later because it offers a cause-and-effect recipe for change — if you want to win at war, deceive your opponent. My own marketing and thought leadership found its place when I formed my own cause-and-effect sentence (what I call a “silver bullet”) as is implied by strategy #1: People are empowered not by that which they know is true but rather that which they believe is possible.
- Frame your thought leadership in the context of the problem it solves: One of the biggest misconceptions many would-be thought leaders have is that they believe everyone wants to hear about their solution. This is false. People are most likely to embrace a solution when it’s provided within the context of a problem they care about solving. If you want to attract others to your work as a thought leader, become absolutely expert in how your ideas solve problems that other people want to solve. My own marketing exploded as soon as I realized that skills that I had used to help authors and had developed for years could help public speakers to no longer feel like a fraud on stage. They don’t even know they will benefit from a silver bullet — let alone want one. But they do know how bad it feels to experience impostor syndrome on stage. Once I spoke to that pain I attracted people to my work instantaneously.
- Make a wholehearted commitment to effective marketing: People will not align with your thought leadership if they don’t know it’s happening. This is why it is absolutely critical to either become proficient at marketing or work with people who are. This doesn’t have to be Facebook ads or other forms of digital marketing — though those are tremendously valuable tools. It just needs to show your target audience that the changes your thought leadership promises are possible if they take next steps. I used to be subcontracted out by another company to work with speakers before I solved my own marketing problems, and they attracted numerous high-end clients who had been New York Times bestselling authors and earned incredibly high fees for speeches. The only difference between me and the other speaking company was that they had a marketing process that worked and I did not. The person with the marketing runs the table.
- Build your email list: I’ve seen many TEDx speakers experience the disappointment of putting hours upon hours into their talk only to get a few hundred views on YouTube. But if they had an email list in the tens or hundreds of thousands, they would have an instantaneous audience for their talk as soon as it went live. While there are many forms of communication and marketing that can play pivotal roles in building one’s influence as a thought leader, the single most powerful asset is an engaged email list. When I receive media opportunities I have the ability to drive thousands of people to that media because I have an engaged and devoted list of followers. Everything else grows from there.
In your opinion, who is an example of someone who has that has done a fantastic job as a thought leader? Which specific things have impressed you about that person? What lessons can we learn from this person’s approach.
I’m a particular fan of Robert Waldinger, who’s the director of 75-year long Harvard study on adult life and happiness. He is able to take 75 years of information and distill it down to a single idea: the good life is built with good relationships. Because of the elegance and accessibility of this idea, I’ve made it actionable in my own life in a variety of ways. The key takeaway here is how valuable and empowering it is to distill our ideas down to something essential and then create compelling context for sharing that essence. Many others will live richer lives in response.
I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?
I think of that opinion in the same way I think of the term “click bait.” People have come to call any sort of marketing that elicits actual emotions to be click-baity. But what they neglect to see is that click bait is a specific thing that happens when someone creates sensational marketing that doesn’t actually deliver what it’s promising — they might say “You won’t believe what he says 2:15 into his speech” but if what he says is totally believable then it’s duped the user. It’s bait in the way a worm on a hook is bait because it is fooling the fish into believing a false promise.
Similarly, those who find the term “thought leader” to be trite are responding to how the term is misused for many people. Just because someone stands on a stage doesn’t mean they’re a thought leader. A thought leader disrupts the way we typically solve a problem, so while I don’t believe using the term “thought leader” is trite, I do believe it’s used inaccurately to describe those who would have us conduct business as usual.
What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?
Take at least one day out of the week to completely not work — not just mostly avoid work, but completely avoid it.
Form a list of at least 4 or 5 things that you find deeply nourishing and do at least one of those things every week.
Take an improv class, as it will force you to forget about the level of responsibility you’ve taken on in your life.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I would encourage each and every person to ask their questions from a place of curiosity rather than judgment. For genuine curiosity about others will form the basis of the most meaningful connections we could ever hope to enjoy.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Many people die at twenty five and aren’t buried until they are seventy five.”
― Benjamin Franklin
The single most important thing for me is to live a deliberate life — one of intention and purpose. So I am resolved to do whatever I can to ensure that I will only die when my body is no longer able to sustain the need I have for the world being a better place than how I found it.
We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
Former President Obama persevered in response to formidable opposition during his eight years in the White House. I want for him to take comfort in his legacy. If experiencing my curiosity about his life post-presidency can nudge him toward that even just the tiniest bit, then I would very much enjoy having omelets with him.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Thank you so much for your insights. This was very insightful and meaningful.