In the course of researching my book Stand Out, I interviewed more than 50 top thought leaders across a variety of different fields to elicit best practices and commonalities. I found plenty of useful techniques, from cultivating a trusted wingman to help promote you to others, to identifying commonalities with the people you’re seeking to influence so they’ll be more receptive to your message.
As I came to realise, though, there are three foundational elements to getting your ideas understood and appreciated, elements that underlie everything else. These are social proof, which gives people a reason to listen to you; content creation, which allows them to evaluate the quality of your ideas; and your network, which allows your ideas to spread.
Without at least two of these, though ideally you have all three, it’s structurally almost impossible for your message to break through. Understanding that dynamic can help talented professionals, who may be prone to focusing their energy on the techniques that come most easily to them, know where to apply their efforts in order to ensure their true value is recognised.
Humans, especially busy ones, have a bias toward conserving mental energy. It’s cognitively taxing for them to independently evaluate every person they come into contact with to determine, “Is this person credible?” Indeed, performing that calculation is almost impossible if the person is outside their field of expertise, because they simply may not have enough information to know. That’s why social proof is so critical. Social proof is a heuristic that allows people to judge something, in this case, you, based on your affiliations with brands they already trust. If you went to Harvard, the thinking goes, you must be intelligent; if your book was a New York Times bestseller, it must be good.
Obviously, there are exceptions (sometimes glaring), but in general, social proof provides shortcuts that are helpful for people most of the time. You can leverage the power of social proof to ensure your ideas are taken more seriously, immediately, by making an effort to align yourself with people and institutions that are known and respected within your industry.
For instance, if you make it a priority to start blogging for a publication that everyone in your field reads, that can be a quick shortcut to credibility. If you’ve worked at an industry-leading company, make sure that it’s prominently featured in your bio and that you periodically share anecdotes highlighting your time there. If you take on a leadership role in a professional association, that sends the signal that your peers respect you enough to select you as their leader. Social proof enables others to “relax” about you; they don’t need to be so vigilant in evaluating your credentials because you’ve already been vetted by others. That primes them to listen to your ideas more carefully and with an open mind.
You can’t become recognised for your ideas if you don’t share them. Busy professionals might worry that it’s pointless to create content, given the surfeit of blogs and podcasts and social media chatter. It’s true that it’s harder to “go viral” now than in the early days of YouTube or Twitter, but that shouldn’t be the goal of most businesspeople anyway. Creating content, whether audio, video, or writing, serves multiple purposes for leaders.
First, it forces you to clarify your thoughts on subjects in your field, making you sharper. Second, it gives you the opportunity to network with colleagues or aspirational contacts, either by interviewing them or by simply mentioning them in your post (author Ramit Sethi invited me to breakfast after I mentioned him in this HBR post). Finally, it provides you with thoughtful insights tailored to your clients’ needs. Even if you don’t have 10,000 readers, it’s an invaluable form of credibility when a potential client mentions a problem they’re having and you can tell her, “I just wrote a piece about that — let me send it to you.” The fact that you’re the one creating content, rather than simply quoting others, makes you an expert in many people’s eyes.
Having a robust network can help you in three ways when it comes to being recognised for your expertise. The first is that access to a diverse group of people exposes you to different perspectives that can spark new ideas and enables you to refine your ideas by receiving thoughtful and relevant feedback. The second is that a wide network enables your ideas to spread faster, because you’re starting with a larger base of people who are motivated to speak, tweet, blog, and write about your ideas with their own audiences. Finally, your network can itself become a form of social proof because you’re judged by the company you keep. If the leading players in your field don’t know who you are, that might be considered a mark against you, while public affiliation with top performers (whether they retweet your work, invite you to guest post on their website, or share a picture taken with you on Facebook) may be viewed as an endorsement that enhances your credibility.
There are plenty of useful ways to make a name for yourself in your field. But at a foundational level, you need to be viewed as credible, you need to share your ideas publicly so others can see your expertise for themselves, and you need to have a network that’s eager to spread the word. With those three elements in place, even amid oversaturation and information overload, you’ve done everything possible to ensure your voice is heard and your talents are recognised.
Cited in Harvard Business Review.