It’s getting harder to communicate these days. Of course, the tools and channels are more ubiquitous than ever. We can blog or podcast or share sepia-toned Instagrams or racy Snapchats or funny Vines. But is anyone actually listening? With more noise and clutter than ever before, how can you actually break out of the pack and get noticed for the quality of your ideas?
That was the challenge I tackled when I began to research my new book, Stand Out. I interviewed more than 50 thought leaders in a variety of fields, from business to technology to genomics to urban planning, to discover how they became recognized experts. One piece of the puzzle is obvious to those well-versed in today’s digital media landscape: you have to build a following. No expert, no matter how knowledgeable, is going to make an impact if his or her work stays locked inside the ivory tower. To be a thought leader, you need followers who listen and believe in what you’re doing. Many thinkers aren’t willing to engage, and assume that simply creating their ideas is sufficient. But for those who are willing to dive into the nitty-gritty of giving speeches, writing blog posts and books, and interacting with the media (digital and otherwise), the rewards are vast and the spread of influence is demonstrable.
But perhaps the harder and more mysterious part of the equation is how to come up with breakthrough ideas in the first place. What enabled leading thinkers to see something in a dramatically new way – and is there a strategy that regular professionals can use to spur more innovation in their own lives? It turns out there is. In Stand Out, I describe a number of approaches these experts used. But one of the most interesting – and accessible to just about anyone – is the niche strategy.
Essentially, this means “cornering the market” on a small subsection of your field – instead of becoming a “sports” expert and writing a blog about all things athletic, you focus on cricket, or on sports teams in Milwaukee, or the like. That depth means there’s less competition (ESPN may do a story about cricket periodically, but you’ll be a far better resource if that’s all you focus on), and you can quickly become recognized as the go-to person for that niche. The trick, however, is that you don’t stay there: you expand steadily into adjacent areas, a process made simpler by a psychological phenomenon known as the “halo effect,” in which—because you’re already perceived as good at one thing—people generalize and think you’re brilliant overall.
That means if you’re the authority on Google’s self-driving cars, you may well be called for comment about their interest in space exploration, and eventually about Google in general, and finally about technology in general. And, in a very tactical sense, the connections you make through your initial expertise can help you as you diversify. If you’ve written an op-ed for a newspaper on a given topic, the editor—who now knows you and your writing style—may be more receptive to your pitch on a different theme.
That “niche expansion” strategy worked for political economist Sophal Ear, who used it to build his platform. When he was a baby, his mother fled the Khmer Rouge, the genocidal rulers of Cambodia, and saved her five children. Nearly thirty years later, he decided to study his homeland when he entered a doctoral program at the University of California-Berkeley.
On the surface, choosing to become an expert on Cambodia might not look like a good career move for an aspiring academic. Scholars are evaluated on how many times their work is cited, and compared with the intense geopolitical interest in China or India, Cambodia is an afterthought. But, he said, “I’d rather do what I’m passionate about.” And, critically, he found ways to connect his deep knowledge of Cambodia to topics that did generate a great deal of interest, and when opportunities to pivot came along, he took them.
His dissertation focused on foreign aid – the “official” subject of his expertise – but he also became a sought-after expert on avian flu due to his knowledge of Asian livestock, and he’s given a popular TED talk about criminal tribunals and justice, stemming from his family’s experience with the Khmer Rouge. “I’m not the kind of professor who stays in my lane when it comes to research,” he says. “One door is Cambodia and it leads to all kinds of possibilities.”
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. He wasn’t moving from Cambodian politics into football or Hollywood movies. Instead, he leveraged his core knowledge and expanded steadily into adjacent fields, where the connection made sense. Over time, as your expertise and reputation in those areas grow, you can move even further afield.
In a world where everyone is clamoring for attention, it’s increasingly essential to stand out. We need think strategically about how to become recognized for deep expertise in a given niche (creating content, taking on leadership roles, etc.), and then expand into nearby areas from there. Once you’ve become a trusted source in one realm, it’s far easier to leverage that toehold and become a recognized thought leader across the board.
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