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The Four Elements of Thought Leadership | Bill Sherman
Creating better thought leadership by following the Four Elements.
Bill Sherman takes us on a deep dive of the Four Elements framework for thought leadership.
As a consultant, Bill Sherman has had the privilege of working with countless incredible thought leaders over the past twenty years, helping them elevate their ideas.
That work has given him the insight to create the Four Elements, a framework for thought leadership that helps sharpen thinking and communicate ideas effectively.
The first element is Ideas. Ideas are the building blocks of thought leadership. An idea is a short, provocative statement that catches the attention of your target audience and gets them invested in learning more.
Our next element is Content. Content encompasses the stories, data, anecdotes, case studies, and examples that support your ideas. Ideas provoke discussion; Content offers persuasive support. A content library should be well organized and well documented, so that it can support your thought leadership in reaching scale.
The third element is Offerings. Offerings turn your insights into a deliverable package, leading with value and signaling your relevance to the audience. You don’t want to offer whitepaper to a Gen Z audience, or short-form video to readers of the Harvard Business Review.
The final element is Platform. Platform is often overlooked, but it’s critical to your content – strong platforms give your insights traction in the market. Your platform needs to answer questions like “What are these ideas about?”, “What problems do they solve?” and “Who should use them?” all without you being in the room.
For more information on the Four Elements, read the whitepaper mentioned in the episode. It’s located on Bill’s LinkedIn.
Three Key Takeaways:
- Every interaction has a transaction cost of time. If you want a fraction of your audience’s time you need to provide value.
- When working with a team it is important to have your content organized so that each member can access and deploy content without the need to ask where to find it or what it means.
- The number of ways you can package your content is endless but the interest and time of your audience are not. Lead with value and relevance.
If you need a strategy to bring your thought leadership to market, Thought Leadership Leverage can assist you! Contact us for more information. In addition, we can help you implement marketing, research, and sales. Let us help you so you can devote yourself to what you do best.
Join the Organizational Thought Leadership Newsletter to learn more about expanding thought leadership within your organization! This monthly newsletter is full of practical information, advice, and ideas to help you reach your organization’s thought leadership goals.
And if you need help scaling organizational thought leadership, contact Thought Leadership Leverage or reach out to Bill Sherman on Linkedin!
I’ve spoken and worked alongside thousands of thought leadership practitioners over my career. And there’s one question that I get asked again and again. “Is this thought leadership good?” I have heard this question from endowed chairs at top-tier business schools; seasoned C-suite executives running billion-dollar businesses; and heads of thought leadership for global non-profit organizations. People want to know if their ideas are good, if they’re going to create impact, and what can they do to make their insights even better and more useful. These are tough questions, because in the field of thought leadership, we lack a common language and frameworks. Few of us took a thought leadership course in graduate school. And even fewer of us have been mentored in thought leadership.
So, today, I want to share a framework that I’ve built and refined over the past twenty years. As a consultant, I’ve had the privilege of having thought leadership practitioners share their ideas and work product with me. And I’ve been given the keys to explore their unpublished intellectual attics. And I’ve had to, as a consultant, provide an answer to several questions:
- Is this thought leadership any good?
- How does it compare to others’ work?
- How can I make it better?
In this episode, I introduce the Four Elements of Thought Leadership. I’m Bill Sherman, and you’re listening to Leveraging Thought Leadership. Ready? Let’s begin.
What is thought leadership? Let’s start there. If you type that question into Google, you will get some spectacularly bad answers. One answer, in Helpy McHelperson format says: Thought leadership is what thought leaders do! Ok, sure. But that doesn’t help me become a better practitioner. Or “thought leadership is your smartest content marketing.” Again, I’m left at a loss if I want to evaluate quality or sharpen my skills.
The four elements of thought leadership is a practitioner focused framework. The work of thought leadership is to turn good ideas into better ideas. To package them in ways that appeal to the right target audiences. And get them out into the world.
And before I begin a short clarification. The four elements does not answer the question “what makes a good thought leader?” That’s a skills based question, and there are some really good frameworks out there to answer that question. This framework also doesn’t answer the question—how do I produce impact? That’s about taking an idea to scale, once it’s solid.
Our focus today is around sharpening the thinking and communicating it effectively.
The four elements of thought leadership are ideas, content, offerings, and platform.
The first element of thought leadership are the ideas. Ideas are the “atoms” of thought leadership. If you don’t have a useful idea, you’re unlikely to ever create thought leadership. So, what’s an idea? In the four elements framework, an idea is a short, provocative statement which catches your target audience’s attention and causes them to say “hmmm, that’s interesting. Tell me more.” An idea is simple and brief. It’s not an entire book or whitepaper. It’s not even a paragraph. It’s often a single sentence or maybe two. So, what does an idea sound like? Let’s turn to the Agile Manifesto – the short document which in many ways was a spark that transformed software development in the early 2000s.
Written and signed in 2000, it’s worth reading the Agile Manifesto in full.
We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it.
Through this work we have come to value:
- Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
- Working software over comprehensive documentation
- Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
- Responding to change over following a plan
That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.
And that’s the entire Agile Manifesto. 67 words. If you listened carefully, you’d find four core ideas—which they called values. Each idea was provocative “individuals and interactions over processes and tools” and meant to spark discussion as well as guide behavior. Imagine yourself hearing that the developers value working software over comprehensive documentation. The first time you hear that idea, you might raise an eyebrow, or you might say – that’s interesting. Tell me more.
What the Agile Manifesto does clearly is frame ideas in a provocative way through its ideas. Now, twenty years later, these ideas may feel they have become the established norm. But in their day, they were ideas voiced by seventeen people who crafted and signed the document. And they invited other developers to sign it as well. These are ideas that created a movement and transformed how software has been developed.
So, let’s move on from the world of ideas into the second of the four elements—content. Here, I like to think of a content library. An idea can’t go off on its own into the world and make an impact. The idea needs support to be persuasive. A content library is the entire collection of stories, data, anecdotes, examples, case studies, that support the idea. If an idea’s purpose is to provoke discussion “tell me more,” then the purpose of content is persuasion. When you practice thought leadership—for yourself or your organization—you share your ideas again and again. But if you’re good at your work, you tailor your persuasive content to the needs of your audience. Let’s say you’re sharing the Agile Manifesto in 2000 with two groups—a group of software developers and a group of CFOs. If you’re smart, you’ll use different stories, data, and examples to make your case persuasively. When you present one of your ideas to an audience, you go into your content library and ask, “what will help me persuade this audience?” Here’s the key—all of the elements in your content library are like Legos—infinitely repurposeable and reusable. The data you use for a whitepaper can be put into a speech or even an infographic. And that’s a subtle point. Don’t confuse content—the stories, data, and examples you use to persuade—with the format you’re delivering the content. The purpose of content is persuasion and influence, regardless of what format you put it in.
I’ve had the chance to explore many different content libraries. And a few are well organized and fully documented. They’ve been curated with the love of a librarian caring for a collection. But for most of us who practice thought leadership, the content library is an intellectual attic—or perhaps even the cavernous government warehouse seen at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Many people undervalue well-organized content. “It’s all in my head or on my hard drive.” But there’s a risk here. If content isn’t documented and organized, then it becomes a barrier for the ideas to reach scale. I’ve seen situations where social media teams were dependent on the thought leadership expert because the best content was undocumented. The social team had to go back and ask for stories, data, and examples—again and again. Incredibly inefficient and a massive barrier to scale.
Once you have defined your big ideas and developed your most persuasive content, it’s time to package them up and deliver them to your target audience. That’s the role of offerings—the third element of thought leadership. I like to think of offerings as the box that you pack your ideas and content inside—much like Amazon packs your orders inside a cardboard box for shipping. So, what forms do offerings come in—podcasts, speeches and presentations, LinkedIn posts, whitepapers, infographics, short-form videos, webinars. The list is pretty much endless and only limited by your creativity and your audience’s preferences. If I’m trying to reach gen z and gen alpha, I’m probably not creating whitepapers for them today. I’m creating short-form videos of snackable content. And if I’m trying to reach HBR readers, then I’m writing a data-rich article based on original research. Much like Amazon has to deliver packages to the right house, you have to deliver thought leadership to places where your audiences will find it. Because, even when you give away thought leadership insights for free, there’s always a transaction cost. And that cost is time.
Every offering—whether it’s the teaser to a blog post, a ninety-second video, or a 20 page whitepaper—requires your audience’s time. Imagine someone skimming through LinkedIn. They’re scrolling through their feed, deciding which posts are interesting enough to click “see more.” And that decision is made in fractions of a second. So, you have to think about which offerings you will create. Just because the list of potential offerings is endless doesn’t mean your audience has endless interest. You need to think about how you’ll package and deliver these ideas, so that they’ll give you the time and attention. You have to lead with value quickly and signal your relevance to your audience. Knowing that you’ll also be signaling to a lot of other people your thought leadership’s irrelevance. Offerings are our primary way to educate, persuade, and drive action—and that’s why I prefer a dozen small experiments rather than one big tentpole asset that takes up massive time and budget to produce and comes with a big time ask of your audience. “Nobody has time for that!”
And now, we come to the fourth element of thought leadership—the platform. It’s time to put your thought leadership on stage and shine the spotlight on it. What’s a platform? It’s best thought of as the brand for your insights. Organizations invest a lot of time in brand building and measuring the health of their brand among their customers. Individuals build personal brands as well—their personal brand is their reputation—a good collaborator, timely, hard worker, etc. Ideas need their own brands too. The marketplace of ideas is a noisy place. And without a strong platform, your ideas will get lost in the noise. Platform is the most neglected area in thought leadership. And it leads to a problem of scale. Because ideas need a brand. And if they don’t have one of their own, they will latch on to either the personal brand of their creator or the organization’s brand. In that way, ideas are a bit like a toddler learning to walk. They’ll scamper off a few steps away from you. But they turn and look back. And then they rush back to you, giggling. And they latch onto your knee. If you want your thought leadership to stand on its own in the world, then you need to develop the platform. A good platform answers the following questions: How will people know what the ideas are about? What problems do they help solve? And who should use them?
When you have a strong platform, your ideas spread without you having to be present in the room or the Zoom. Imagine, if you will—two people are meeting for coffee. One has already heard about your ideas. The other person needs your ideas. And you’re not in the room. As they talk, will your ideas come to mind for person A? Will they connect the problem with the solution—that’s a function of a strong brand and platform. And then, how will person A explain your ideas to person B? Can they get someone to say, “I never thought about it that way before, I need to check that out!” Ideas reach scale when other people can remember them at the right time and can explain them effectively with their friends and colleagues. That’s the power of a good platform.
So there you go. Those are the four elements of thought leadership—ideas, content, offerings, and platform. As I said earlier, this is a practitioner’s framework for developing and deploying thought leadership. It helps you look with a critical eye at your work product and identify what’s working well and what parts need to be even better. It’s one of the core frameworks that I use every day to help individuals and organizations make impact through their thought leadership.
If you want to learn more about the four elements of thought leadership, you’ll find a whitepaper on my LinkedIn profile in the Featured section. It dives deeper into the framework. You’ll find ways to evaluate the quality of each element as well as applied tips to make improvements.
Thanks for joining me today for the deep dive into what is good thought leadership.
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