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Threading the Needle of Thought Leadership | Nora DePalma


Threading the Needle of Thought Leadership | Nora DePalma

Shaping the conversation of topics that are not universally agreed on.

An interview with Nora DePalma about engaging audiences on difficult topics while not alienating various stakeholders.

Topics like climate change can be a hot button issue in discussions.
So how can you deliver thought leadership on controversial topics without disengaging various portions of your audience?

In order to thread that difficult needle, I’ve invited Nora DePalma to join me. Nora is the CEO of Dialogue, a modern PR firm that builds value for organizations seeking to advance climate solutions.

Nora starts the conversation by sharing how discussing climate solutions instead of climate change helps to shape the conversation, allowing them to start a dialogue without turning off certain parties that might be needed to meet their goals.

Once your audience is open to hearing what you have to say you’ll need to be prepared for what comes next. Nora explains how you need to tie activity to business outcomes and understand what action you want them to take next, moving them deeper into your content but not necessarily leading them into a sales funnel. She shares why not every call to action must lead to sales and why education and relationship building can be as powerful and lead to sales in other ways.

Nora provides great advice and examples of how to deliver complex thought leadership that tactfully opens the door to deeper, more meaningful conversations.

Three Key Takeaways

  • In addition to understanding your audience and shaping the conversation you must deliver your ideas with authenticity and passion. Otherwise, they are likely to tune out.
  • Not all calls to action must lead into the sales funnel. They can be a call to education, or to further a relationship.
  • You must earn people’s attention. That is how you build trust and sustain relationships.

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.



Bill Sherman How do you get your audience to listen to your idea, especially when the topic is charged? It’s hard to be heard, let alone persuasive when an audience will tune out your idea because they think they know what you will say even before you say it. Today, we’ll talk about threading the needle on delicate topics, which is essential for many categories of thought leadership. I’ve invited Nora DePalma, the CEO of Dialog, to share her experiences and thoughts on the topic. Additionally, we’ll explore metrics for thought leadership as well as making use of earned and owned media. I’m Bill Sherman and you’re listening to Leveraging Thought Leadership. Ready? Let’s begin. Welcome to the show, Nora.

Nora DePalma Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.

Bill Sherman So I want to dive in with a conversation that I think is very important that happens in thought leadership of how do you reach your audience. And sometimes you have to thread the needle. You have to be careful on that initial call to conversation or that call to education. So you use this term threading the needle. I want to ask you, what does that mean and what does it look like?

Nora DePalma I use the term thread the needle, because in the work that we do with dialog, we are spending a lot of time in the climate and sustainability space and. That is a sector along with other areas, that organizations are stepping forward and thought leadership where. You are talking about things that don’t have universal agreement. And threading the needle means how are you engaging your target audience without disengaging? Other key stakeholders And most organizations have multiple stakeholders. And when we think about thought leadership, we are thinking about it, you know, from the stakeholder first to what does a stakeholder care about? But when you start there, then you do have to think about the wider pond that you’re engaging in, particularly in the realm of social media and being aware of something that’s relevant to your key stakeholders may sound different to other audiences. And how does that impact the brand? How does that build trust? And it’s very much rooted in really, really, really understanding all of your stakeholders and how your thought leadership program is going to impact all of them, as well as the overall brand.

Bill Sherman So can you give me an example of when you’ve had to thread that needle and what it look like?

Nora DePalma Yes. So one of our clients is working to draw down carbon emissions in the state of Georgia. It’s called Drawdown Georgia. And. We focus on climate solutions versus climate change for a very specific reason that we want to make sure that we’re building what the organization likes to call a leader for movement. And everyone in Georgia really needs to be on board with this. We can’t afford to inadvertently turn off some of the people who need to help with the solutions that will ultimately get us to what we want to do, which is draw down carbon emissions in Georgia. So we are very, very intentional. We don’t talk blue state, red state, we don’t talk dumber ism. The decision to talk about climate solutions versus climate change. Puts us in a situation where, you know, a lot of our thought leadership work is digital and we think about what people are searching on and what terms they use. This is one of those cases where we don’t start with the most searched terms and the biggest questions we lead with how we want to talk about it and how it’s going to impact everyone. We need to influence in the state of Georgia to achieve our goals. So that’s an example of threading the needle.

Bill Sherman And it’s also an example of shaping the conversation and yes, how you’re having the conversation. And I love the example of, yeah, we don’t go after the most searched keywords because we know that’s an audience mix. That is not necessarily the audience we’re trying to reach.

Nora DePalma Correct. Correct. And we do focus we know we’re talking about the very serious climate work that people are doing. So we’re not trying to reach the general public in all cases. So we can be very specific about that. But then that means we’re approaching audience building in a different way than we might with, say, another thought leadership topic that doesn’t require such threading the needle. It may require threading the needle, and you always have to. Right, Right. Different audiences. But where we want to be really careful about it and think of it and be thoughtful about shaping that conversation, that’s a different a different skill set.

Bill Sherman And I think one of the things that’s important on this concept of threading the needle is many times an individual in an organization is incredibly passionate about what they want to talk about, and you have to be willing to rein in a little bit of that passion, which can be counterintuitive.

Nora DePalma It can be. We start being the two sides to the coin are deeply understanding the audience and that that takes research. And then the authenticity piece, the thought leader, the part of the person who we are who is talking here. And it does start it has to be rooted in that thought leader’s authenticity. They do have to be passionate about it. And there are opportunities or certain circumstances where we would say, you know, we want to go out there and put a different thought out there that may be controversial, that threading the needle doesn’t mean we’re always avoiding controversy. The draw down Georgia, the example is one where we do actively because of what we’re trying to achieve. But in other areas, we literally just posted for another client today, I thought leadership piece talking about a recent op ed from the Wall Street Journal, talking about water. And it was a circumstance where one of our thought leaders actually knew the op ed writers respected them, but wanted to take another viewpoint on it. So I guess you could say we thread the needle to think about, you know, Yes, but or, you know, additive. How do we say this? It’s not intentionally shying away from controversy as much as it is making sure it’s rooted in the authenticity of the person. And we know enough about our target audience to know how they will receive it.

Bill Sherman One underlying in this and I think implicit in the idea of thought leadership is disrupt this. And I guess it is going to disrupt. And you can either toss the stone out in the water and see what ripples happen, and then you go, oh, ripples. Or you can be prepared.

Nora DePalma And being prepared is the key thing. And when brand I mean, there’s no question beyond even our sustainability space, we do know that consumers make decisions about brands for what they stand for. That is not going away. That is not changing. But then it has to be understood going into it. Where are we going to push the envelope? Where does it make sense? You want to be interesting, you have to be engaging. So that all takes a lot of prep work going into it and complete leadership buy in. And that’s where the authenticity piece comes in. That’s what a lot of brands that have unfortunately made some negative headlines in this space. I think they missed that that point there. And didn’t really go through the work it took to understand the audience and to make sure that it was all that talked to them.

Bill Sherman Who are we? Are we the right messengers for this idea? Someone else may be a better messenger than we are. Who’s our audience and what do they expect from us? And then if we’re asking our audience to reconsider or shift a perspective, what is that? Why And how do we show a first step? Rather than asking them to jump from A to Z. Let’s talk about A to B.

Nora DePalma That is very, very well put.

Bill Sherman So we’ve talked about ideas and the realm of ideas, and you and I have had a conversation on the difference in thought leadership between promoting an idea and encouraging a behavior. And I think this leads to an interesting way of how do you not only thread the needle, but how do you get that first a-to-b step along the journey. So I want to hand this over to you. Talk about the difference in the realm of thought leadership between ideas and behaviors.

Nora DePalma Really good way to think about it and a good way for all of us communicators to talk about thought leadership to our clients and our and our leadership. Because at the end of the day, you are doing it for a business reason. And like a lot of I, to me thought leadership falls in the realm of public relations. A lot of public relations is not hard measurement. There’s not a direct line to sales. It’s not supposed to be. Same thing with thought leadership. We’re not doing this to drive a sale. We’re not even necessarily doing it to talk about a product. You know, there may be some times where it comes in organically, but so for the business to get their hands around, well, why would we do this? And even why would we do this and maybe take a chance on irritating some of our, you know, why would we take a chance on going out there? We do have to think as experts and thought leadership. How do we tie this activity to business outcomes? And the way we start. So I tell you talked about A to B because we’re always talking about. Whatever we’re doing in marketing, what’s the next thing we want someone to do? Not necessarily. We’re going from here to a sale, but as a result of hearing this podcast or reading this article, we want someone to do X. So we do look at KPIs, the amount of engagement and the content. Are people taking another step because of it? So let’s talk about LinkedIn newsletters and as an example, we can put goals. You know, if this content is resonating, we’re going to get more people subscribing, we’re going to see people sharing it. We’re going to see engagement on that. If we can. That’s a that that’s a that’s a great starting point right there. That’s saying that your content is resonating. Looking at the people who are subscribing, which is a manual activity, but it’s important. Are these the people we want to talk to? Are we starting to talk to accounts that make a make a difference to us? Is this somebody influential?

Bill Sherman It doesn’t matter if you have 10,000 people subscribing to your newsletter or whatever. If you look at that through that list and you’re like, none of them are relevant to us. Right? And that’s a heartbreaking truth. Sometimes we have to say, are we reaching the right audience?

Nora DePalma And that will come. And it’s, you know, I think people always are assuming that metrics are always something, you know, or we’re exporting a spreadsheet or we’re doing some kind of, you know, conversion analysis. A lot of times is looking at the list of subscribers you have and say, are these people meaningful? So even a list of 10,000 people you can scan down and say, Oh, they’re coming from I got three people from a company that I really want to target, or I have somebody from the L.A. Times following me so you can start to look and see, particularly using the LinkedIn newsletter as an example. They’re not in your database, they’re following you and subscribing via LinkedIn. So that’s a starting point. Are they engaging, Are they subscribing? Are they good? Now the next step is how do we take that that to the next level? So how are we then building the relationship with these important people? So then we start to think about, okay, the people we want to talk about, where else can we they’re interested in this topic, where else can we take them? And in that particular case, that author has that subject matter expert has a podcast. So then we start to cross-pollinate. So people who are subscribing to the news service and subscribing to the LinkedIn newsletter, can we now get them to click over and look at the podcast? Can we get them to download, Can we get them to describe their and then what next steps do they have? And of course, once we get them to the organization website, now we can really start to track what they were doing and we can start to put a path for them. Maybe we’re going to promote a webinar on the website, maybe we’re going to promote an e-book or something. So now we can start to connect the interest in the thought leadership to more content that starts to move people along, whatever we call it, the conversion journey, because we’re a lot of times we’re marketing ideas, not products. So how do we move people along this persuasion or conversion journey? We can start to tie that all together if we’re being intentional upfront about how we’re going to do that.

Bill Sherman So several things. And that’s a great answer. I want to unpack a few things and come back to you. So one of the things that you mentioned is not all calls to action are leading into a sales funnel, right? So you may have a call to education in many of the examples you provided or calls to further education. And hey, let’s start sharing information. It could also be a call to a relationship. Hey, let’s connect in some way. Right. Or that one small step of here’s something you can go do right now. There are many things that you can do with thought leadership that don’t require to put someone in the funnel, but prepare the ground for that future conversation should it ever happen.

Nora DePalma That is a great way to put it, because we try to help our clients understand that thought leadership and a lot of PR transcends the transaction it sets up here. So some of those people may not converge to your business case, but they may influence somebody who does. They may be able to bring there’s a lot of different ways to think about how where we’re taking people next after they consume any piece of thought leadership content or they’re part of a thought leadership campaign.

Bill Sherman And so whether they are policy makers, they are analysts, they are journalists. You may have a different path and journey for relationship building or education for them than you would have for someone. That would be a prospect. And one of the ways that I wind up dividing it is that content marketing allows you to talk about product and conversion or service. But when you get into thought leadership, you’re shaping the ground to show either risks, opportunities or expand someone’s thinking in a different way.

Nora DePalma That is a great way to think about it. And that that exercise is what starts to build trust and an interest in the organization that lays it lays the groundwork for what? What could be.

Bill Sherman Well, and you were talking about something. And as I said, your year long response, I’m pulling a few things here. One of the things you talked about is that manual review of data, which I think a lot of people cringe at when they go, I’ve got to go through my newsletter list to see who’s following. Unfortunately, I think in some ways fall leadership’s tools are a decade or two behind what content marketing would be. And so, yeah, there’s a lot more hands on that we have to do on a regular basis to say, How is this working? But it does pay off. I love that example from the Times.

Nora DePalma Yes. Yes. And, you know, we’ll see. We’ll see how that performs. It just went out today. But I think when you talked about the manual and I actually just listened to one of your prior episodes talking about data management and because that that is an area of interest, I think a lot of people are have this expectation now that when you use digital tools, somehow everything is kind of automated. You know, we can plug your here’s your analytics and.

Bill Sherman Here’s your dashboard. Yeah.

Nora DePalma Yeah, I love a good dashboard as much as anyone. But there’s also areas of, well, let’s spend some time and actually look at this and say, Do we feel like we’re reaching the right people? So an especially if you’re not leading them down a sales conversion path and you’re looking at other reasons for why you’re doing something, sometimes that kind of manual engagement is what’s needed. I come from the public relations side of the of the world. That’s how we targeted journalists. It was not spray and pray, right? That was right.

Bill Sherman Right.

Nora DePalma Just pull a list out a decision and start tossing news out. We had to look at that list. We had to go through and say, this journalist and this particular publication is going to benefit my client. That’s a manual exercise. And that’s a very similar dynamic to when we think about building a community around thought leadership.

Bill Sherman If you’re enjoying this episode of Leveraging Thought Leadership, please make sure to subscribe. If you’d like to help spread the word about our podcast, please leave a five-star review at and share it with your friends. We’re available on Apple Podcasts and on all major listing apps as well as Thought Leadership Leverage dot com forward slash podcasts.

Bill Sherman And with that, that ability is not something which you can just delegate off. You have to have a certain level of expertise and awareness of how the board is arranged. And if you don’t have it, you have to develop it.

Nora DePalma That that is a very that’s a good point for list building as well as building a.

Bill Sherman Say more on that in terms of list building side.

Nora DePalma So just as I was saying, if we were going to start targeting journalists, any PR person doing that for way too long, agencies particularly would just would delegate list building to their junior team members who didn’t have the context that the senior people had. But it was felt like, I believe, I guess, that the senior person shouldn’t be spending their time scrolling through cision. Well, that’s exactly who should be doing that, because that’s literally the list that you’re building is your is part of your strategy. And if you flip that around and now you talk about people who are following you or engaging on your social profiles or even subscribing to something, you know, newsletter or some content, it has to be a more senior person looking at those contacts and saying, Are we on the right track? Are these relevant people, are these the right people working with contacts, whether they’re the media or your organization? Contacts, to me is a senior level activity. Now, plugging those into the pretty dashboard, that can be much more powerful, but it’s exactly the relationships that’s a senior level. That’s the senior level activity.

Bill Sherman To be able to look at that list and say, I have a relationship there, or I know someone who can bridge that connection. Those are things that a junior person won’t ever be able to bring to the table. And that’s part of the invisible work of planning, whether on the PR side or the thought leadership side. I want to also ask you a question, because you’ve been talking about LinkedIn and its newsletter, for example, and we’ve got this ecosystem of earned owned and borrowed, and I would put LinkedIn in the borrowed because you don’t own it quite the same way as your own website or your own newsletter list. Talk to me a little bit about those three categories and how you approach each of those from a strategy perspective, because I think they each have a different place, but it’s often easy to make a misstep.

Nora DePalma It is. And if you’re. When we think about public relations today, we say what we do at dialog is modern PR, and we say that intentionally because we’re basically taking the traditional PR model, which was helping organizations build and sustain relationships with their stakeholders. Was always a dialog. Now it’s literally physically, you know, visibly a dialog because of the onset of digital and social media. So approaching. The you know, the peso model paid earned own share. Basically, what you’re talking about, approaching that from a PR perspective differentiates, even though we’re we do digital advertising, we do all kinds of digital marketing, but it’s not performance marketing because we’re leading with the earned mindset, We’re leading with the art of engagement. The art of engagement is what separates modern PR from digital marketing. What separates modern PR from traditional PR is now we have the ability to have that direct engagement with stakeholders. So we’re doing email marketing, we’re doing digital advertising, we’re putting out thought leadership on different platforms. We do a lot of the same. We use a lot of the same tactics that a performance marketing agency would use, but we’re doing it with an earned mindset. We have to earn people’s attention. That’s how we build trust. That’s how we build and sustain relationships. So it starts with what they care about. And our job as communicators is to take the company or organization message and have that come through. That’s what we always did. That’s what we always did with journalists. We had to start from the journalist’s perspective and bring the company’s messages through the lens of what the journalist wants. Now we just do that with everybody, do that with all stakeholders, because we can have a direct relationship with them.

Bill Sherman Well, and I think building on that, one of the things that comes across is. People are determining relevance to them in very thin slices. We can all scroll through a feed and go, Yes, no, tell me more or not. And we might be wrong some of the time. There might have been a great article that was deeply relevant to us that we rolled on by. But we have to do that because there’s so much in our feeds. And so the ability to distill an idea down to be able to get someone’s attention. 60 seconds, 3 seconds. That’s a tough framework to try and earn attention.

Nora DePalma It is. But if I bring it back to traditional PR and media relations, it’s what we had again, what we had to do with journalists. You had a couple of seconds on the phone. You have a subject line in their email box that’s overflowing with pictures.

Bill Sherman Yep.

Nora DePalma That skill set that public relations brings to earn attention. In a memorable way is what makes all of this so powerful that we can then take that approach to the engagement with direct engagement with the organization stakeholders, that that’s what has changed. That’s why the biggest change I’ve seen in my career, and it’s a good one. It borrows very heavily from the traditional PR skill set.

Bill Sherman And I look at it from a writing and crafting and storytelling perspective, right? Where you can put an idea onto the table quickly and have someone say, Huh, that’s interesting. I haven’t seen that before. Not even sure I agree with you. But okay, tell me more. I want to see where this goes. If you can get to that point quickly, you have the opportunity to practice thought leadership. And if you cannot get to that point with your target audience, it doesn’t matter because you’re not in conversation.

Nora DePalma You’re not in a dialog.

Bill Sherman Yeah, exactly. Exactly. And the challenge is all you can do is invite dialog. You can’t compel it.

Nora DePalma That’s always the part that when we talk to new clients or talk to organizations, we try to set that expectation upfront and we’re not. And I think you and I even talked about this. Neither one of us runs our businesses in a way that we will tell every client this will work for you. There are things to be thought. Leadership isn’t for everybody. It’s not always the direction to go because it does put you out there. It puts individuals out there. Sometimes someone may have some interest in an area, but maybe not necessarily a fully formed thoughts for advocating for that. So. In some cases, I would listen to a client talk about thought leadership and I would say maybe you want to take it. This approach through content marketing, that’s a little step back from it. So that’s also an important consideration. It’s not right for every organization.

Bill Sherman And not right for every individual.

Nora DePalma Right? Correct. Yeah.

Bill Sherman It’s something you have to be willing to work at persistently. It has to align with your passion, because if not, it’s going to feel like a drudgery. And your audience will tell. Because if you’re bored talking about it, your audience is going to get real bored real fast.

Nora DePalma Very, very, very true. I feel that way sometimes about the way organizations approach social media marketing, so we have to get four posts in a week. Are the algorithms going to punish us? No. You have to be interesting and relevant to your audience.

Bill Sherman Exactly. And yes, you can go into generative AI and ask for 100 posts that you can throw on LinkedIn, but really, if you don’t take the time to read them and find them interesting, guess what nobody else is. Just. Just stop. Just stop. Yeah. Yeah. So as we begin to wrap up, I have a couple of questions for you. The first one being you’ve talked about modern PR, you’ve talked about evolution over career. My question to you is what advice would you give your younger self just starting out into the world of thought leadership based on what you know today?

Nora DePalma Wow. That’s a really good question. I would. I would tell my younger self. To put the audience first. And that’s sometimes a hard thing even to tell clients or organizations, even myself, when I think about my own agency marketing. That flipping the script from what do I want to say to what does my audience want to hear? Putting the audience and audience first approach. Would be what I would tell my younger self to focus on and to focus really laser focus on that. Because in today’s world, it’s not only what are they questioning, what do they want to know, but where are they? When I started my career, they might be walking into a retail location, they might be watching TV. Now, obviously, there’s many, many, many, many places online and offline trade shows, whatever. There’s a lot of places people will be. Where are they? Where are they most open to being influenced? What engages them? Just really, really starting with that audience first mindset.

Bill Sherman And where are they consuming ideas? Because you can be putting out a ton of ideas and insights in a place with your audiences and paying attention. That’s a great piece of just it’s always good to obsess on your audience. My second question is this. Whose work is someone that more people should be reading and thinking about. So whose work in your field would you turn to and recommend?

Nora DePalma Always, always, Always. Seth Godin. Seth Godin is writing completely. When I said I would tell my younger self to focus on the audience. I would credit Seth Godin with helping me to start thinking about it that way. I love how he talks about. Marketing being a generous act, which is truly no two words have ever been put together with marketing for me before.

Bill Sherman But it meets the criteria of. Huh? That’s interesting. Tell me more. I’m not sure I agree with you, but go on.

Nora DePalma And ultimately, I completely agreed with him. Because if you’re starting with what the audience needs and maybe not every response, every post, every email is talking about you.

Bill Sherman Mm hmm.

Nora DePalma But it is talking about something that’s of interest to your stakeholders, then you’re putting the relationship with your audience ahead of the business. And in doing so, you’re helping the business because now you’re building trust and you’re building a relationship that if that person doesn’t ultimately converge to your end goal, they will influence other people who will. And so his work to me has been transformational. I basically built dialog on his books.

Bill Sherman And he’s been disciplined about banging the drum on the topics that he deeply cares about. You know, you know, what lane he’s going to be in. But he always has a fresh take that you’re ready for the next piece.

Nora DePalma Yes. As an example of thought leadership, then taking that platform and putting it out there, Gary Vaynerchuk does it in a slightly different way, but he takes the same kind of approach that, you know, be interesting to your audience. They both take it from different standpoints. But you’re right, both of them are incredibly consistent in that messaging. And that’s what I hope is coming across when we talk to our clients that where we want to see them focus their marketing. That’s my thought leadership.

Bill Sherman So we started this conversation with threading the needle. We end with purple clouds, and I think that’s a fantastic way to end. Nora, thank you very much for joining us today.

Nora DePalma Thank you very much for having me. I learned a lot.

Bill Sherman If you’re interested in organizational thought leadership, then I invite you to subscribe to the OrgTL newsletter. Each month we talk about the people who create, curate and deploy thought leadership on behalf of their organizations. Go to the website. and choose “Join our newsletter.” I’ll leave a link to the website as well as my LinkedIn profile in the show notes. Thanks for listening and I look forward to hearing what you thought of the show.

Bill Sherman works with thought leaders to launch big ideas within well-known brands. He is the COO of Thought Leadership Leverage. Visit Bill on Twitter

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