How to Build Your Thought Leadership When You Feel You Have None

03/25/2015 02:31 pm ET | Updated May 24, 2015

If you're new in your field, you've no doubt been following the writing and insights of great thought leaders who dominate your arena. When you're just starting out in your new business, or launching a new practice, consultancy, or solopreneurship, it can be very enlivening to follow people who are ten steps (or 100) ahead of you, to learn from those you'd like to emulate.

But sometimes it has the opposite effect. I've heard from countless leaders, entrepreneurs and professionals who, far from being inspired by these well-known thought leaders, are daunted and intimidated by them. Small business owners share privately with me their worry, "Kathy, I just don't see how I can ever contribute at such a high level, or have the time or ability to develop my own thought leadership as they have. Where do I begin and how do I do it?"

To answer that question, I caught up with Cheryl Snapp Conner, Forbes contributor, CEO of thought leadership and PR firm Snapp Conner PR, and the author of the new book Beyond PR: Communicate Like a Champ In the Digital Age. Cheryl and I sat down to talk about thought leadership - what it is and isn't, and how to develop your writing, thought leadership and expertise so that you will serve others and generate the success you long for.

Cheryl is a veteran on this topic, and supports nationally-recognized professionals, emerging organizations, startups and entrepreneurs to develop their thought leadership. She was recently named as one of the world's Top 20 Business Strategy Thought Leaders To Follow from ClearPoint Strategies (in the same great company as Malcolm Gladwell, Clayton Christensen and Daniel Pink). We also share an exciting honor: Both of us were named by writer Larry Kim to Inc.'s list of the 16 Best Entrepreneurship and Business Leadership Articles of the Year.

Here's what she shared.

Kathy Caprino: Cheryl, what makes someone an influential thought leader?

Cheryl Snapp Conner: I believe that every company, and most individuals, are expert in at least a few areas other people would like to know more about. Those who share information others need or who share a voice that others find genuinely compelling are thought leaders. If you regularly share information that is not "about you" or about hyping your business or company, but legitimately meets the needs of your readers, you are on the road to thought leadership. People will respect the credibility and authority (and authenticity) of your information and will seek you out.

Caprino: Besides leadership of thought, what other components/traits are essential to expanding your reach and messages?

Snapp Conner: Generosity is definitely an essential part of thought leadership. So is a willingness to engage (not just "spout") and to empathize with what an audience is feeling and experiencing. It is hard work and takes time and commitment to serve an audience base well, but genuine thought leaders thrive on making a difference.

Caprino: For people new to their fields who want to make a mark, what are the five best ways to establish yourself as a respected expert and thought leader?

Snapp Conner: If you are new to a field, your established expertise is probably not a draw. But others might find it helpful to walk through your learning experiences with you, as it would help them make new discoveries, too. As you come to be known for a certain subject matter, consider the following:

1. Tap others' knowledge and regularly share your own.

Offer up guest posts or share columns or newsletters that readers want to receive and start to look for. So many prospective thought leaders get "stuck" on the notion they don't have good stories or ideas. This is where a bit of consulting or just close observation of other thought leaders can help unearth the areas where you will have plenty of information to share. Try breaking down into digestible steps a helpful process that you use to approach a problem. Or offer a compelling story of failure that had an unexpected twist that shares your teachable point of view. Make it something insightful, unexpected, or entertaining and audiences will respond. Provide them regularly, but also end with an invitation to go further in obtaining your help.

2. Speak and present wherever you can.

These can be formal presentations, short YouTube videos on a topic, or longer form talks. Consider joining some relevant associations and get involved. Volunteer. Perhaps start with a meet up group or two in your area. Toastmasters can be a wonderful organization that will help you learn to speak and present well. Learn to present more effectively and share your information in an educational, enlightening way with others.

3. Author a short eBook

Offer helpful tips, steps, and strategies to readers as a free download. Capture their information for future interactions or offers as well.

4. Engage and discuss

Be present and contribute to critical conversations on your topic of choice in social media, and on your own social media properties. Join a LinkedIn group or two in your area of interest and dive in with a discussion topic that will get others engaged and involved. Post an intriguing question on Facebook. Respond to comments to your articles and include reader remarks and stories in your materials as well (I have connected with any number of interesting and even expert people this way). Let your personality shine out - muster the courage to be real, open and honest, and hone your voice.

5. Above all, serve your audience

Most importantly, remember that your value is determined by your audience or readers. Give them reasons to care about your information and to get engaged and they will do so because it benefits them and because they can see you are genuinely willing to help. But always keep your audience in mind as the most important reason for communicating. Their reactions will determine if you are an effective thought leader or not.

Caprino: Fabulous! Finally, can you please share two top tips from your new book Beyond PR?

Snapp Conner: Sure. First, learning to communicate more powerfully and effectively can drive your business and financial success. It can fuel your personal happiness as well. So no matter how well you communicate now, make the effort to learn, grow and develop as a communicator. It will be worthwhile.

Secondly, communication is not just the words you speak. Your mannerisms, facial expressions, tone - all are important. And what you don't say is important as well. Choose your words carefully and think about the consequences of everything you say. Learn to listen more than you speak. Sometimes not speaking, but instead being fully present and attentive to another person is the most powerful thing you can do.

But no matter who you are, developing your thought leadership and communication style and approach will improve not only your business but also your life.

For more about developing your thought leadership, visit Beyond PR and Cheryl Snapp Conner.

(To build a happier, more successful career, visit and take my 6-day Amazing Career Challenge.)