How to Stand Out: An Interview With Dorie Clark

04/21/2015 09:28 am ET | Updated Jun 21, 2015

Ours is a very noisy world. The era of Big Data is here. Compared to even fifteen years ago, it's never been easier and less expensive to get your work out there. Rapid technological advances mean that just about anyone can produce a professional album, book, blog, or podcast. That's the good news.

On the other hand, it's exceptionally difficult to build an audience, facile five-point listicles aside. When anyone can do something, everyone will. Pick an area: It's really crowded out there, and that goes double if you're just getting started as a "thought leader." Against this backdrop, how does one get noticed?

It's a fascinating question. For answers, I recently sat down with Dorie Clark to talk about her new book Stand Out: How to Find Your Breakthrough Idea and Build a Following Around It.

PS: Why did you decide to write the book?

DC: More than a million books are published each year, and over 500 million tweets are sent each day. There's no question that in this increasingly "noisy" world, it's getting harder for your message to be heard. The question is, how can you stand out? For the book, I interviewed more than 50 top thought leaders in a variety of fields, from business to genomics, to understand how they came to be recognized experts and I worked to distill their methods so that regular professionals can apply them. I don't want the loudest voices to be the ones that win; I want the best ideas to win, and that can only happen if people understand how to get heard.

PS: You feature many prominent folks in the book. How did you select them?

DC: I spent several years making a list of the people I wanted to interview for Stand Out; they were people whose work fascinated me. I tried to balance the interviews I did with well-known thinkers like Seth Godin and Daniel Pink with profiles of people who may not be as famous, but are applying the lessons and doing fascinating things. For instance, I profiled Michael Waxenberg, who built a lucrative side business through content marketing, and Miranda Aisling Hynes, a young woman whose self-published book landed her an exciting job.

PS: Many people believe that their messages need to be unique. They won't write, speak, or create if others are already succeeding in that area. You disagree. Why?

DC: I do think your message has to be unique, but many people overestimate what that entails. They assume you have to come up with an idea that no one in the world has ever had before, or that you have to be a genius to do it. In actuality, many people don't start out knowing what their unique message is - they get started and iterate their way to it. And "networking," for instance, may not be a unique concept - there are plenty of people who write and talk about it - but you can find ways to make it your own. If you come from an extended Italian family, or lived abroad for many years, or you used to be a janitor or a professional athlete or Navy SEAL, you probably have unique insights that come from mixing the general concept of networking with your own personal experience.

PS: Your own career isn't exactly linear, nor is mine for that matter. How did that impact the book?

DC: I've definitely had a lot of careers! I've been a newspaper reporter, a presidential campaign spokesperson, a nonprofit executive director, a documentary filmmaker, and now a consultant, writer, professional speaker, and business school professor. My first book, Reinventing You, talks about those transitions and - using interviews I conducted with dozens of professionals who successfully made transitions of their own - I lay out best practices. With Stand Out, I try to move the argument even further along. Now more than ever, being recognized as an expert in your field is the key to job and career security. Stand Out shows readers how they can find, develop, and spread their ideas so that clients and employers want to work with them, specifically - not just the lowest-priced option.

PS: Your focus is exclusively on successful people. Are you concerned about survivorship bias?

DC: Not really. The goal of Stand Out wasn't to create a scientific method of how individuals come to prominence, laying out and then testing a hypothesis. Instead, it's a qualitative analysis, interviewing and analyzing the experience of successful people, and crafting a (hopefully compelling and inspirational) narrative so that others can see how they might do something similar. As a former journalist, my goal was to uncover hidden, true stories that deserve to be told, and that can help other people.

PS: You mention the importance of combining ideas and disciplines in a unique way. Can you expound on that?

DC: If you're approaching a problem from within the confines of only one discipline, it can be hard to see truly innovative solutions; you're often limited by the established methodology. In Stand Out, I profile Eric Schadt, who became one of the leading scientists today by bringing his training as a mathematician and computer scientist to bear on biology, and fully leveraging the power of Big Data. It was hard for many biologists, who didn't have the same level of quantitative training, to embrace that, but Eric's diverse experiences showed him a new and valuable way of doing things.