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  • Writer's pictureNicole Peternel

Want to be a thought leader? Five things you need to do in order to be successful.

Updated: Feb 3, 2021

Whether a business owner or employee, we all have unique perspectives on our industry, the roles we have played within each organization and the road we have taken to get to where we’re at. Some of our successes are incredibly encouraging, or are accomplished only after heartbreak and devastation. While it’s important to recognize unique voices and celebrate different points of view, simply having an opinion or an interesting story does not automatically earn you the desired designation of “Thought Leader”. If you want to be an authority that others look to for insight, there are some important steps that need to be taken.

1. Know the difference: An influencer is not a thought leader.

Thought leaders are experts.

Influencers are testimonials, often paid, which makes them an advertisement. Their value is determined by their reach and audience, not their achievement. A thought leader is an authority in their niche. They have knowledge and experience which makes others take stock in what they have to say and cultivates followers who listen to their advice.

2. Earn your stripes

Many want to skip this necessary step instead of putting in the time it takes to truly become a master of your subject. This doesn’t mean you need a PhD. from an Ivy league school or a business that is making billions a year. It does, however, require you to possess wisdom and knowhow in order to lead others. There are a lot of people who self-appoint themselves as thought leaders, only to damage their credibility in the long run. Simply understanding your industry is not enough. Instead, being an expert means you have advanced knowledge and practice in your subject matter and have seen measurable results (often mixed with some failure) over time. Others should be able to implement your process, either alone or with your guidance, and find similar success. This doesn’t happen overnight. It often takes years of trial and error, reflection and reformulation before you are ready to bring forth true insight.

3. Develop a strategy

Like all good communications planning, in order to see a return that provides return on your efforts you need to begin by building a strategy. Some questions you may want to ask yourself are:

  • What is the goal?

This should align with your business objectives and impact. Speaking to hear yourself talk is fruitless. Why are you wanting to share information with them? What is the benefit?

  • Who am I trying to reach?

What audience needs to hear your message in order to reach your goal? How do I segment my audience so that my message is applicable to each group I have identified?

  • What is the best channel?

You aren’t going to connect with the same audience on LinkedIn as you are on TikTok. The way in which you reach them and the medium that is used is going to determine your success in disseminating the message.

  • What message will resonate?

Simply ask yourself: why should they care? Is it timely? Inspiring? Does it give them a roadmap? Does it make them money or gain visibility? Create your messaging with intention and align it to a storyline that is appealing to your audience.

4. Take the correct steps

While it’s a nice idea, jumping into keynote speaker invitations or expecting your phone to ring with media opportunities is not realistic, especially if you want to create increasing, sustainable credibility. Building reputation is a process and includes three major building blocks.


Start by creating content you can control yourself, like social media, blogs, newsletters and videos. Generating strategic, regular content can help you grow your network and increase awareness of your skills.


After you have the owned content on a correct path, you can then enter the realm of earned media. This includes pitching yourself for speaking engagements, appearing in print or on television and more. At this point, you begin to establish yourself as an intellectual in your field. Be sure to go through media or speaker training before talking to the media, as this will help you plan your messaging, prepare yourself mentally, create talking points and build rapport with the media and other decision makers.

Expert: the ultimate goal.

As public relations reps, we want the phone to be ringing with interview opportunities and quote requests for our clients. Invitations to present at conferences and events, sharing and retweeting of your content and being sought after to speak on panels is a good indicator that we are well on our way to being considered a thought leader. It might be time to begin writing that book or considering a rate increase!

5. Continue to learn and innovate

There are always going to be other perspectives to consider, changing technology and shift of wants and needs. Though you may feel at a certain point you have learned all you need to know, surrounding yourself with other experienced leaders, as well as those who bring a new perspective to your industry is crucial. Growing stale is not an option. We need to be examining new information, seeking diverse points of view and implementing new processes. Only then can we truly continue to create value for those who look to us for guidance.

Want to learn more about becoming a thought leader? Email us at for a consultation.

Nicole Peternel has nearly 20 years of PR and strategic communications experience. She has worked on both the corporate and agency side in cities like Minneapolis, Chicago and Charlotte, positioning global brands in every major industry. She’s represented well-known companies including the NFL, Kenmore, McDonald’s, Hewlett-Packard and Red Bull and has led them in areas like media relations, thought leadership, speaker training, media training and content strategy. Nicole has secured and prepared clients for speaking engagements and press interviews with outlets such as The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Forbes Magazine, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, People Magazine, MSNBC and FOX. She lives in Charlotte with her husband, two little boys and two dogs.


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