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Dealing With Fear in Thought Leadership

I just wrote a long piece about overcoming a couple of common barriers to writing for thought leadership. If you’re struggling with finding ideas to write about, or with getting into a publishing routine, I highly recommend checking it out! In that piece, I mentioned a barrier that I didn’t take time to help you with: You’re afraid to say what you really think.

First, a story

Several years ago, I decided that I needed to start speaking regularly at industry conferences to boost my stature in the disciplines where I work: Content strategy, information architecture, content marketing. I read a lot from others who were already speaking, and I learned that many conferences issue an open call for proposals. I started applying. I also started following people who spoke regularly, and I applied to a course offered by a fantastic speaker and leader in the user experience design field, Dan Willis.

Dan’s Cranky Talk course focused on people like me — people who hadn’t had a lot of experience speaking at industry conferences, but wanted to. In my case, I’d done a fair amount of speaking and presentations, but in smaller settings, or for different purposes. I wasn’t scared to give a presentation, per se, but there were a lot of insider secrets I didn’t know about speaking professionally in my industry.

One of the insider secrets I learned is that speakers are just like the rest of us: They have doubts and fears, too. They’re different for everyone, of course. Some speakers are terrified of being wrong, of saying something that’s incorrect. Some (many, I think) are actually scared of public speaking. Some are fine until there’s a tech failure and then they’re ready to melt right there on stage. (If you speak, you will have tech failures. I’ll do a post on my tips for preparing for those soon!) I could go on, but you get the idea. There are a million things to be afraid of in the world, and because speakers are human, it is simply a truth that they, too, are afraid of things, just like you are.

The only difference is that they get out there and do it anyway.

Overcoming Your Fear

Now, whether you want to speak or not (you totally should), the lesson holds for any kind of content you’re creating to share your thought leadership. You may have some fear related to this, but you should get out there and do it anyway.

I’ve mentioned before that my favorite way to tackle something that seems intimidating is to chunk it up into smaller pieces. Let’s get your fear out and chop that up into more manageable pieces, shall we?

Name Your Fear

You may be dealing with one or more of these issues:

You know I could go on — but you get the picture. If I don’t have your specific fear listed there, just go ahead and write it down. Yeah, right now, on a sheet of paper. Just like that.

Mitigate Your Risk

Once you can identify a fear like that, you can often come up with ways to mitigate the fear. Your organization has rules about what you say and write publicly? Fine. Learn them. Ask questions. Start writing. Write your commentary on industry issues if you can’t write about your own work. We can go down that list and come up with strategies to mitigate the risk of fear for each one.

What would make me feel foolish? When I’m writing, a typo definitely would. I’m helping people with their content, for goodness’ sake! Yet, I have published many, many typos in the course of my professional writing. One might end up in this post. I will surely publish many more. But I mitigate this risk: I proofread everything obsessively, I use a spelling and grammar checking program, I fix the ones I can, and I move on from the ones I can’t. And I have enough experience to know a typo won’t kill me.

What about just being wrong? That would make me feel foolish. I have met a few people who really don’t seem to be bothered by being wrong. I find them fascinating, but I’m not one of them. When you make your living helping other people make decisions, you don’t like the feeling of being wrong.

Here’s the thing: I’ve been wrong before, too. Sometimes, I’ve been wrong in public. And just like the typos, it’s going to happen again. But I can mitigate this risk, as well. I triple-check facts. I click links to make sure they work. I look for a second source. And I think about what’s happened when I’ve been wrong before. Sometimes, I’m embarrassed. Sometimes, there’s a problem that I have to fix. Sometimes, I need to apologize. Sometimes, it’s not even a split-second big deal and I just move on. Not once have I died from being wrong.

It’s Not About Right Or Wrong

But many times, when someone disagrees with me, I’m not wrong (and neither are they). I just see things a different way than they do. Sometimes, I’m the only one who sees it the way I do.

Let’s think about that scenario a little more. You might look foolish if you’re the only person who sees the situation the way you do.

What were we after again? Oh yeah, thought leadership. Can you be the leader if everyone else is standing beside you? Well, OK maybe. I’m not suggesting you have to be contrary or argumentative to provide leadership. But you do have to do at least one of two things: Provide a vision others can follow, or help others create a vision together. In both of those cases, you have to be willing to say the thing no one else will say. You have to be willing to ask the hard question. You have to push others to take off their blinders and consider another viewpoint. That’s what thought leadership is.

Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable

I’m not the first person to mention this to you, surely. But when you’re providing thought leadership for your industry, by definition, you are saying things other people aren’t saying. You are seeing things in a different or perhaps unpopular way. You will be uncomfortable. That’s what you’re signing up for.

Two things about that:

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