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Thought Leadership – Thinking and Communicating by David Walter, First Take Ltd

David Walter

David Walter

When I worked at the BBC, there was a senior executive who was famously silent and uncommunicative. It was rumoured that when he applied for a yet more exalted position at the Corporation, a member of the interviewing board asked him how he planned to convey his ideas to his staff. “Osmosis”, he is said to have replied.

This is not an obvious prescription for success as a leader. Leaders need to have ideas, but they also need to be able to communicate them, not only to their staff but to the outside world. The better they are known as thinkers and communicators, the more they will enhance the reputation of the organisations which they lead.

It is certainly no good having great thoughts if you cannot articulate them. The internet is awash with unreadable blogs, turgid articles and impenetrable posts. Broadcasters’ books of contacts are peppered with black spots against the names of business leaders who may be able to deliver impressive profits but cannot hold an audience’s attention on radio or TV to save their lives. Many is the business breakfast where the guests desperately down a third cup of coffee to stay awake during a lacklustre or incomprehensible presentation.

Business leaders who not only have great thoughts but can also communicate them really stand out. The CBI has had a good run of Director Generals in Adair Turner, Digby Jones and Richard Lambert. Richard Branson has built his entire business on a personal brand which involves both coming up with original thoughts and articulating them in an idiosyncratic but effective way.

By contrast, at the height of the credit crunch when leading banks were under the cosh, their leaders conspicuously failed to put their heads above the parapet. Had they built up a firm reputation for thought leadership before the trouble started, they would have been far better equipped to ride the storm. Toyota was long regarded as a thought leader for its concentration on reliability and on involving its staff in decision making, but lost the plot in its headlong pursuit of becoming number one in the world. When it hit trouble over its recalls, it was no longer communicating effectively.

Good thought leadership depends on originality. Hard facts are always better than opinions. Time spent on compiling surveys and statistics will often result in giving real added value. Careful consideration also has to be given how great thoughts will be conveyed. Articles, blogs, breakfast briefings, lectures and seminars all have their place. I recently joined a Question Time panel for HSBC to which their business clients were asked to direct queries. My fellow panel members from the bank gave some really valuable insights into the state of the domestic and international economy which will undoubtedly have enhanced HSBC’s reputation with the audience.

One of the most effective ways to project thought leadership is on the airwaves. If an executive is known to be a compelling and comprehensible broadcaster, it will do wonders for their company’s reputation. The broadcast exposure which they are getting for free would cost a huge amount if bought as advertising time.

Success depends on being able to explain an issue in language that anyone can understand. Everybody uses a certain amount of private language at work. It is easy to forget that basic business shorthand like “Q3” or “PNL” may not be comprehensible to a general audience. It is far more effective to get an audience’s attention with a story or an example than with a statement of a general principle. Those of a scientific mind will be trained to discount anecdotal evidence but in a broadcast anecdotes can be very telling. Above all, it is vital to sound confident and enthusiastic. The tone of voice is more important than the actual words used.

Good thought leadership is about enhancing a reputation rather than about directly pitching for clients. So I shall forbear from mentioning that the media training workshops which I run for Academy Groups help members enormously in communicating not only on the airwaves but to clients and other stakeholders as well.

David Walter has extensive experience as a media, crisis and presentation trainer for businesses, public sector organisations and charities round the world. He was a long-serving programme presenter and correspondent for the BBC and ITN. He has interviewed every British Prime Minister since Harold Macmillan. He was educated at Oxford where he was President of the Oxford Union and at MIT in the USA where he was a Kennedy Scholar.Website: First Take UK
David is one of the wide variety of expert speakers available to Academy Groups and has already run workshops with several different Academy Groups and looks forward to working with others.

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