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3 Reasons Thought Leadership Dies



Is it possible to think too far out of the box? was a question our friends over the pond at Source for Consulting asked recently.

Source found that, rather than explore issues they’d never considered, 83% of executives surveyed said they read thought leadership on topics they were already thinking about, and preferred this to exploring issues they’d never considered.

83% of executives preferred #thought leadership on topics they're already thinking about Click To Tweet

Back in February 2014 we offered a case study on the UK’s Egremont Group, that had successfully enticed HR professionals to engage with their well-researched report on the Head Office of the Future. In this case, Egremont was looking at 2020: six years ahead.

So: how futuristic or out-of-the-box is “too far”?

The role of relevance

But are we asking the right question here? Surely it’s not the length of time involved, but relevance that’s important? Because in order to be immediately compelling, your content has to be about something your target audience isn’t just thinking about, but cares about already.

There are important lessons to be learned from psychology as to why people are concerned more with issues of “now” rather than “later.” (Like why few, if any, in the Pacific Northwest seem to be concerned about the predictions of a Really Big earthquake destroying a huge portion of that coast, as Kathryn Shulz reports in The New Yorker. And you think you’ve got problems?)

Psychology reveals why businesspeople are more concerned with issues of now than later. Click To Tweet

Let’s take a look at what this means.

The Future Is Bright

You may have seen a TV slot from the insurance company Prudential, in which people were asked to identify some of the significant things that had happened to them in the past five years. They were then to place a yellow magnet on a wall to denote good things like graduated college, ran a marathon, bought a house, and blue magnets for the bad, such as got divorced, was hospitalized, a loved one died.

The same people were then asked to predict what might happen to them in the next five years and take part in the same activity.

Guess what Prudential found?

Well, take a look:

Whereas the “past” wall ended up being evenly covered with yellow and blue magnets, the “future” wall was almost entirely covered in yellow. Which goes to show that human beings are predisposed to think much more optimistically about the future than we do about the past.

Which, presumably, is why we need insurance!

According to Daniel Gilbert’s wonderful book Stumbling on Happiness, it appears our expectations of the future tend to be “overly optimistic” and “unrealistic”; they’re also “not easily undone.”

Craig Badings made this point in a recent Leading Thought post he wrote, about confirmation bias:

(N)ot only do we hold onto our beliefs when presented with contradictory facts or evidence, but we become even more wedded to and extreme in our original belief.

We just don’t like being proven wrong! So, if you feel like you’re banging your head against a brick wall, trying to interest your target audience in the things you believe they should be thinking about, as opposed to the issues they are thinking about, consider how understanding the following three challenges might help you.

What You’re Really Facing

Hurdle #1: The Unconscious Mind:

First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you. ~ Nicholas Klein (not Gandhi, apparently)

As smart and sophisticated as we like to think we are, we should never forget that the main focus for the human brain is the survival of the human body. Which is why our minds (especially the unconscious part) will always glom on to those things that appear threatening in the moment.

If people are working under a new CEO who’s looking to see whose neck should be on the chopping block, don’t tell teams how they can shine in four years’ time – show them how you can help them look superb today.

Maybe there’s been a huge hike in this year’s sales targets? Then those under pressure don’t want to hear about next year, but how they can survive this quarter!

It isn’t that your powers of persuasion are failing you or that your insights aren’t amazing, when you offer thought leadership that’s ignored. It’s the fact that under extreme stress and pressure, people will be hypersensitive about surviving in the here and now; the future can take care of itself. Don't expect your target audience to care about topics they're not concerned with right now. Click To Tweet

Until, of course, the future becomes the now. Which is when, presumably, those monuments to visionaries are built.

Hurdle #2: A Preference for the Positive:

Foresight is a fragile talent that often leaves us squirming, straining to see what it would be like to have this, go there, or do that.Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness

You’d think this one would be a slam dunk, wouldn’t you, given the Prudential Magnets Experiment, in which we perceive the future to be so much brighter than the past or present?

But here’s what else is going on. When communicating future issues that your audience hasn’t even thought about, you might need to spend a lot of time on negatives, scaring them into seeing this as a concern foolish to ignore. On the other hand, problems your audience's already considered get you to straight to the happy place of solutions. Click To Tweet

You may have seen the results of one study of 2.6 billion social media shares that found on the professional networking site LinkedIn:

Articles that were couched in a positive tone were shared more often than articles with a neutral or negative position.

An additional problem when trying to get people to understand the benefits of attending to future problems, not just current ones, is that – as Daniel Gilbert’s research identifies, “we cannot easily estimate how we’ll feel when we get it.”

Again, we’d rather feel good today, thank you very much!

Hurdle #3: Social Conformity:

Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason why so few engage in it.~ Henry Ford

There’s a reason why the Bell Curve is shaped the way it is. Even in the U.S.—the #1 country by far for “individualism”—a herd mentality persists. After all, no one wants to be the human equivalent of the gazelle who leaves the security of the group and finds itself attacked and eaten.

I was recently sent a wonderful infographic that contains this section headed, How does your audience react to change?



If you’re lucky enough to share content and engage with like-minded Innovators and Visionaries, you’ll likely find that “far out” ideas will pique their interest. These are the people who can potentially advocate for you and influence others. (Once you get one advocate/influencer supporting your idea or sharing your insights, you’ll need to batten down the hatches not to be run over by the stampede. No one wants to be known as the person who passed on the next big thing!)

Don’t waste your time on the Skeptics (read Craig’s “bacon and backfiring” blog post), because of what we said earlier: most people don’t want to be proven wrong.

And with Pragmatics and Conservatives—representing the majority—you’ll inevitably hit a brick wall if you mistakenly imagine they’re thinking like Innovators and Visionaries.

You have to know how to speak to the 'middle majority' in a way that marries tomorrow’s solutions to today’s needs. Click To Tweet

So how do you overcome these three hurdles?

In an upcoming post, I’ll outline a case study in which the topic of Urban Renewal was brought to the attention of property practice & real estate areas of major law firms in Australia by Clayton Utz and KPMG. It’s a great example of how those three aforementioned psychological challenges can be overcome – with some forethought, of course.

Dr. Liz Alexander is an action-oriented thinker who helps individuals and organizations produce a steady stream of insightful, influential, impactful ideas to be shared as thought leading books, articles, blog posts, presentations and corporate initiatives. She is co-founder of Leading Thought and principal of Connect with her on LinkedIn and Twitter: @LeadThought and @DrLizAlexander. Download her speaker sheet and the brochure Establishing Your B2B Pipeline of Thought Leading Influencers

About Dr. Liz Alexander

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