I often get asked by potential clients, audience members, and random virtual acquaintances if the idea they present to me as their candidate for a thought leadership program will sell. My reaction is almost always that that’s the wrong question.

If you want to develop a thought leadership platform, and a profitable speaking career to talk about that thought leadership, don’t try to choose the message you think will sell. Because even if it does sell, the money won’t sustain you. You need to be deeply passionate about the idea because you’re going to live with it for a very long time. And if you care about it that much, ultimately your passion will do the selling.

What is the right way to think about ideas for a thought leadership program? Begin by looking within. If you’re having trouble coming up with an idea that excites you, start with some self-reflection. What links do you always click on when you read the news, or those Facebook updates? What do you follow up on because of interest, not duty or a sense of obligation for your current job? What do you read and think about effortlessly, and endlessly – even obsessively – even on your time off?

We often ask clients to tell us their life stories when we first start working together. Usually the theme that matters in their life becomes clear pretty quickly.

If you’re exploring possibilities on your own, try writing a brief bio for yourself. For each stage of your life or each job, come up with one lesson you learned. Identify the reasons you moved from one job or place to the next. See if a theme starts to emerge.

If you’re struggling to choose between several different ideas, go with your passion. What gets you the most excited? What could you stay up all night talking about? What scares you the most? Remember, you’re going to devote a lot of time to this idea—you’re going to need to care about it.

So I say again, don’t try to choose the message you think will sell. If you care about it, your passion will do the selling.

If you’re still stuck, start brainstorming. Try answering these questions to start focusing your idea:

  1. If you could go back in time and tell your 18-year-old self one thing, what would it be?
  1. What’s one lesson you’ve learned in each phase of your life?
  1. If you were being given a lifetime achievement award, how would you want the person announcing it to sum up your work?
  1. Think about each time in your life you’ve changed jobs. Why did you leave the old job? What were you looking for in the new job?
  1. What’s one thing that almost everyone in your field is doing wrong?

Once you’ve got a specific, focused, narrowly cast idea, work on expressing it in a 12-second soundbite, a three-minute talk, and a 20-minute TED-style speech. You need to begin to get used to taking your idea and expressing clearly no matter how much time you’re given. And once you’re ready to express it clearly and compellingly in varying lengths of time, you’re ready to start thinking in terms of thought leadership. But that’s the subject of a future blog post.

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