Over two decades of working with clients to develop thought leadership, speeches, books, brands, and thriving online communities, we’ve come up with a lot of ideas. And I’m often asked how we do it. My response is always, “We ask more questions in a day than your significant other will in a lifetime.” That’s an exaggeration. But the process is not mysterious. It is a matter of asking questions, listening, and then finding the stories and ideas in the answers. In particular, five questions seem to have helped most over the years. I offer them here to help you in your development of your own thought leadership, and idea generation.

1.What do I stand for, and who is my audience? The first half of this question seems harder and more cosmic than the latter half, so I often start with the latter. Imagine you had the single perfect audience member in front of you – who would that be? And then, what are the general demographics of your tribe – the people you want to address?

That doesn’t mean you won’t talk to all kinds of people – but understanding your core audience is key to knowing the outlines of your idea and your goals for that idea.

Once you clarify who your audience is, then figuring out what you might say to them comes next with surprising ease. OK, the job’s not done yet, but you have made a great start.

2.What really ticks me off? I often get clients to do a rant because those are so revealing of values and positions. So asking yourself what you hate is not about going dark or negative, but rather finding the outlines of the light that you’re seeking. Rants are liberating, too. In every sphere of modern life except the political we spend a good deal of time making nice, concealing our true feelings, and getting along with people we occasionally want to string up – so a rant is just healthy for the system.

3.What will the world look like if I’m able to change it? Projecting ahead and assuming success, you get to play in a world that’s at least partially your creation. It’s fun, and it’s liberating, too, to imagine a world cured of the ills you perceive and made better in the ways that matter to you. So get started describing that world.

4.What are three non-negotiable values I live by? What am I willing to compromise on? Understanding the difference between your must-haves and nice-to-haves is a key way of delineating your values and your ideas. These vary enormously from person to person and system to system, so getting clear on the essentials and the frills takes you a long way down the road to an idea.

5.What’s the problem my audience has for which my expertise or passion is the solution? This is the problem sand in the passion oyster – the issues that people turn to you for, time and time again. The point of pain that you can diagnose instantly and always see the way forward from. The breakdown, if you’re in an organization, that the rest of the team always calls on you for. Do they turn to you for people advice, systems issues, or procedural problems? Your expertise shows up naturally at certain moments and for certain needs. Focus on those, and you’ll know what the way forward is.

My passion is clarifying ideas – the currency of thought leadership. I hope these questions help push yours forward.

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