You can become a thought leader by intentionally writing on key issues.
I woke up in the New Year to find that I was one of hundred people listed by YourStory as an “Emerging Voice of India”. The top 100 Emerging Voices of 2019 includes entrepreneurs, investors, business leaders, activists, healthcare workers, journalists, authors, and bloggers from across India and the world, who have contributed high-quality, insightful and engaging content for Your Story readers. Your Story further states that, “among these experts, we have found that every year, there is always a crop of emerging thought leaders whose thoughts and opinions resonated with our readers and are worth watching out for.” They compiled the list by carefully selecting those that garnered the highest engagement from their readers, using measures such as the number of page views, time spent per user, likes, comments, and shares.
I am thrilled to be part of this list as I have made a conscious choice to write about issues that matter to me. However, this was not always the case. Just a decade ago, I was part of the aviation industry and was not allowed to speak on behalf of my company, official statements were only the purview of the company spokesperson. So I started a blog to capture my travels and experiences around the world called, “Elsa’s View of the World”. I believed that through my ramblings, I could introduce different experiences, cities and countries to my friends who were not so lucky to travel and through me they could experience the beautiful wide world.
Somewhere along the way, I attended a writing course and instead of making me confident, I actually lost my confidence in writing. I felt I was not good enough and my thoughts didn’t matter. I stopped writing completely.
In 2012, I cofounded Safecity, a platform to crowdmap sexual violence in public spaces. I suddenly found myself in a position where I was constantly asked to state my views on women’s rights, safety of women and my work at Safecity which was quite unique as a civic tech initiative.
Then in 2015, I was selected to join the Aspen New Voices Fellowship which aimed to highlight voices from the Global South and give them a platform to amplify their work and the issues they work on. During the one year fellowship, we were given capacity building workshops on op-ed writing and public speaking. We were also assigned a mentor who worked with us and helped place our pieces in various media outlets. Since then I have written over 150 op-eds, articles and blogs and given over 200 interviews. I have also spoken at over 150 international and national events.
Writing and speaking is an art that requires dedication and practise. Some of the following tips have helped me immensely.
1) Know the core issue that you are passionate about. It is important that you find your core. Once you do that, you can speak from a position of authority and link everything back to your core. For me, it is my work on gender and as a social entrepreneur. It has helped me link gender to rights, technology, urban planning, health, mental health, current affairs, violence and more. As a social entrepreneur, I can share my practical experiences with others knowing that my perspective is unique and valuable.
2) Make your writing timely. Use a hook to write a piece. The hook could be a special day like International Women’s Day or a current affairs topic like a rape being reported in the papers or a research report that has recently been published. Capitalise on the current conversation in the media so that you can weigh in with your opinion through a structured piece. When the Nobel prizes were announced last year, I was so upset about the way the Indian media had reported on Esther Duflo’s award relegating her to a “wife” and ignoring her professional accomplishment that I wrote a piece which went viral and was also used as a teaching tool.
3) Use every opportunity to write. I attend many international conferences and often speak at them. I try to capture my experiences and thoughts using these events as hooks. It not only allows me to help people understand my work and the relevance of being at these events but also gives me new audiences especially if I am able to contribute to the conference/event organisers’ blogs and newsletters. Post facilitating a session at the Deutsche Welle’s Global Media Forum, I wrote a blog capturing the event as well as my views.
4) Never turn down an opportunity to write. Over the years, I have a few outlets like SheThePeople, Your Story, World Pulse, Tarshi InPlainSpeak that regularly reach out, ask for my views and invite me to contribute an article. I have a fortnightly column for SheThePeople and am a regular contributor to Your Story and Tarshi. I work best with deadlines and I often need the encouragement in the form of an invite to submit an article. It also helps if you build a repository of outlets who will publish your pieces. Ultimately there is always medium.
5) Ask for feedback. If you can, get a writing coach who can help edit your pieces and also give you suggestions for improvement. Once you are confident, you can reduce the dependency. Thankfully, I have a mentor at Aspen New Voices. Holly Kearl is my friend and mentor and as a fellow gender activist I am truly lucky to have her look over my pieces. Last year, I found that I was able to confidently go ahead with several pieces without having her look at them.
6) Find your rhythm. I work best when I am working on two pieces together. Strange but true. Most of the time, I have two different pieces I am writing and it works for me. I also find that I can work best after mulling over the topic for a while. I usually look for hooks and think about the unique angle I want to bring to my piece. I then go for a walk and mentally think through the structure before writing my piece. Sometimes I go to bed and when I wake up, I immediately put pen to paper. Find what works best for you.
7) Have a marketing plan. I use social media to publicise my articles. I have an account on almost all platforms and make sure that I post the article on each of them with a quote. Further, if it is a current affairs topic, I always weigh in and add my article to the conversation thus drawing other people’s attention to it. If I participate in tweet chats or Facebook discussions, I reference my articles when making a point. This helps increase readership and makes the article relevant. Spreading it across different social media platforms also makes it accessible to different groups of people.
8) Do not get intimidated by trolls or negative comments. Once I made the mistake of reading the comments section to the article I co-authored with Esther Ngumbi for NPR. Most of the comments were negative and derogatory. I was very upset. But I posted the article on Linkedin as I usually do once the piece is published and the comments were extremely encouraging. People truly appreciated it. The incident taught me that you cannot please anyone. Be prepared for negative comments. Do not personalise them. For every negative comment, there is also a positive one.
9) Compile your writing for easy access. I have a website where I have listed all my writings. This helps me find the articles I have written easily. It also makes my work more searchable. Over a period of time you will be encouraged by your own writing when you are able to look at it as a full body of work.
10) Practise makes perfect. You have heard this over and over again. I cannot emphasise how important practise is. Like with anything when you start writing, you will be nervous and it will take many drafts before you are satisfied with the final piece. But soon you will be able to write fluently and hopefully you will also feature on an emerging voices list like I did.
I do hope you will find the above ten writing tips useful in helping you on your journey to becoming a thought leader. Use this New Year and the start of a new decade to make it a point to write regularly and with intention. Your opinion is important and you can become a thought leader with regular publications.