When we say “tempered” in relation to thought leadership, what do you think of?

It turns out that two of the primary definitions for tempered are in opposition to each other. According to Merriam Webster, one definition is qualified, lessened, or diluted by the mixture or influence of an additional ingredient while the other definition is treated so as to impart increased strength.

Too often thought leaders feel (or, more precisely, are made to feel) they have to follow the former. They make concessions or moderate their language to make their ideas more palatable to the broadest possible audience. But if you’re looking to disrupt thinking and processes, your ideas need to be presented in a way that has the greatest impact on the people who can help make that change—whether it’s 500, 50, or 5.

If you’re looking for partnerships, directly address shared pain points and potential synergies. If you’re looking for stakeholder support, address specific benefits your idea holds for them. If you’re looking for funding, use the language from venture capitalists that parallels your own. In essence, be authentic in your approach and true to your idea and voice by imagining that you are in the room with your target audience and explaining your idea to them and them alone.

Moving to the other definition of tempered, it refers to applying heat to build the strength and durability of a material. It may be something as fragile as glass or as tough as steel. But the idea is when you forge something under duress it doesn’t shatter irretrievably when it meets an obstacle. By properly preparing, then testing and adjusting your thought leadership content, you help ensure its sustainability.

Preparation is all about strategy; thinking through not only one idea but its possible variations and parallel tracks. Once you establish a foundation, you have a solid home base from which to develop your ideas and your brand. But what about testing?

In a previous role, my colleagues would always say they were looking for a “sparring partner” to review drafts of their work. Initially I thought it seemed like an oddly combative perspective on peer reviews. But I came to see it for what it was—an honest assessment of a project’s strengths and weaknesses in order to make it better.

Although I am generally an opponent of producing “content by committee,” it’s always helpful to have other points of view for consideration. As long as you don’t allow them undue influence. Correcting or clarifying based on feedback is one thing, adjusting to meet someone else’s expectations or sympathies lands you right back at tempering definition A.

It’s particularly critical in executive thought leadership to find that balance between seeking out the opinions of others and remembering that you’re establishing yourself as the authority. This is not about the corporate brand (at least, not directly). It’s about tempering your idea in a way that retains its power, maintains your enthusiasm to advocate for it, and helps it to stand not only the test of scrutiny, but the test of time.

So, how can you best temper your thought leadership efforts?

  1. Listen to people who aren’t onboard with your idea. By knowing their objections and questions you can refine your own thinking to address gaps or clarify areas where others may not understand your point of view. 
  2. Break down your idea into its simplest form. Think about it: A machine with multiple, complex moving parts has the potential to break down in multiple areas. Stick to a basic concept and provide an example or two that illustrate and build upon that concept rather than rolling out a multi-tiered theory. 
  3. Field-test your idea to gather feedback. Blog post, newsletter, article podcast, speaking engagement—the format is less important than reaching the audience you want to reach in the way that’s most convenient for them to consume your content and explore your idea.
  4. Recognize that each article published or interview completed is only the beginning. Thought leadership is not a one-and-done endeavor. Use all of the feedback you receive at each stage to shape your idea into what it needs to be in order to be understandable, engaging, and useful to the people who need to hear it most.

What happens if you develop a crack in your idea? Reheat it and keep testing. What happens if you encounter a break? Tempering creates the property of shattering into pellets when broken. Pellets. Not a sea of tiny, sharp-edged fragments. Pick up the pieces that are the strongest and use them as the base to build something even better or stronger.

The key thing to remember is that a challenge to your thought leadership initiative is an interruption; it doesn’t signal the end. The real strength in thought leadership is knowing what to hold onto no matter what, and when to let go of what is distracting or draining the strength of your idea and its potential long-term impact.

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