How to build a reputation as an expert

July 9, 2015, 5:34 PM UTC
public speaking
Keep your cool in front of a crowd.
Photograph by Martin Barraud — Caiaimage/Getty Images

Dear Annie: I’m working on an MBA in finance and, as part of a class project, I came up with a new way of valuing companies for IPOs or acquisitions, using a set of readily available data that bankers and investors don’t usually consider. I’ve tested my model on dozens of companies, both real and hypothetical, and it’s extremely accurate. A friend (and former Wall Street coworker) tells me this approach could make me very marketable in my field, but it isn’t helping my “personal brand” if no one knows about it. My question is, how do you get attention for an idea without just putting it out there where someone else could steal it? — Anonymous So Far

Dear ASF: It’s a classic innovator’s dilemma. “People often worry that a great idea will be stolen,” notes Dorie Clark, who teaches business administration at Duke University’s Fuqua B-school and wrote a new book that might interest you, Stand Out: How to Find Your Breakthrough Idea and Build a Following Around It. “But writing and speaking about it protects you from that.”

The most important thing, she explains, is to “start creating as much content as you can, so that the idea becomes identified with you and people recognize it as yours. Imagine the reaction if, for example, someone wrote a book about women’s empowerment in business called Lean In. That title and concept have become so identified with Sheryl Sandburg that no one would take an imitator seriously.”

You could write a book about your valuation technique, of course, but your best bet is probably to blog about it, both on your own site and as a guest contributor on other blogs that are likely to be read by people in your field. Don’t overlook LinkedIn, which Clark says is “fantastic for someone just starting out, because it allows you to add posts when you have time to write them. They get added to your profile, so that people see the posts at the point when they’re most interested in you — that is, when they’re already looking at your profile.”

At the same time, Clark recommends doing whatever you can to boost your visibility. “Take on a leadership role in a professional association, for example, or speak at a conference, or both,” she says. “Even if you’re anonymous now, people who matter have heard of the organization, or the event. It gives you credibility.”

In her book, Clark describes three stages for becoming known as an expert.

Enlist a small network of allies. “Even the best new idea might need a little tweaking or polishing,” notes Clark. “So it’s smart to form a kind of advisory committee of qualified people who can evaluate it and act as a sounding board.” Since you’re an MBA student, your finance professor might belong in this group. So might your Wall Street friend.

Build an audience. Beyond blogging, becoming known for an idea takes a strategic campaign to reach out to people in your field who, in turn, have connections that could help you spread the word. Use social media, including Facebook and Twitter, to start conversations with anyone you have reason to think will be interested in what you have to say.

“Listen carefully to the buzz in your community. What is your target audience reading? Where are they spending their time?” writes Clark. That’s where you want to be talking up your valuation method. Explaining why it’s useful and answering questions about it “creates a momentum that makes people want to come to you for more information,” Clark says.

Create a community. This stage, which Clark calls “an audience talking to each other,” comes only after you’ve reached a big enough crowd, and it takes time. “Often, becoming a ‘name’ in a given field looks like a spontaneous occurrence,” notes Clark. “But it usually takes years of work, so be a little patient with yourself.”

Clark’s book is packed with case studies of people, including marketing guru Seth Godin and TV chef Rachael Ray, who have become “names” this way. “The biggest mistake I’ve seen people make is to try to skip the first step and go straight to the second,” says Clark. “But it’s really essential to share your idea with a knowledgeable ‘kitchen cabinet,’ and listen to their suggestions, before reaching out to a wider audience.”

It goes without saying that these have to be people you can trust. “If you think your friends are going to steal your idea,” she says, “you have the wrong friends.” Good luck.

Talkback: If you’ve polished your own “personal brand” with a unique idea, what helped you become known for it? Leave a comment below.

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