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Thinking in public: how to create a new habit to fuel more effective communication

By the time you finish this article, you’ll have a reason to do something that you don’t often do – think in public.

Over the past two years, we’ve experienced a work revolution. Our expectations of how, where, and when we work have changed forever. Effective communication has become a critical skill for leaders more than ever before.

Unfortunately, while I’m sure you’ve done a decent job of internally communicating with your team, I’m willing to guess you’ve not spent much time sharing your thoughts with the rest of the world. And if I were to ask you why you’d probably tell me you haven’t got time.

While you’re not alone, you’re missing a massive opportunity.

Most business leaders never engage in any public thinking (which I’m using as shorthand for speaking at conferences or on podcasts, writing thought leadership pieces, posting on social media or in any other public forum). 

It’s easy to justify not doing something if you don’t have any positive data to demonstrate its value, so let me break it down for you – done right, it will improve your personal reputation and increase your company’s chances of acquiring the best talent, winning new business, and creating value for shareholders.

Reasons why you don’t do it

Although time is the most common reason for staying silent, it’s not the only one. 

Here are a few more you might recognise (although one or two may require you to be really honest with yourself):

  • “I don’t have the budget to work with a PR or content agency.”
  • “I’ve not got anything to say.”
  • “I’m afraid of sounding stupid.”
  • “I don’t believe it works.”
  • “That’s not my job.”

The good news is that it’s never too late to start. As I well know.

For the decade I ran my digital agency, I did almost everything to avoid putting myself and my opinions out there. I used all the excuses above at some point, but my main issue was a fear of being boring or saying something wrong. If you shoved me onto a stage and forced me to do it, I was fine, but the idea of making public thinking part of my business strategy was at best an indulgence and, at worst, a potential embarrassment.

Fortunately, I’ve got over myself and learned the power of sharing knowledge for my personal development and, more importantly, creating value for the businesses I work with.

Two years ago, I’d never produced any digital content and never spoken publicly about the future of work. Since then, I’ve published over 80 podcasts, produced 75 newsletters read by thousands globally, and now get paid to write articles and share my insights with audiences of industry leaders. After getting a book deal to write about my experience, I’ve created a repeatable process that fits comfortably within a busy working day.

Here’s how I dispelled each of those common excuses and why you should too.

Reasons why you should do it

Time

When people say they don’t have time to do something, what they mean is they have other priorities.

Your prerogative as a leader is to focus your time on the things that are more likely to support your team in achieving growth. There’s never enough time to do everything, so it’s a question of prioritisation. What will deliver the maximum value in the time available?

Public thinking requires you to refine the clarity of your value proposition and culture to potential customers, employees and other stakeholders in the future success of your business. What could be more important than that?

Not to mention the positive impact developing a reputation for clear thinking and communication has on your career.

As Warren Buffett once said:

“If you improve your communication skills, both written and verbal, I guarantee you that you will earn fifty per cent more money over your lifetime. If you can’t communicate, it’s like winking at a girl in the dark — nothing happens. You can have all the brainpower in the world, but you have to be able to transmit it. And the transmission is communication”

Budget

The value of public thinking is that it’s coming from your brain, not a team of external consultants.

None of which is to say you don’t benefit from working with someone to guide you, particularly as you get started. For example, I work with leaders of start-ups and scale-ups to help them develop their habits and confidence to create their own style and cadence. Like many positive behaviours, it takes dedication to build them up, but it becomes second nature with consistency.

Since you’re not the first person to want to focus on developing this powerful skill, you’ll find existing, proven methods that you can tailor to your time and subject matter.

Pushing yourself to think in public isn’t just good for winning new clients and persuading great people to join your company, I’ve found it’s helped me create a flywheel effect in my work/life. As I’ve become more open to new ideas and opportunities, I’ve experimented with how I use my time, the subjects I’m learning about, and the people I meet, leading to a consistent stream of breakthroughs.

Most noticeably, I’ve gone from being a terrible networker to building a diverse, growing community of collaborators and mentors.  

Effectiveness

The most common objection I hear from leaders is the limited reach of their content. Great!

When they start publishing online, almost everyone makes the same mistake – being too broad. Don’t focus on total numbers of views or clicks, but rather on how many of your specific target audience you meaningfully engage? That means being very clear about who you’re talking to and what’s important to them.

To build credibility and trust with clients, prospects and talent, concentrate on how you can help answer the questions that they care about in a way they’ll remember. 2019 research from Edelman and LinkedIn showed that thought leadership enhances a company’s brand by 89% and trust in the organisation by 87%, but avoid being generic.

As the talent market becomes more competitive, there’s a clear argument for investing more time and money in sharing your company’s values and point-of-view. Not least with younger people, who are now entering the workplace with different expectations and priorities. Instead of prioritising money, for example, 63% of Gen Z workers “feel it is very or extremely important to work for an employer that shares their values”. (EY)

Digital platforms allow you to engage individuals at scale, but those people want to hear genuine, well-considered thinking from a real human being. You!

Point-of-view

“But what right do I have to share my ideas? What do I know, and, anyway, hasn’t it all been said before?”

We’ve all been there. Imposter syndrome rears its ugly head in many areas of our work/lives, but not more so than public thinking. So, here’s the secret – concentrate on creating your expert niche. Don’t try to copy the ideas of others because people see through them.

Think about where your interests and knowledge intersect with the problems your constituency is interested in solving and use them to help tell a story that resonates.

  • Are you a sales leader who loves jazz music? What analogies can you draw between the challenges of building a sales team and how each band member plays their role in creating a new piece of music?
  • Are you a CEO who loves going for long walks in the country? How can you bring your perspective on the importance of nature and reflection into how you communicate your company culture?
  • Are you a financial director who loves a bit of pottery at the weekends? How does getting into flow by engaging all your senses help to unlock problems you struggle with all week?

Having been nominated for two Pulitzer Prizes and become known as one of the world’s leading experts on human performance, Steven Kotler knows a thing or two about public thinking. He recently shared this nugget with me:

“I always tell people, when you’re trying to present yourself and your ideas to the world, there are only three things you have: your history, your research and your style.”

One indisputable fact is that you’re the only person living your life. Draw on that experience to share your unique perspective on why you and your business are worth listening to.

Fear

Finally, the big one: “Will I look stupid if this isn’t ‘successful’?”

If we’re brutally honest with ourselves, this is the real reason most of us avoid public thinking. The easiest way to get over that fear is to reframe it. Flip it around. Consider how you’ll feel if you don’t achieve your potential because you didn’t give something a try? What have you really got to lose?

As the author, Daniel Pink, explained to me when we spoke on my podcast, people very often rue their failure to act boldly in their work and personal lives.

“We have a very good sense of what future you is going to regret. Future you is not going to regret buying a blue car over a grey car. The you of five years from now is not going to regret wearing a green sweater today or a blue sweater today. That’s just not going to be significant. 

What future you is going to regret, is not building a stable foundation for your life. Future you is going to regret not taking an appropriate risk. Future you is going to regret not doing the right thing and future you is going to regret not building connections with people you love. And that’s it.”

It turns out that failing to be bold is far riskier in the long run than failing to share your thoughts with the world.

How to get started

I’m not advocating that you drop all your important tasks to spend all day on LinkedIn and start spouting off about the first thing that comes into your head. Take some time to consider what you’re passionate about sharing with others. What is it about your business that you’d love to tell potential clients and prospects?

Then take these small first steps:

  • Be clear about who you’ll be talking to and what they’re interested in.
  • Decide on your niche – where do your skills and interest overlap to help you tell a story to your audience? Remember, it’s just a starting point, so don’t get too hung up on it.
  • Start collecting ideas whenever they come to you and jot them down in a notepad or a notetaking app on your phone.
  • Begin adding thoughtful comments to LinkedIn posts on topics relevant to your niche.
  • Experiment with sharing something significant that’s happened in your workday using different media – you may be more comfortable with audio or video than writing, for example.
  • Don’t be scared about offering an informed opinion.
  • Keep going even if there’s little engagement initially. It takes time.

The future of work will be increasingly personalised. Our ability to clearly communicate our expertise and perspective to the right people is critical. Start thinking in public today, and you’ll soon realise the benefits not just to your confidence to express ideas but to the success of your business.
I’d love to hear how you get on, so feel free to connect on LinkedIn.

Ollie’s book, Work/Life Flywheel: Harness the work revolution and reimagine your career without fear, will be published on 17th January 2023. You can pre-order your copy, HERE.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Picture of Ollie Henderson

Ollie Henderson

Ollie is our Subject Specialist on the Future of Work. He partners with our portfolio companies to reimagine how, when, and where we work. He's an experienced founder and CEO who has led multiple tech-enabled businesses through periods of rapid growth (as well as more challenging times). He enjoys drawing on that experience to advise companies on how to mitigate the risks of rapid technological advances and take advantage of the opportunities these present.
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