Choose one social media platform to find an audience. My client was getting 2 million YouTube views on his weekly videos when he launched his book, which is no doubt part of why he sold so many copies so quickly.
As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Cindy Childress.
Dr. Cindy, The Expert’s Ghostwriter, guides trailblazers and entrepreneurs to write nonfiction books that make money and make an impact. Her company, Childress Business Communication, took bronze for Most Innovative Company of the Year for the Stevie Awards for Women in Business 2020, and her clients go on to win book awards, give TEDx Talks, and achieve bestseller status. She holds a Ph. D. in English with a creative dissertation from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and serves on the Advisory Board of Women Helping Women 2 Network.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
Yes! I have a Ph. D. in English with a creative dissertation and built a portfolio of published academic papers and conference presentations, so I know how to be that kind of a thought leader. Then, I left my career behind to follow my husband’s opportunity to live and work in Southeast Asia. We spent seven years in Malaysia and Indonesia, during which I had no employment.
When we returned to the U.S. and I had a seven-year work gap, I couldn’t even get an interview for any jobs in my field or related ones. I even took my education off, but nada. So, I reinvented myself and became a Certified Personal Trainer. The company that hired me as a trainer soon asked me to write technical and sales training manuals (which were as long as a book) for their staff, as well as doing sales training for the call center staff. I helped that team improve their phone conversions by 20%.
Those wins gave me the confidence to start my writing business in 2017. I quickly decided to work with authors for ghostwriting and editing books because I felt uniquely suited for very large word counts and already understood the publishing landscape. I further wanted to focus on self-published authors because that’s where there seemed to be the most need, and I would see people publish very poorly written and edited books because they thought you had to have a publisher to work with book professionals, and it’s just not true. At all.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?
As my moniker, Dr. Cindy, The Expert’s Ghostwriter, implies, I work with experts on their book projects. They’ve already got experience and expertise, examples and case studies, but what they lack is an authority platform to showcase this expertise in a way that makes them the go-to for their niche. Making the move from expert to thought leader is about sharing your genius ideas and finding the people who want to follow and learn from you. I cover this in the talk I gave at Western Kentucky University in 2019, “Becoming Pop Culture: Write Your Own Story.” I chart how specific thought leaders create “ecosystems,” to borrow a term from my friend and a brilliant podcaster, Jamie Palmer, of content in different forms and across multiple channels that all feedback to each other. A book or a series of books is usually at the epicenter of an authority platform, and helping people write the kind of book you can build an ecosystem around is my business.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
In 2019 I wanted to be more visible and not stuck in a local Houston bubble. So, I went to 12 networking events that required me to get on a plane. I went to professional conferences, masterminds and retreats, and even a writing workshop in Tuscany with Laura Belgray. Forcing myself to meet new people and say who I am and what I do and follow up made me much more polished and grew my network so that when I launched my first online courses in 2020, I had clients in the UK, Canada, Israel, and Turkey, plus the U.S. It felt nuts to spend all that money on airfare and hotels, but it paid off to get myself “known.”
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I first started my business, I Googled, “professional writer” and “technical writer” and found these huge agencies that offered 50 different kinds of writing, and I wanted to model my offers after that. It was insane for me to try and simultaneously be an expert in email copywriting, website copy, SEO blogging, elevator pitches, and books. Oh, and speeches.
It was exhausting to go back and forth between all the different forms, and it was also difficult to market myself.
Then, I took Marie Forleo’s B-School and evaluated the different offers I had and landed up specializing in helping authors. And over the years, I have further specialized into story-driven self-help books and memoirs. I learned that I could charge more and find clients more easily the more specifically niched I am.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define what a ‘Thought Leader’ is. How is a thought leader different than a typical leader? How is a thought leader different than an influencer?
I love this question. A Thought Leader is a go-to expert for a specific kind of information or inspiration. So, Donald Miller is a Thought Leader around branding. You can hardly talk about branding without reference brand stories, which brings to mind his Building a StoryBrand. It’s also difficult to discuss having a “why” or purpose without mentioning Simon Sinek. A serious conversation about vulnerability should reference Brené Brown. There’s an inspirational and accessible quality to their teaching, which makes it quite popular, but at their cores, thought leaders are widely regarded and known experts.
In contrast, a typical leader might be an author, but they’re known for a movement, not information or a framework. Politicians, nonprofit directors, religious leaders, social cause activists, etc. fall into this category, as do some business professionals and executives known for their leadership. What makes a person like Malala Yousafzai worth following isn’t her vast expertise, but it’s her passion and personal experience around education for women and girls in developing nations.
Then, we have influencers. While a thought leader should have a healthy following, as should a leader, influencers are marketers. Serena Williams is an expert tennis player, but as an influencer, she doesn’t just sell tennis-related things. She was the face of a line of OPI nail polish and has done ads for Chase bank. As a lifestyle brand, Oprah is another example. She has areas of expertise and leadership, and she has so much star quality that people just love her and will do or buy whatever she suggests.
Can you talk to our readers a bit about the benefits of becoming a thought leader. Why do you think it is worthwhile to invest resources and energy into this?
I would answer with this question I ask people in my 15-min consults, “What are your goals?” If you’re an expert, and your goal is to be known for your ideas and do speaking, teach workshops or retreats, create a course or membership site, or certify others in your method, then I don’t know else you could accomplish those aims without developing yourself as a thought leader through creating and sharing copious amounts of content on your signature idea.
What you get out of being a thought leader is charging premium rates if you even want to do 1–1 work, reaching more people and making a bigger impact with your ideas, and creating a list of raving fans who want to keep learning from you and growing with you.
If you don’t have an interest in showing up for your ideas and being the face of them, thought leadership might not be for you. This game is not about being a guru on a mountain; it’s about getting off the mountain and serving the people who want to learn from you.
Let’s talk about business opportunities specifically. Can you share a few examples of how thought leadership can help a business grow or create lucrative opportunities?
It’s really about a concept I mentioned earlier, the content ecosystem. Thought leadership is like sowing a seed, watering it, giving appropriate sunlight or shade, pruning it, weeding the area, etc. To grow lucrative opportunities, your content feeds your ecosystem. For instance, Gabby Bernstein wrote Spirit Junkie, and then you can take her “Spirit Junkie Masterclass.” There’s also a Spirit Junkie app and card deck. Another book of hers leads to a membership site. The more content she produces, the more supporting products and help she can build to sell around that content. She’s not creating a card deck outside the other book ecosystems; it wouldn’t make sense to do so. And she has product lines for all her books. It’s genius.
At a more basic level, I have a ghostwriting client who wanted to pivot her business from project management consulting to business coaching. So, we wrote a business book for her, and in speaking to promote her book, she gave away 30-min calls. On those calls, she sold her coaching, and soon she was able to walk away from project management and go solely into business coaching. We also created a paid, guided study with the book that has another upsell to a group coaching program. As she gets busier, at some point she may want to create a certification program to certify other business coaches in her signature framework. That’s something Donald Miller has done in certifying Guides in the StoryBrand method.
Ok. Now that we have that behind us, we’d love to hear your thoughts about how to eventually become a thought leader. Can you share 5 strategies that a person should implement to become known as a thought leader in their industry. Please tell us a story or example (ideally from your own experience) for each.
I’ll walk you through five things one of my most successful clients has done to be a thought leader.
1. Choose one social media platform to find an audience. My client was getting 2 million YouTube views on his weekly videos when he launched his book, which is no doubt part of why he sold so many copies so quickly.
2. Give interviews on your expert topic on podcasts and YouTube channels or be a guest blogger/ contributor. Here, you leverage other people’s audiences to build credibility and authority to grow your audience, which he did this in spades. If you don’t have contacts for those opportunities, you might want to blog or write articles you post on Medium.com to increase your likelihood of having your pitches accepted.
3. Build an email list. The goal of going on those interviews or having speaking engagements is to offer a free download of some kind in exchange for people’s email addresses and stay in touch with them via a regular newsletter you send whether you have something to sell or just want to talk about a movie you loved. Or hated.
4. Write a book. I am partial to this one since I’m a book writing expert, but even when you self-publish, there’s a huge difference between being and author or not when you’re establishing your author-ity. My client’s book was on the top 100 on BarnesandNoble.com for nine months, as well as an Amazon bestseller.
5. Create a signature talk. Ideally, this would come from the first 1–3 chapters of your book, as my client’s TEDx talk did. This talk should reference your book and make people want to read it to go deeper into the juicy topic.
The only thing I didn’t mention here is that really 1, 2, 4, and 5 are all vehicles of getting people to 3. And you want people on your list for the #6 item I would add, which is offered to tell the people who follow you. Ideally, a course, membership site, events, audio or video recordings, group programs, something like that.
For your content ecosystem, you can repurpose all of this writing. Your podcast interviews, captions, and articles should correspond to your chapter topics, just like your signature talk. As you create these other content pieces, you can be adding them to your manuscript. In becoming a thought leader, the more you write and speak and put those ideas out there in the world, the more you have to say and deeper your expert status becomes.
In your opinion, who is an example of someone who has that has done a fantastic job as a thought leader? Which specific things have impressed you about that person? What lessons can we learn from this person’s approach.
Mel Robbins stands out to me, in addition to the other people I’ve already mentioned. She has an amazing TED talk and book around her idea of the 5-Second Rule. And the fascinating thing is I had heard of counting down to do something before I heard her talk, but she goes so deeply into this idea that it becomes hers, like people were discussing purpose long before Simon Sinek coined “why.” Her idea isn’t earthshattering. She didn’t cure cancer. What she did is come up with a system that works and is easy to remember and then told emotional stories around it to really build emotional connection with readers. And she has a product suite or content ecosystem around this and her other books, like Gabby.
I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?
I do try to avoid this word in my copywriting because it’s not a term I hear people use to describe themselves or what they want. However, it is what a lot of experts want to be, and understanding what that universe looks like is important when you’re trying to enter it. I find that my clients are loath to call themselves “influencers,” either. Personally, I think both reluctances stems from fears of getting over yourself and putting yourself out there, fear of not being enough, of wanting too much. I think “leader” avoids these traps because that idea seems more noble.
What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?
Here’s some don’ts. Don’t try to everything straight out the gate. If video scares you, then write blogs. If writing intimidates you, start a podcast. Don’t expect yourself to be the next thought leader starting tomorrow. Most overnight successes are 10 years in the making. Treat your content like an experiment to see what will resonate. Don’t quit if you make a post and no one likes it. Don’t quit if someone makes a critical reply to your idea. And don’t wait until you feel ready. That might never happen.
And the do’s. Chose your channel for content and create it consistently like clockwork. Write about yourself and not just the good stuff, but your struggles and what’s tough for you. That’s how you’ll build the know-like-trust factor. Do find peripheral topics so you’re not always harping on the one same thing, which can get you bored, but also remember people aren’t memorizing your every word, so repeating your ideas might be just what they need. I just recycled a September IG post in Dec. And no one called the social media police. No one noticed. Get over yourself. No one is watching you as close as you are.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I have a complex idea around this. I think if all people respected the emotions and rights of animals, attaining that level of empathy and concern for others’ wellbeing would also make most social ills better. I’m a rescue mom and foster dogs and cats. The person I have to be to nurse a sick kitten to health is the very best part of me and makes me show up with kindness and concern for people and the environment, too.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Marie Forleo often says, “Progress, Not Perfection,” and that really resonates with me. In my business, if I waited to make an offer or publish a caption until it was perfect, I’d probably never do it. Thinking of content creation in stages, that right now it’s as good as I can make it, and I’ll keep improving it as I go has allowed me to be innovative and take creative risks. When I first launched my online course, Crank Out Your Book in 8 Weeks, I didn’t have time to learn a new platform to build it on, so I put it on a password-protected page on my Squarespace website. If I thought being a course creator meant working with a VA and graphic designer and copywriter then I probably still wouldn’t have a course. We always want to shoot for an ideal, but don’t let that get in the way of executing an idea.
We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Elizabeth Gilbert! Big Magic (2016) was a huge influence to give me the courage to help writers get their stories out and not get stuck in my own self-doubt, which could accidentally hold them back. In addition to all the processes, tools, and measurable aspects of writing, there’s also a magic running in the background, and we can work with it for better results. I’d love to share my story with her and chat about her thoughts on my writing processes and what else I can be doing to help authors shine brightly.
How can our readers follow you online?
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Thank you so much for your insights. This was very insightful and meaningful.