Community//

“5 Things You Should Do To Become a Thought Leader In Your Industry” With Dr. Jenny Grant Rankin

Share a single, clear message:Many people think Malala Yousafzai, the youngest Nobel Prize winner in history, became the face of every girl’s right to an education because she was shot in the face by the Taliban for daring to attend school as a girl. But Yousafzai was already an adept promoter of this message before […]


Share a single, clear message:Many people think Malala Yousafzai, the youngest Nobel Prize winner in history, became the face of every girl’s right to an education because she was shot in the face by the Taliban for daring to attend school as a girl. But Yousafzai was already an adept promoter of this message before she was shot. For example, she already had her own column blogging for the BBC at age 11, four years before she was shot, and she had already won a national peace prize and Desmond Tutu had nominated her for the International Children’s Peace Prize. In all her endeavors, Malala propelled the same message: that every child has the right to an education, regardless of gender or anything else. Making a clear, singular message shine in your communications prevents your key point from being lost, helps you to be known as the authority on that subject, and helps people accept your message. This is why James Carville’s campaign advice is often credited as having won Bill Clinton the 1992 election: “If you say three things, you don’t say anything.” In other words, you can’t — under any circumstances — allow your single, main point to get lost. Once you are an established thought leader it will be easier to speak on a multitude of issues, if you desire, because by then you won’t have to worry about maximizing every chance to be remembered.


As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jenny Grant Rankin, Ph.D. Dr. Rankin is a thought leader in academia and the fields it influences. She developed standards for the best ways to visualize data, identified the best ways to share knowledge so it will drive change, and teaches others to be thought leaders. She has written 10 books, delivered 200 keynotes and speeches, written over 130 papers and articles (some for her column in Psychology Today), and been a regular fixture in the media. The American flag was flown over the U.S. Capitol Building (White House) in honor of Dr. Rankin and contributions. Visit www.JennyRankin.com; follow @JennyGRankin on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.


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?

My interests have always been diverse. My undergraduate degree is a B.A. in Art Studio, and my career began as a junior high school English teacher, all while teaching fitness classes on the side …not your typical path to being a researcher. But that is where my fascination with the best ways to share data and information began. I was obsessed with using data to help my students, and with finding the best ways to make new information accessible, engaging, and memorable for students and colleagues. My background in art actually complimented this journey, as art involves finding the best ways to convey a particular message, and after so many years teaching (then to teenagers and gym goers, and now to adults) I love using my time with an audience to leave a lasting impression and drive change. As anyone who began as an English teacher should, I love writing, so imparting knowledge through books and articles is a favorite part of my days. Driving ideas through a combination of speaking and writing is a huge asset for a thought leader, as books and articles lead to more speaking gigs, and speaking gigs lead to more demand for my writing.

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?

My growth into a thought leader was driven by my passion for getting my research and ideas out into the world so they could have an impact and help others. Before I knew it, I had shared so extensively (https://jennyrankin.com/bio) that the very topic of how other academics could do this, too, became a new research area for me. After all, if great ideas are only shared with a handful of people, or are shared in dull ways no one will remember, then those ideas cannot reach their fullest potential to impact our world. Now I teach others (usually researchers, educators, and business leaders, but also mainstream audiences) how to get their discoveries and thoughts out into the world, too. For example, the class I have taught at University of Cambridge helps scientists share their research with diverse audiences, and the class I teach each year for the American Educational Research Association (AERA) helps educators and education researchers share their knowledge in ways that can improve schools and thus help kids. My 10th and 11th books address thought leadership extensively for academics, though the tips apply to anyone’s role or field: Increasing the Impact of Your Research: A Practical Guide to Share your Findings and Widen your Reach (to be released early 2020) and Sharing Your Education Expertise with the World: Make Research Resonate and Widen Your Impact (2019).

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

Stories of my ever-changing surroundings are intriguing, particularly when contrasted against one another. My first time teaching at University of Cambridge, they put me up in Jesus College where I got to reside in the entire tower of what used to be a 12h century nunnery; it was sublime. Whereas when training teachers and delivering keynotes in the Democratic Republic of Congo (named “rape capitol of the world” at the time, and based in the town where 15 United Nations workers were massacred weeks after I left) there was a bit of a walk between my hotel and were I spoke; the local ladies wore very classy and beautiful dresses, yet I would from race from site to site in my pants and cross-trainer shoes to stay safe (albeit unfashionable). When speaking on a panel of Mensan researchers and writers at International Comic-Con in San Diego, I asked ahead of time about what to wear and felt sheepish wearing jeans instead of a suit, until I found myself surrounded by folks in cosplay (such as a middle aged man dressed as Harry Potter or a woman dressed as Thor) not just at the convention, but in the streets, on the trolley, and back at the hotel. Every new job seems to hold its own surprises, and I delight in discovering what they will be.

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?

My first major speech was a TED Talk that began as a TEDxTalk before landing on the TED website for a few years. In order to have fun ways to introduce us, TEDxTUM organizers privately asked each speaker ahead of time to list our surprising, quirky talents. Thinking I’d never have to perform them, I answered honestly that I can touch my elbows together behind my back and can list all 50 U.S. states in alphabetical order within 16 seconds or less. As I was introduced onto the stage, the MC shared the details about my double-jointed arms. The crowd expectantly waited for me to perform my elbow trick, so I quickly did from the sidelines. There was no real harm done to my researcher-to-take-seriously image …yet. But when I took the stage there was an issue with the slides loading, and the technicians needed a minute to fix things. During the awkward pause, the MC and audience indicated I should do my trick listing the states. I couldn’t turn down the crowd, so I quickly launched into my 16-second alphabetical list of states, ending with a laugh. I went on to deliver my Talk, which (thankfully recorded separately) eventually landed on the TED website. After a few years, however, it was retired from the TED site but is still available on YouTube. The problem is that when people search for my Talk online, they often instead encounter a video of me rattling off our 50 states like an auctioneer who somehow stumbled onto a TED stage, complete with giggles before and after. If I’m ever asked to name my party tricks again, I’d better learn to perform something more on brand.

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?

A thought leader is a well-known “go to” expert in his/her field who has influence over people’s views and thus the field’s direction. Thought leaders have a highly credible reputation usually built on impressive experience, knowledge (such as through research, whether formal or informal), accomplishments, and/or groundbreaking ideas.

A typical leader can lead a group in an endeavor, like growing a company or tackling a task as a team. A thought leader, however, influences the way people actually think or feel about an issue. As his/her influence spreads, a thought leader ends up impacting an entire field or area so that collective thought moves in a new direction. An influencer can cause shifts, too, but they aren’t always the influencer’s own ideas (such as when a company pays a Kardashian to tweet about a product), and they are usually isolated impressions (such as “wear your hair like this” or “check out this new band”) as opposed to the driving of an intellectually-embedded movement by a highly informed expert.

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?

Though some are driven by the spotlight, for me the value of thought leadership lies in your ideas’ potential to help the world (whether that’s saving wildlife, or helping customers, or curing cancer, or any other worthwhile passion). You can never know what positive influence your sharing will have; for example, maybe you just love talking about bats, and someone uses your echolocation findings to improve deep-sea exploration or augment an astrophysics study.

When you see a connection between what you are sharing and world impact, then sharing becomes addictive. As you share more, that means greater impact. As you share more memorably, that means greater impact. The high I get from driving that kind of impact makes me sorry for those who see no lasting purpose to their work. That legacy is my favorite part of being a thought leader, though there are additional perks. You get to meet fascinating people, and your conversations are chances to learn and fuel new insights. You get to travel, which I love. You also get to write as much as you want and speak as much as you want, so if you’re chatty on paper and in person like me you’ll be in your element.

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?

Thought leadership is a massive asset to growing a business. For example, my husband Lane Rankin and I used to be the sole owners of Illuminate Education, an edtech data systems company: he was chief executive officer (CERO) and I was chief education and research officer (CERO). I was already known for my research studies on the best ways to display data. We applied my knowledge to improve the product, of course, but the fact that I was known for improved data reporting meant customers (current and potential) associated this knowledge with our product. In other words, my thought leadership improved our product but it also elevated our company’s reputation. In the case of my husband, he is known for treating employees as owners (he not only took care of employees’ families with medical, counseling, fitness, and more, but he gave employees 50% of all the profits that were otherwise slated for our owner pockets) and is passionate about how any company can help their staff in this way. Thus he didn’t just practice his belief (e.g., our company was rated #2 on Glassdoor’s “Best Places to Work”); he also shared his message in interviews, on conferences stages, and more. Our company benefitted from the wealth of candidates eager to work at a place that reflected his thought leadership. The more you are known for an impressive practice or body of wisdom, the more those qualities will be associated with your company, product, or service. That enhanced reputation will lead to a better business. It will render lucrative opportunities for your business, but also for you to share in even more ways as a thought leader.

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.

Speak to mainstream audiences, not just within your field:We know Jeff Bezos as the CEO of Amazon, but we know Bill Gates and Sheryl Sandberg as more: true thought leaders. The latter two are successful authorities in the tech industry like Bezos, but they do not stick exclusively to tech events. For example, both Bill and Sheryl have given TED Talks, and both are involved in causes (such as Bill and his wife Melinda eradicating malaria, and Sheryl encouraging women to “lean in”) beyond their respective fields. People judge others to be more credible (i.e., more expert) when they see them appear more times and in more places. This is especially true when such places are particularly varied, as audiences get the sense that you are everywhere and truly a public figure.

Share a single, clear message:Many people think Malala Yousafzai, the youngest Nobel Prize winner in history, became the face of every girl’s right to an education because she was shot in the face by the Taliban for daring to attend school as a girl. But Yousafzai was already an adept promoter of this message before she was shot. For example, she already had her own column blogging for the BBC at age 11, four years before she was shot, and she had already won a national peace prize and Desmond Tutu had nominated her for the International Children’s Peace Prize. In all her endeavors, Malala propelled the same message: that every child has the right to an education, regardless of gender or anything else. Making a clear, singular message shine in your communications prevents your key point from being lost, helps you to be known as the authority on that subject, and helps people accept your message. This is why James Carville’s campaign advice is often credited as having won Bill Clinton the 1992 election: “If you say three things, you don’t say anything.” In other words, you can’t — under any circumstances — allow your single, main point to get lost. Once you are an established thought leader it will be easier to speak on a multitude of issues, if you desire, because by then you won’t have to worry about maximizing every chance to be remembered.

Maintain a press/media webpage:Journalists look for these pages to find information they need, but they also look for these pages as an indication you are quote-worthy and used to working with the media. Seeing a list of previous press experience on a reporter-friendly press page will help assure them of this. Visit www.jennyrankin.com/press for an example. Add a link to your press page to your email signature and to your correspondence with journalists. Also make your media appearances obvious on that webpage. Once I landed on NPR and made it obvious on my press page, other soundbites and interview rolled in quickly: NBC News, HuffPost, O: The Oprah Magazine, Newsweek, Good Housekeeping, The Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, Reader’s Digest, The San Diego Union Tribune, The Orange County Register, and more. I believe none of my appearances in these outlets would have happened without my press page. If you have little or no media exposure to add to your press page, register with the free directory Public Insight Network (PIN), which is used extensively by TV stations and networks (like PBS), public radio (like NPR), news organizations (like The Washington Post), and universities to find experts to book on television, on radio, for articles, etc.

Maintain a strong social media presence:According to a Pew Research Center survey, 71% of Americans use social media to get news, connect with one another, and share information. Contrary to popular belief that Millennials dominate social sites, Generation X (ages 35–49) spends the most time on social media (nearly 7 hours per week), and the average time for all adults is over five hours per week spent on social media. An aspiring thought leader shunning social media would be like an aspiring celebrity shunning all video/streaming, television, and movie appearances; neither person would ever reach a significant level of influence. By joining dialogue on social networks and sharing links to relevant work, you can help shape the content and tone of field news. Your presence on Facebook (still a leader for older age groups), Instagram (the fastest growing social media tool for every age group), LinkedIn (crucial to establishing professional credibility), and Twitter (the most popular for journalists and researchers, and also a tool known for the kind of commentary in which thought leaders partake) is especially crucial. Consider how I landed the chance to lecture at University of Cambridge (an honor that leant me major credibility as a thought leader since it’s one of the world’s top universities): I saw a Twitter post about the position, and that post linked to the class’s Facebook page, where I found a link to the university’s application instructions. If you aren’t engaging in regular dialogue on social media, you are missing a vital chance to lead field dialogue and you are missing the many in-person opportunities to which social media will lead you.

Don’t be shy about your credentials:Women are especially prone to being humble to a detriment, as society tends to penalize women for being upfront, and some cultures deem touting accomplishments to be vulgar regardless of gender. But thought leadership is never bestowed on the timid, and more diversity is needed amongst thought leaders. If you don’t put your accomplishments where everyone can see them, you’ll never know how many people failed to invite you onto a panel or skipped asking you for a quote for an article …all because your credibility never caught their eye. Squeeze your biggest “wow factors” into your social media bios (visit https://twitter.com/JennyGRankin for an example), keep longer bios on seldom-visited profile pages up-to-date by including links there to your regularly-maintained online bio, include a summary at the start of any overly-long resume or CV so your most impressive accomplishments aren’t lost amid text, etc. If you would make a fantastic keynote speaker for an upcoming conference, skip the usual submission process and email event organizers directly (that’s how I’ll be giving the keynote for the California Educational Research Association this fall, and it’s how I ended up on that Comic-Con panel of Mensan scientists in San Diego this summer). Just by speaking up about what I can offer, I’m able to land far more chances to share my thoughts with the world, and so can you.

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.

Oprah. Just saying that single word brings up so many positive connotations in our minds. Oprah Winfrey has done a spectacular job as a thought leader championing a range of causes. In fact, her reputation is so impressive that she can speak on any issue and have influence, which is an unusual transcendence from the typical thought leader’s wheelhouse. Oprah embodies all of the factors that propel a thought leader: she is accomplished, has a huge knowledge base (enhanced by research skills she honed as a reporter), is personable, is honest (to the point of sharing very intimate details about her past), is passionate about having a positive impact on this world, is adept at both speaking and writing, and dreams big. The fact that Oprah overcame poverty, abuse, racist obstacles, and sexist obstacles to rise to such heights makes her accomplishments even more impressive.

One of the many lessons we can learn from Oprah is to lift others up. Some aspiring thought leaders make the mistake of only promoting their own ideas. However, if your passion lies in helping the world, you are eager to learn from others and promote their voices, too. Oprah is known for doing this (her interviews of others, her book club, her philanthropy, etc.). When we know a leader is going to give us the best information, regardless of ego, we are more likely to trust, respect, and embrace that person as a thought leader.

I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?

Language is about sharing common understanding over what words mean, so being used widely merely makes a term more understandable, accessible, and successful. Unless one’s goal is to use a term specifically because some people might be excluded from understanding it, as snobs do, then a well-used term is advantageous. I do, however, see the danger in using the term loosely (like, “My child read her poem to the class. She is a literary thought leader!”), as the term’s value lies in everyone understanding it to indicate a higher level of influence and expertise.

What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?

Coincidentally, one of my earlier research areas and books happens to be on burnout. While mindset and other emotional factors can be controlled to combat burnout, overwhelming workload is a huge culprit that often gets overlooked. Yet the more a thought leader shares (something requiring work), the greater his/her potential to influence. Since sharing should remain extensive, a thought leader’s workload must be tackled with efficiency strategies. I recommend that leaders embrace technology early so their sharing endeavors are as easy and time-freeing as possible. For example, I use TweetDeck and HootSuite to schedule social media posts and blast a single post to different social media simultaneously. And my speed on a laptop allows me to switch up killer slides in moments and cut/paste my way around a writing segment quickly. When I see brilliant people use slow, archaic methods and tools for their professional routines, I cringe to think of how oppressive their schedules must be just to push out a single paper or presentation. I thus encourage thought leaders to overcome any tech learning hump and leverage tools that will make their work easier. As demands on your time increase, prioritization is also key: simply compare the time investment to the impact, and turn down projects that won’t make the best use of your time.

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 want to inspire the humanizing of data through storytelling. Data has great potential to inform practices that improve the world, but it is usually shared in sterile ways rather than accompanied by the stories needed to get people to act on the data. For example, the Syrian Civil War left six million people internally displaced within Syria, and about five million refugees had fled Syria. But other countries weren’t accommodating all of them, and donations were majorly lacking. Politicians and the general public had this data, but people weren’t acting on the data. This is because viewing data engages the cerebral cortex, a part of the brain that is analytical but non-emotional, which makes one less likely to care or act. One day a tragic photo of a 3-year-old boy named Alan showed up online with a story: Alan’s lifeless body had washed ashore after his family took desperate measures to take an overcrowded, inflatable boat to safety. Alan had family in Canada eager to receive him, but a paperwork glitch denied him entry. Within 24 hours of this photo’s publication, donations for the refugees increased by 750%, Canada reconsidered its immigration paperwork, and countries stepped up to take in more refugees.

People are overwhelmed and unlikely to connect with data, whereas a personal story will move them. When people only knew the Syrian refugee data, they wouldn’t act. If people only knew Alan’s story but thought it was an isolated event, they wouldn’t have the direction to act. But it’s the data plus the story that are so powerful together. Data is important as evidence but must be humanized with story to get people to move.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I love a quote that is often (yet spuriously) attributed to Confucius: “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” I believe if you work hard and overcome obstacles (acknowledging some face more obstacles than others) to reach a point where your work involves your greatest passion, your work hours will be filled with joy and satisfaction. I’ve always followed this adage (as does any one-time art major and junior high school teacher), and it has benefited me immensely as I love “doing what I do” professionally. This attitude has also benefitted my work and thought leadership tremendously, as I approach my assignments with passion and am eager to squeeze in extra hours to further my work.

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. 🙂

Lunch with Malcolm Gladwell would be a dream. I adore his books and his ability to fuse research with story, and he exemplifies the concepts I teach on effective knowledge-sharing. His knack for finding fascinating angles on topics is something everyone can learn from and try to apply to their own sharing endeavors. I would love to swap insights with him!

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I am most active on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram but have additional social media listed at www.jennyrankin.com/press#social.

Thank you so much for your insights. This was very insightful and meaningful.

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