“The step-up from attendee to Keynote Speaker was significant in terms of the attraction of higher-level clients. I’m a people person. When I finished on stage, I enjoyed speaking with attendees and other event organizers. I arranged round table dinners at top restaurants and excursions at trendy venues with business people I resonated with. Invariably, we ended up getting to know each other in an informal setting before contracts were signed.”
As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Marie O’Riordan. Marie is PR evangelist the FinTech company, PFS. Since birth, she has defied assumptions about what is possible for a Neurodiverse person to achieve. With a life expectancy of 36, she recently turned 44. After qualifying as a Journalist 25 years ago, Marie recently completed a Journalism course at Cambridge where she vowed to spend the rest of her life storytelling.
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?
Everyone focuses on the headlines of my life. The national award-winning radio and TV child star who grew up to work with people featured on the front cover of Time magazine. What is less well known is that I have always felt different. A family member said it best a few years back. “You like to hide in the background, but you were born to stand out.” It didn’t help that people were commenting about the problem-solving baby girl. My mother worked for an encyclopedia company. It was the most natural thing in the world for me to memorize two complete sets, the telephone book, and the yellow pages. I wish I had known I had done something “wrong” in memorizing over 40 heavy books as a young child. Maybe then my life would have been a little easier? But I kept going. By 13, my local newsagent owner, Mrs. Breen, had difficulty sourcing enough new scientific periodicals for me to devour. My mother kept up her Reader’s Digest subscription, much to my delight. I spent a lot of time in libraries inhaling knowledge, I still do. These days it’s easier to get a daily stats fix with Google Assistant. I describe my memory as a rolodex. The older I get, the more efficient I become at filing the information in my head for rapid recall. It has been helpful to be able to tap into an internal resource in my career. For me, life is in the detail. Any story can spring from the smallest detail of a person’s life.
I missed milestones as a child. I had delayed physical development until I was 17. Before that, I was tiny for my age. I grew again at 21 to the height I am today. Luckily, I made up for these shortcomings with a heightened neural ability. In hindsight, it was frustrating not being able to do what other children were able to. To add insult to injury, it took me 5 years to learn how to ride a bicycle. Every day for 1,096 days, I fell off and injured myself. Everyone wanted me to abandon the daily torture, but I never gave up. A never say die attitude has remained with me my entire life. I don’t feel that anyone expected much from me. I have grown to enjoy being underestimated. I have always been awkward in my body, but I move at a fast pace and I have had one huge advantage in life. Other people’s brains aren’t wired like mine.
People always tell me they wish they could remember more. Imagine my predicament of not being able to forget. There are so few high-functioning female Savants in the world, I feel a responsibility towards the Neurodiverse community and those who live on the Autism Spectrum. But, I am a part of two minority communities. Pile on being gay on top of Neurodiverse. It can be a lot to take for some families. Mine has traveled a long way on this journey with me.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?
I never set out to be a poster child for gifted children. I spent much of my early life feeling embarrassed. But a funny thing happens when 17 universities around the world ask you to share your life and career experiences and then two invite you to be a part of Ph.D. dissertations. Suddenly, I was receiving several guest speaker requests and ended up doing multiple back-to-back world tours. At the height of the Thought Leadership adventure, I was flying the equivalent of around the world per month. For years, my life resembled the George Clooney movie Up in the Air. I got to speak on stages with audiences ranging from hundreds to thousands of people. Some days, I would speak and train all day. 12 hours later or more, people didn’t want to leave. Word quickly got out that I didn’t use prompts or notes. Eidetic (photographic) memory has its advantages.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Mother Teresa handed me 3 letters to mail to people in Ireland after I interviewed her in her home in India. I was flying back home the next day. I kept her letters in my passport in case anything happened to them. My luggage ended up going to Singapore for a week instead of Calcutta on the journey over. There was no way I was going to pack her letters in my suitcase! The letters were safely posted when I landed. She also handed me her business card which I still keep safe after 22 years.
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?
I went through a phase in the late 90’s and early noughties of bumping into singer, musician, and composer, Elvis Costello — literally. I was flying a lot between Ireland and Germany and this happened a few times while I was rushing around airports. It happened again at an event at the National Concert Hall in Dublin. I was rushing up the stairs during the interval. He was rushing down the stairs. When we collided again, we just laughed. I’m not sure if I learned a lesson as I still bump into people today. Space relations has never been a strong point. But, I did attempt to avoid accidental collisions at speed with the stars we were playing on loop on the radio in real life after that!
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?
Thought Leadership is an emotional experience. Thought Leaders know they have the power to move people. Unlike a leader or an influencer, a Thought Leader is completely comfortable in their vulnerability. Sharing their real self can cause a twinge of anxiety, but they know this is a necessary part of the process of connecting with a tribe of people. They instinctively know how to connect with people and relate to another person, instantly. Of all the keynotes I have delivered around the world, I will never forget a group of naval officers approaching me after I spoke at a UN-backed organization’s national conference. They said they had been moved to tears by the realness expressed and the vulnerability shown. Long before Dr. Brené Brown became friends with Oprah Winfrey or had her own Netflix show, she taught me that there can be no innovation without vulnerability. If there is one thing I can do better than most, it is being in the moment and vulnerable with people, whether individually or in a group scenario. Every day, I get to work with FinTech’s top Thought Leaders, Noel and Valerie Moran and Lee Britton. They have transformed Financial Technology for millions of people who will be able to enjoy a future cashless society. For me, the ability to move an audience to experience their emotional response is the essence of effective Thought Leadership.
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?
The doors it opened. The rooms you could walk into. The connections you made. This was especially true in the United States. At home, I’m just Marie. In the US, my name had emotion attached to it and the demands and travel schedule were immense. I was living in a constant state of jetlag, which is fine until you stop flying. Then it hits you like a ton of bricks. Companies were curious about what a Savant could see. Celebrities started to track the world tours and then wanted to meet. These days, FinTech is my rockstar. Thought Leadership made this possible.
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?
The step-up from attendee to Keynote Speaker was significant in terms of the attraction of higher-level clients. I’m a people person. When I finished on stage, I enjoyed speaking with attendees and other event organizers. I arranged round table dinners at top restaurants and excursions at trendy venues with business people I resonated with. Invariably, we ended up getting to know each other in an informal setting before contracts were signed.
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.
1. Think about your vision for the future of your industry. People always want to speak with people who can predict what’s going to happen next in their sector.
2. Start conversations with Journalists to be quoted in the media and be a guest on radio, TV, and podcasts.
3. Put thought into developing an online profile that works with your lifestyle. I am an introvert, so most of my online profiles are locked down to only those closest to me. But there is enough coverage online to last me a lifetime.
4. Nurture your Social Media profiles. I find Twitter and LinkedIn a tremendous business asset.
5. Be accessible and contactable. I always smile when people say they didn’t expect me to reply or pick up the phone! It never hurts to listen to what someone has to share.
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.
2019 is Valerie Moran’s year. As the richest black woman in the UK, I admire how down to earth she is. Valerie is the only black female on the rich list in the UK. She wants to change this by encouraging the next generation of empowered black female entrepreneurs. The company she runs with her husband Noel Moran is breaking the mold. PFS is FinTech’s most innovative, diverse and inclusive company. Everyone is embraced and encouraged here. The ethnic, LGBT and Neurodiverse communities and Women-In-Tech are welcomed and encouraged here. The industry can learn a lot from such a broadminded approach.
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 not feel that way. I have enjoyed positive experiences with both the use of and of using the term.
What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?
Somehow, I’ve managed to avoid the B word. I have become accustomed to operating and living my life at a certain speed. I don’t think the pace is going to slow down. So, I must keep my stress levels in check. I have an annual subscription for a meditation app on my phone which I enjoy using. I did a mindfulness course which helped me with the awareness of my breath. I have done several personal development courses over the years. My home is a sensory-friendly chill-out zone. I have a giant double parachute hammock for relaxation, mood walls and a soft flooring area for exercising. The irony is that after working for so many years on radio and TV, I have not owned a radio or TV for many years. The internet keeps me in the loop. I go to the cinema regularly as I find action movies very relaxing. My Fitbit counts my film viewing time as sleep 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 would like to see more Neurodiverse people working in FinTech. For years, I have battled against the “Google Search” of what people wrongly assume a Neurodiverse person is like. I never fit the stereotype, nor will I. We are so much more than a label. I am so much more than gay and Neurodiverse.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
It’s a line I learned in Germany many years ago. It has come in useful in my life and career. “Don’t panic — stay nervous.”
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. 🙂
I was obsessed with space as a child. I still am. I will never forget being in the same room as Neil Armstrong in 2003 and Buzz Aldrin in 2004. I cherish what Elon Musk wishes to achieve for the future of humanity at an interplanetary level at SpaceX.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Thank you so much for your insights. This was very insightful and meaningful.