Be consistent. Make a promise to your audience and uphold it. If you write a weekly blog, it should come out every week. Period. If you post a “quote of the day” on LinkedIn, it should come out every day. Period. Regardless of how you’re feeling.
As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Brian Miller.
Brian Miller is a former professional magician turned author, speaker, and consultant on human connection. He works with organizations who believe everyone deserves to feel heard, understood, and valued.
He also prepares thought leaders to be “TED-Ready” in his speaking program Conquer the Red Dot.
Brian’s TEDx talk “How to Magically Connect with Anyone” has been viewed 3.3 million times. He is the author of Three New People, which Publishers Weekly raved, “Brilliantly outlines a system for deepening relationships.”
And his podcast Beyond Networking features legends and leaders of industries like Seth Godin, Shama Hyder, and Julian Treasure.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Brian! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
As a child I had a debilitating social anxiety. I was terrible at making friends, and even worse at keeping the few I made. Book reports were impossible. I would faint and wake up in the nurses’ office before getting out a single word. It didn’t help my popularity.
Bullies found me an easy target. I had books knocked out of my hands, was routinely shoved into lockers, and beaten up at least a few times.
Behind-the-scenes I was obsessed with magic tricks. It was impossible not to be, given how much I was around it. My dad and grandfather were magic enthusiasts, who regularly took me to magic shows, and bought me tricks for holidays.
Despite my love of magic, social anxiety prevented me from sharing it with anyone. Until one day in 9th grade, sitting in the cafeteria, I found the courage to show the kids sitting near me a card trick I’d been working on. They freaked out, and I instantly became the “magic kid” in school.
My sudden popularity was both startling and liberating. Magic tricks became the venue through which I developed self-confidence and interpersonal skills. I learned how to be funny, engaging, and even captivating.
I began my career as a professional magician at just 16 years old. Eventually I graduated from backyard barbecues and local restaurants to performing nationally at corporate meetings, exclusive private events, and on college campuses.
Then, having been successful doing something unusual — magic — I started getting invited to speak. One of those invitations was a TEDx conference in Connecticut. That TEDx talk was called “How to Magically Connect with Anyone,” and it went super viral.
In it I spoke about a magician’s ability to connect with any audience through perspective-taking, despite the antagonistic relationship of magic, and how anyone can learn to implement the same techniques to improve their personal and professional relationships. It’s been viewed by over 3 million people, which still blows my mind.
Following the success of the TEDx talk I transitioned from magic into speaking, writing, and consulting on human connection. Most of my work is now as a high engagement keynote speaker and interactive workshop facilitator for organizations. I also help individuals build their thought leadership platform through landing and delivering a world class TEDx talk.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?
I don’t have a PhD. I’m not a researcher. I don’t have any “real” credentials. And yet, I am invited by organizations large and small all over the world to speak on the topic of human connection. I’ve been flown 36 hours from Connecticut to Australia to give a single 45-minute speech.
“I’m just a former magician,” is what I used to think. I suffered from crippling imposter syndrome at the beginning of my thought leadership career. Now I realize my perspectives and unique experiences related to my content area are my credentials.
Since building a thought leadership platform, one on which I support my family, I’ve made it my mission to help inspiring individuals in varied industries do the same. I often do this as a TEDx speaking coach, but not always. Sometimes I help aspiring thought leaders develop a podcast or clarify their personal branding.
It all starts by getting super clear on your message: who you help, what you help them with, and how their lives will change as a result.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Boy, do I have a story for you.
I was at a foreign airport having given two presentations the day before. It was 5:00 am and I was exhausted. But I had to get across the country for a presentation that evening, so I deliberately booked the first flight of the day.
That’s a frequent flyer pro-tip. It means the plane is already at the airport, reducing the risk of delays.
And yet, there was a mechanical problem that delayed us for 90 minutes. So, when we arrived at the next airport, instead of a leisurely 2-hour layover where I could eat breakfast and collect my thoughts, I only had 20 minutes to race to my next flight.
As I rushed down the crowded corridor, I noticed someone off in the distance. I thought, “That short bald guy kind of looks like Seth Godin.” You know, the father of modern marketing, a living legend, and my personal hero.
Then, as I got closer, I realized it really was Seth Godin. My sleep-deprived brain lacked social graces, so I blurted out, “Seth!”
Seth stopped in his tracks, turned his face into a smile, walked right up to me with his hand outstretched, and said, “What can I do for you, sir?”
The next 60 seconds were a blur. I remember thanking him for how profoundly his work impacted my life. Not wanting to be a burden I quickly wished him well and left for my plane.
When my first book Three New People debuted a few months later, Seth graciously blurbed the back cover. He later included it in his 2019 list of book recommendations.
And all because my plane was delayed.
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’ll keep this one short.
Just a few months after my TEDx talk went viral I was speaking at a community college to a group of incoming freshmen. I told the story of creating magic for a blind man, which is right out of the TEDx, as the client requested.
That story creates an “open loop,” a speaking technique in which you withhold the end of the story until later in the presentation, in order to invite curiosity and secure emotional investment.
When I eventually ended the speech, the audience applauded, but not as enthusiastically as I was used to. I quickly added, “I have time for a quick Q&A if anyone has a question?” And nearly the entire audience simultaneously asked, “How did the story with the blind man end??”
I had completely forgotten to close the loop.
I burst out laughing, apologized, and finished the story to a standing ovation. Whew.
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?
Wow! Great questions. Thought leadership has become a target of criticism, ridicule, and even parody in the last few years. And in many ways, rightfully so.
To me, a “Thought Leader” is a voracious public student of a niche content area. Let’s break that down.
‘Voracious’ because you are absolutely laser-focused, with an insatiable appetite for one particular concept or idea.
‘Public’ because you don’t study your chosen content area behind closed doors, like an academic. You study it right out in the open, on a blog or social media, in a newsletter, on podcasts, or via a YouTube channel.
And ‘student’ because you’re not an expert. You learn everything you can from a lay person’s point-of-view, which makes you an ideal candidate for transmitting that knowledge to general audiences.
A typical leader is someone you want to follow simply because you trust them. You’d follow them anywhere. Thoughts Leaders are trustworthy, of course, but we only follow them down a particular path of content. We follow Brené Brown when it comes to vulnerability and shame, but we have no reason to follow her on matters of, say, financial investing.
Influencers are quite different from Thought Leaders. Influencers inspire consumer behavior, while Thought Leaders inspire change and growth. In other words, influencers convince us to make external decisions like buying a new product, while Thought Leaders inspire internal change, like our attitudes, beliefs, and how we operate in the world.
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?
It’s only worthwhile to invest resources and energy into becoming a Thought Leader if you truly have a burning desire to affect internal change in the lives of strangers. And even then, it’s something other people call you, not something you get to decide for yourself. I would never put “Thought Leader” on my resumé or business card.
I fell into this field because I was out there ringing a bell until my arm fell off. As an evangelist of human connection, I found a way to speak or write about it at every possible opportunity. Eventually people came to see me as someone worth following on that topic.
It’s worthwhile if you believe in the content of your “Thought Leadership” with all of your heart and are willing to dedicate the rest of your life to inspiring change around it. The business always comes second.
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?
In-and-of-itself, “Thought Leader” is not a job, it’s a posture. It’s a way of being in the world. You don’t get paid to be a Thought Leader. You get paid to be a speaker or workshop facilitator. You get paid to be an emcee. You get paid to be a coach or a consultant. You get paid to be an author, a podcaster, or a YouTuber — if you know how to monetize it.
And here is where being a Thought Leader can be so lucrative. There are so many people who reach out to me, “I want to be a professional speaker. How do I get gigs?” And I ask them, “What do you speak about?” They say, “I’m not sure yet.” This is a bad approach.
There’s no shortage of people who know how to speak. What’s there’s a shortage of is people who know how to use their platform to inspire massive change on a personal, organizational, or even societal level.
To me, this is the difference between a public speaker, a professional speaker, and Thought Leader.
A public speaker has mastered the art of presenting from a platform. You can hire them to give a speech on any topic in the world, and they can deliver.
For example, a local charity is hosting a fundraiser and needs someone to deliver a keynote on the benefits of donating to that organization. They hire a local public speaker, give him all the information, facts, and bullet points. He writes a 10-minute speech and delivers. People enjoy it, donate, and then forget all about him. He makes 500 dollars.
A professional speaker possesses the presentation skills of a public speaker but also contains specialized knowledge of a particular content area. For example, a former top performing sales rep is now invited to speak at sales conferences about best practices. She is engaging and thorough. The audience learns a lot, applauds, and then forgets all about her. She makes 1000 dollars – 2500 dollars.
Thought Leaders are sometimes masterful presenters, but not always. Their presentations are rarely textbook examples. They often make the kind of speaking “mistakes” your local Toastmasters group would cringe at.
And yet, the audience is on pins and needles. They learn, but more importantly, they are filled with passion and inspired to create a massive change. They are overcome with emotion and give a standing ovation. As they leave the room there are countless debates about the ideas they just heard. Whether they agree or disagree doesn’t matter — the conversation has begun. They return to their organizations, teams, and communities with new ideas and a deep passion to make things better.
The Thought Leader makes 7,500 dollars – 20,000 dollars for the speech. Plus, the audience buys hundreds of copies of their book, possibly enroll in their course, and the client often invites them back for a follow-up workshop or consulting contract worth tens of thousands more.
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.
First, clearly define your content area, who you serve, and how what you do helps them. It’s impossible for anybody to see you as a leader if they don’t understand why they should follow you.
I fell into my content area of human connection. But once I decided to build a Thought Leadership platform, I had to get even more specific than that. “As a human connection specialist I help organizations build environments where everyone feels heard, understood, and valued in order to produce highly effective teams, retain top talent, and attract better clients and customers.”
Second, Thought Leaders must have thoughts. I know that sounds obvious, but it’s the only reason anybody will see you in that light. Start a practice of regularly noticing new things related to your content area.
My phone’s notes app is full of random notes, akin to a stand-up comedian scribbling on a napkin. Any time I read a story, watch a movie, or hear a conversation that makes me think about human connection in any capacity, I write it down.
I once read a story about a Matisse piece of art that had accidentally hung upside down in The Museum of Modern Art for over 100 days before anyone noticed. It made me think about how seeing something from a different perspective inspires connection. I jotted down that note. It eventually became a blog post, which was so well received I worked it into a speaking engagement, and now it’s the story that I use to open every single workshop I deliver.
Third, write those things down. Not privately, but publicly. Start a weekly blog, or YouTube channel, or Podcast, or LinkedIn series where you openly and passionately discuss ideas related to your content area.
The reason the Matisse story turned into something wasn’t because I put a note in my phone, but because I publicly released it on my blog. By shipping our work and allowing the world to react to it, we gain valuable insight.
My biggest career regret is not having a platform built before my TEDx talk went viral. I wasn’t expecting anything or planning on going into thought leadership. When 3 million people were moved by my big idea, they had nowhere to connect with me. I didn’t have a blog, newsletter, YouTube channel, or even an active LinkedIn account. They had no way to go on that journey with me. Don’t make the same mistake.
Fourth, be consistent. Make a promise to your audience and uphold it. If you write a weekly blog, it should come out every week. Period. If you post a “quote of the day” on LinkedIn, it should come out every day. Period. Regardless of how you’re feeling.
I’ll simply quote my hero and mentor Seth Godin here, “Saturday Night Live doesn’t go live because they’re ready. It goes live because it’s Saturday Night.” Make a promise. Fulfill that promise. Rinse and repeat.
And finally, ignore what everyone else in your content area is doing. I know some folks will disagree with this, but Thought Leaders don’t just need thoughts; we need original thoughts. Novel thoughts.
Of course, there’s nothing new under the sun. Plenty of people smarter than me with degrees and qualifications far beyond my own have spoken about human connection. But my clients, my audience, don’t come to me for degrees or qualifications. They come to me for a unique perspective built on my experiences, and how I relate those experiences to them.
I was once speaking at an international, invitation-only conference for oncologists in Barcelona. The conference theme was “patient experience,” which is what I was doing there as a human connection specialist. There were three keynote speakers: Two world class oncologists with groundbreaking research in the field, and me. After I kicked off the entire conference, the second keynoter took the stage, with his doctoral degrees and 50 years of experience in the field, and said to the audience, “Now how am I supposed to follow that?”
My presentation was the highest rated of that conference. Not in spite of my outsiders’ perspective, but because of it.
It’s difficult to be original when you’re paying attention to what others and saying and writing about the same topic. Tune out the noise and focus on what you, you specifically, bring to the table.
In your opinion, who is an example of someone who 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.
Heather Monahan comes to mind immediately. She was fired from her job in corporate America after having been one of the few women to ever crack the C-Suite and winning a prestigious industry award. Instead of crumbling, she turned her story into a thought leadership platform about confidence. She has so successfully nailed her niche than when somebody says the word “confidence,” Heather is the first person who springs to mind.
Heather is a great example of “ringing that bell until your arm falls off.” I sometimes accidentally confuse my audience by veering off into areas outside of human connection that I find fascinating. While it’s fun for me, it’s distracting to my career in thought leadership. I admire Heather’s laser-focus.
I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?
I agree, wholeheartedly. The term itself makes me cringe. Again, it’s something others say about you, not something you can say about yourself. Thought Leaders are evident by the work they do and the impact they have. If you aspire to be a Thought Leader, I would avoid that term in your marketing and social media bios. You won’t find that term anywhere on my website or LinkedIn profile, that’s for sure. What you will find is years and years of consistent and evolving thoughts, ideas, and stories about human connection.
What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?
The same advice I’d given anyone about burnout. Everything in life is about balance. I don’t agree with the Gary Vaynerchuck inspired #hustle culture. Yes, you should work hard. Yes, you should seek to create change. But you need to put your oxygen mask on before helping others. Take care of yourself first, whatever that means, or you’ll never have the emotional bandwidth to create the change you seek to make.
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. 🙂
Every interaction is meaningful. Every person you meet is important.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Leap, and the net will appear.” I’ve never been able to trace the origin of this phrase, but it’s been my guiding philosophy since college. My take on the phrase is start first, learn later. Whenever I’m convinced something is worth pursuing, I go all-in. This leads to a lot of failures, for sure. But what we know is the person who succeeds only 1 out of 100 times is infinitely more successful than someone who succeeds 0 out of 0 times.
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. 🙂
Steve Martin was my hero and inspiration as a comedy magician. He is equally inspiring as a writer and philosopher. His book Born Standing Up is one of my most recommended.
How can our readers follow you online?
Thank you so much for your insights. This was very insightful and meaningful.