What volleyball tryouts can teach us about thought leadership

My oldest daughter recently started high school. Volleyball is one of her passions, and her new school has a well-regarded, competitive volleyball program—which presents both opportunities and challenges. As she navigated her way onto the team, I realized that a few of the lessons she learned also apply to thought leadership.

Lesson #1: Pause to assess the competition

In late summer, the school coaches run a three-week long volleyball camp where players prepare for tryouts, meet new friends, and enjoy the game. My kid strutted into camp, feeling good about her experience and her skills. But when she looked around, she saw formidable competition. “Mom, I’m good. But there were 50 girls in that gym and they’re all good.” Before that day, it hadn’t occurred to her that she might not make the team.

Similarly, some subject matter experts (SMEs) may, at times, fail to step back, look around, and see what others may have published on a certain topic. True thought leadership is distinctive. It provides value by moving the ball forward and covering new ground for readers. Those who want to create thought leadership must know what else is out there and what bar they need to clear to gain an audience’s attention.

Lesson #2: Know your audience

Once my daughter settled in at camp and the situation soaked in, she became anxious about what the future held. She knew she had to try out for a specific position and was worried that, at 5’7”, the coaches wouldn’t consider her for a spot as an outside hitter. Rather than flounder or guess, she asked the coaches what they were looking for. They assured her that her height wasn’t an issue and gave her advice on where she might be falling short. She spent the next three weeks stepping up her game and earned a spot on the team.

For SMEs to earn their audience’s attention, they need to know what their readers care about most. Often, as in my daughter’s case, it makes sense to ask. This doesn’t necessarily need to involve a full-blown survey; sometimes just a handful of client interviews can yield surprising insights to guide important publishing projects. Other times, practitioners who are in the trenches serving clients every day may already know what their readers’ main concerns are. In this case, the trick is taking some time to think it through and then framing the story in a way that speaks directly to those concerns.

Lesson #3: Be grateful and keep working hard

What I’m most proud of: my daughter is genuinely grateful to be a part of her team, and she continues to work hard every day. The root of this gratitude, I’d guess, is that she saw other solid athletes get cut. And she continues to work hard perhaps because she knows that every dive and bead of sweat is added to her portfolio for next year’s tryouts where once again she’ll have to battle—this time for a spot on the sophomore team.

In volleyball and thought leadership, success is rarely a signal to become complacent. One win—say a piece of content that’s performing well and generating lots of traffic—does not mean that you’ve done your job on a topic. Rather, it suggests that you should keep pushing, that your audience craves more.

One way thought leaders can win the battle for audience attention is to publish regularly on a topic, showcasing the breadth of their knowledge and helping stay on top of readers’ evolving set of concerns. A unified strategy and campaign-based approach to thought leadership, that is, continually working hard to shape, publish, and promote insights on a subject, can pay amazing dividends. If you’re an SME who someday wants to make varsity, thought leadership is not a one-and-done deal.

Alia Samhat

Alia is a partner at Leff. Her expertise is in creative strategy and content development. She spends her time working with writers, marketers, designers, video producers, analysts, and subject matter experts to produce meaningful work.

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