Some artists’ work is instantly recognisable: Andy Warhol’s prints, for example. Van Gogh’s swirling use of paint and line, whether painting sunflowers or a landscape. Picasso’s amazing way of painting faces. You could see a picture by any one of those artists and immediately know who it was by.
Why is this? It is certainly not because every picture by each of those artists is the same. Far from it. The subject matter is, on the face of it, diverse. But there is a thread of consistency running through each artist’s work, both in terms of technique and to a certain extent, in the subject matter. Over time, each one developed and refined their style, and if you look, you can see the development of their technique and their thinking in their work.
But the reason that their work is so immediately recognisable is the consistency and the repetition of elements of style in each picture, often throughout a lifetime of creating art.
The importance of repetition
Andy Warhol himself once said “Repetition adds up to reputation”. He understood that for an artist, repetition was vital. In the first place, it would enable the artist to develop and perfect a particular style. But secondly, and more commercially, it would mean that people who liked and bought one picture would probably be prepared to buy more. The artist could therefore build both a reputation and a clientele.
The same principle applies to thought leadership, and there are two aspects to this.
First, style is important. Thought leaders need to develop a voice and a style that makes them recognisable. When they comment on other people’s pieces, or when they write in a different arena, anyone who knows their writing should be able to recognise it. Just as you recognise the voice of a friend on the telephone, so your audience should recognise your writing as a thought leader.
But as well as the voice, your target audience should also recognise the ideas.
Andy Warhol’s ‘red thread’ was popular culture. All his prints echo some aspect of popular culture, whether film stars, food, or images. This thread ties together all his work, and makes it a coherent whole. This is true of almost all artists. It is what makes it possible to curate an exhibition of the work of either one artist or a group of artists: they have come together around an idea, a ‘red thread’ that runs through all their work.
This may be hard for thought leaders with lots of ideas. When you are fizzing with new ideas, it is hard to develop one fully, examining it from different angles and really thinking it through. It is difficult to hold a consistent view and speak with authority on it. But this depth of thinking and variety of perspectives essential to build authority and reputation: in other words, to build the brand as a thought leader.
Developing your voice as a thought leader
Consistency is not about saying the same thing over and over again. That will not add value for your audience, or lead to you being regarded as a thought leader.
Instead, it means developing your ideas over time, and showing their evolution in your writing. As you listen to and engage with your audience and other thought leaders, your ideas may change. You may see other perspectives that cause you to alter your views. That kind of change is not just acceptable, but actively good, especially if your original thinking was flawed. But it must show in a coherent way: your readers must be able to track those changes if you are not to appear as a ‘butterfly’, blown this way and that by others’ opinions.
This development of ideas can, and should, be both in breadth and in depth. In depth is important to demonstrate that you are actively thinking about topics, and able to do the necessary analysis to consider them more than just superficially. The breadth is important to show that you can think about more than one issue: that you can link ideas together, and create connections.
Breadth, however, must not become an excuse for ‘all over the place’. Your breadth of thinking must develop coherently from your original ideas, and must be linked back wherever possible. Making new connections between ideas is a great way to add value for your audience, especially if they are unusual connections.
The bottom line is that as a thought leader, you are building your brand, and brands are about a consistent and valuable experience, every time.