If the success of TED Talks is any indication, people have a serious appetite for expert opinions. We revere thought leaders...their experience, their charisma, and their ability to predict what's coming on the road ahead.

What might come as a revelation is that even the most widely respected thought leaders weren't handed their titles by some top-secret organization--they're self made. Many of the big names you know started out as entrepreneurs with a passion for sharing information and insights about their respective industries.

They started talking--and people started listening.

If you feel ready to lead the conversation around your specific area of business, there's no better time than now to make your voice heard. By leveraging the array of free digital tools at your fingertips (e.g., LinkedIn, Twitter, Medium), you can begin establishing your thought-leader status.

In turn, this can help you to bolster your professional credibility, find new networking opportunities and business leads, and, potentially, shape the direction of your industry.

Follow these five steps to lay the groundwork for becoming your industry's next great thought leader.

Step 1: Become a Sponge

To drive where your industry is headed, you first need to understand exactly where it is right now. No matter how many years of experience you have, this is going to require more perspective than what you observe within your own circle.

Actively seek out as much information as possible about your field, whether it's through reading trade publications, attending networking events, taking certificate courses, listening to podcasts, reading blogs, or cold e-mailing professionals whose work you respect to pick their brains. Understanding the opinions you agree with--and the ones you don't--will give you perspective and strengthen your own take on your industry.

Step 2: Assert Your Opinion

It's time to unleash your inner political candidate and develop a clear stance on the most important issues in your industry. Where do you see your industry headed, and should there be any change in its current trajectory? Your take on the state of the union, so to say, may be a wholly new way of looking at things, and that's a very good thing. Make bold claims--just make sure you have the facts to back them up.

Step 3: Generate High Quality Content

Just as they do at a cocktail party, people gravitate toward the people telling the most compelling stories. Work to craft trade content that's not only informative, but also entertaining, engaging, and thought provoking. It's not a problem if writing isn't your forte: Tap a ghostwriter or a full-service media company like Masthead Media to craft stories on your behalf.

Step 4: Find Your Audience

If you just wait around for an invite to give a TED Talk, you're going to be waiting for a long time. Start putting your thoughts to paper--digital or otherwise--and self-publish. Add "think" pieces and responses to timely industry issues on your company or personal blog, and don't be shy about sharing these posts on social media. Content publishing resources like LinkedIn or Medium are excellent platforms to post your stories directly. To give your stories an even wider reach, become your own publicist and pitch ideas to trade publications.

Step 5: Get Involved

Thought leaders do not live in vacuums, so get ready to hit the networking circuit. Seek out ways to have a deeper involvement in community events by offering your expertise to the organizers of speaker series or industry panels, or by volunteering in community service-based events. Curate group gatherings of your own, like a monthly breakfast discussion with a rotating invite list of professional peers. Use your social media channels to share industry think pieces, and join professionally focused Slack communities to continue the discussion online.

Which thought leaders inspire you most? Let us know in the comments.