Becoming an expert

Call yourself an expert?

It seems that these days just about anyone can be an expert.  I say that with a tiny bit of regret.  It used to be that you kept doing your specialist subject year after year, all the while getting better with practice and learning more about it. Of course, my career didn’t really happen like that, and these days, I am (apparently) an expert in rather different fields.

I was prompted to write this at the weekend, when I was invited to join this rather interesting initiative – The Women’s Room, aimed at rebalancing the scales in terms of the number of women who are called on by the media to be experts. Apparently, I have become an expert.  How did that happen?

As you can probably read into my words, I am slightly uncomfortable with the term.   This is not a topic I ever studied; in fact, it wasn’t even really a topic of interest at all until recently. What has changed since I was at University studying hard to become an expert in my field is that it’s not as simple as learning everything there is to know and then launching it on an unsuspecting world. These days, it is much easier to acquire lots of information across a broad spectrum. The secret is in the way you communicate and share what you know.

Since many of us freelancers are required to be experts, indeed we get paid for our expert opinion or skill, I wondered …

What’s an expert and can you spot an imposter?

lightbulbWhile knowledge – the acquisition of information – is obviously an important part of being expert, it’s only one of several factors that makes someone an expert in their field. Thinking about all the real experts that I’ve met, here are some of the defining characteristics that I’ve noticed:

1. Being good at communicating:

There’s very little point in being the guru on the ‘secret life of molluscs’ if you can’t get across your excitement and passion for your field.  A big part of being an expert is that you share for the greater good – to educate.  Also, being the only person in the world who can do the same thing, time after time after time is rather limiting. It might make you a living short term, but you aren’t developing your expertise, meaning sooner or later, someone with knowledge and communication ability is going to find a way to communicate that specialist subject, teach it to the world, and leave you – well – irrelevant.  And there’s no point in moaning that they aren’t as good at it as you. They might not be but they are presumably selling their expertise, and people are buying it.

2. Knowing lots:

All of that said, obviously being an expert means that you do need to have a very competent grasp of your subject matter.  It isn’t just about memorising stuff and tweeting soundbites of clever sounding things, but about your ability to analyse new information and take a view on what that means in an ever-evolving world. It means knowing what you don’t know. And, crucially, it’s having the ability to make complex information sound straightforward.  That’s a great way to check whether someone is an imposter!

3. Experience:

Experience is the saving grace for those of us who are longer in the tooth.  It gives you the ability to apply a context onto new information and perhaps have a better understanding about techniques or scenarios which make the information in front of you more relevant.  It means that where there is no pre-ordained solution, you might notice something that can’t be seen without having been in that situation yourself.

4. Wanting to know more:

What sets most experts apart is an eternal quest for more information. Experts are curious about their subject matter and always think there is more to learn and do.  In fact, the mark of a true expert is usually humility. That’s another way to spot the imposterSome of the best TED talks and Do Lectures I’ve seen are from relatively unknown people who have done something extraordinary.  Telling their ‘ordinary’ stories in a way that is extraordinary.

5. Embracing new tools and techniques:

There are fantastic new(ish) digital tools that make the job of being an expert so much easier – not least Google!  Slideshare means that you cannot only share your presentations online with the world, but you can find loads of other very interesting presentations around your subject. Prezi is great for creating stunning presentations, and with sites like Lynda.com mean that it’s easy to learn just about anything online and hone your expertise.  There’s absolutely no excuse for not connecting with others in your field and networking to improve your expert profile and learn new things through sites like LinkedIn and a myriad of niche, specialist social networks.

Becoming and staying an expert

OK. I’m in you say.  How do I do it? Sometimes it sneaks up on you.  Your area of expertise might be in demand because there is a trend in that field.  Mostly, however, we learn through the jobs that we do and the projects that we get involved in, by being open minded and curious about what’s out there.

Your goal should be to become the go-to person for your subject matter or industry. There are many people that I trust and rate well on different subjects simply because they know their stuff, and they’re not trying to sell me anything. They just want to be helpful. There are other so-called experts who have the ability to turn you off, simply because their position is so rigid Make things happen– you know the sort, you’ve seen them on the TV politics shows.

No matter how much you know, the world moves on, especially if you work in a fast-moving sector like technology.

It’s amazing how much you can learn with a bit of time and curiosity.

Social Media and blogs:  Do a web search for [your topic + blogs] (like ‘Fossils + blogs’ for example) to find some blogs that cover your niche. Find ones that you like and subscribe to them by RSS so you won’t forget to read them. Set up a Google Alert to search for news about your industry. Getting news headlines every day is a great way to stay abreast of changes in your field.

Where do you think most experts go first for information?  Social media! Have you ever tried Tweeting a question looking for information – you are certain to get a great response and possibly an immediate answer to your question?  And in reverse as an expert, by providing free advice on Twitter or Facebook, you will build a base of followers that both trust you and look to you for expert advice. They will recommend you to others seeking advice and information — in other words, by sharing your knowledge and gaining trust, your network will grow on its own.

Self development and online training – You don’t even have to go back to college to keep learning.  You can learn just about anything you want at Lynda.com and other similar sites.  Webinars and some e-courses are often offered free as a way to attract new customers too.

Why not consider offering your expertise through an online course too?  It’s a great marketing tool and ever so easy to deliver at very low cost. One way to offer online training and expertise is through your own site, or a site like Udemy.com.

Events: Sites like Meetup and Eventbrite have revolutionised the way we can access expertise.  There are literally hundreds of specialist groups meeting in most big cities and if there isn’t one in your area – you can easily organise one yourself.   Get your name out there and you will quickly be asked to share your expertise on panel discussions and talks.  If not, create events around the topic you are interested in and get your name linked to it.

Networking: No I don’t mean those horrendous old-fashioned networking evenings.  What I mean is give and take.  Offer to to share something you know about, help someone else out.  The goodwill that this engenders will always pay off for you.

Practice:  It’s important not to become remote from the subject matter that you are an expert in. For example, the fact that I am a freelancer lends credibility to my expertise in this area, and I base my response on personal experience.  Think about it.  You wouldn’t hire a consultant for a project unless there was substantial evidence of their experience in your field, would you?

Share everything:  It seems counter-intuitive doesn’t it?  It used to be that you’d hold on to information, on the basis that knowledge was power.  Today, you need to share your knowledge widely, so that people understand why they need an expert, and you don’t become a one-trick pony who is the only person who can fix a particular problem and it is the only issue that you are associated with.

By sharing your knowledge with others, you’ll quickly become known for your expertise. This in turn becomes opportunities, as you build your personal brand as an expert.

It’s OK to feel slightly uncomfortable with the term ‘expert’, and that will keep you curious about life and all it has to offer.  It’s great that digital technology now means that expertise is not just for a few, rather stuffy boffins, and that we can all be one in our own way.  Good luck.

Who is Alex Butler

Hello, I'm Alex Butler and I founded the KindredHQ community and blog back in 2011 after I re-started a freelance career. I LOVE freelancing and I wouldn't swop the freedom, control and joy of working for myself for anything. But I realised how much I missed the company and energy of other people - of having a team around me. So, I got a few people together one day with our laptops, a jar of coffee and some jelly babies and we sat and worked together one afternoon. We've been doing that every week in London, UK since then! I am still 100% freelance and I like to share the everyday highs and lows of being a freelancer here on the blog.

BACK