In these days of social media chest-thumping, it seems like everyone is calling themselves an expert. This declaration is often in inverse proportion to how well-known the person is; back in the early days of my consulting career, I, too, clamored to label myself an “expert,” as though that would assuage potential clients who had never heard of me. Not so much.
The first rule of expertise, I’ve learned, is never to call yourself an expert. That’s for others to determine. But becoming a recognized expert in a world of pretenders is increasingly valuable. Here’s what I learned in the course of researching my book Stand Out: How to Find Your Breakthrough Idea and Build a Following Around It.
The first ingredient in becoming a recognized expert is, of course, cultivating true knowledge of your subject matter. Ramit Sethi – the bestselling author of I Will Teach You To Be Rich – developed his knowledge of personal finance the hard way, through his personal experience of winning a college scholarship and then almost immediately losing half in the stock market. “Oh, I better learn how money works,” he recalls thinking, leading him to start his blog and master the techniques he now teaches. Nate Silver, the famed presidential prognosticator, similarly taught himself the statistical skills he needed by creating a tool to track baseball players’ performance – techniques he later applied to the Electoral College.
You and Your Team
The second step is sharing your knowledge, because if no one knows you’re an expert, it doesn’t really count. Sethi and Silver have written books to make their insights available to the broader public. Books themselves are rarely the most lucrative thing for a thought leader to focus on, but they’re essential to idea dissemination and building a broader audience (and can generate substantial returns in other ways, such as through speaking fees). Even if your goal isn’t becoming an international thought leader, sharing your ideas in book form can be a powerful tool. In Stand Out, I tell the story of Miranda Aisling Hynes, who self-published a book about creativity and leveraged it to land a coveted job at an arts organization, as well as Mike Lydon, an urban planner who launched his business on the strength of a free self-published book that went viral and established his reputation.
The final step in becoming a recognized expert – one who doesn’t need to shout it from the rooftops, because others are doing it for you – is to cultivate a following. Part of this comes naturally, as you create content over time and more people are exposed to your ideas. You move steadily from, “Who’s that?” to “I think I’ve heard of her” to “I love her work!” You also begin to have institutions jump on board and volunteer to spread your message further. When I first started to build my platform and create content regularly, I had to beg to get published, approaching dozens of publications and being rebuffed by all but a few. But within a few years, a major publication reached out to me on Twitter and asked me to start writing for them regularly. Now, they retweet my work and I have access to their fan base to grow my own.
Similarly, even as social media dominates the headlines, experts are increasingly recognizing that a direct link to their fan base is the real gold. “To me, the hottest and sexiest social network right now is your inbox,” blogger Chris Brogan delightfully said about email marketing. That’s why one of my top goals for 2015 is doubling the size of my email list – because as audiences fragment due to the decline of mass media, you can’t rely on a Today Show appearance to “make” your brand anymore (as Rachael Ray did). You have to build a following, but increasingly that’s your own responsibility.
In a world where too many people claim to be experts, it becomes even more important to be one, and ensure the right people know it. When you’ve cultivated genuine expertise, shared your knowledge generously, and worked to increase the scale of your impact by reaching more people, you’ve become worthy of the title.
If you’re just starting out and still building your credentials, read Dorie Clark’s previous post, Get People to Listen to You When You’re Not Seen as an Expert.