A lot of consultants claim to be experts because they're successful in the attention-grabbing game. The most popular people in any marketing platform (social media, trade associations, niche communities) are often given the most status points. The loudest quickly get labeled as thought leaders.
At some point, however, we discover those self-proclaimed experts have greatly overestimated their specific knowledge. Or, in the worst cases, straight up lied about what and how much they know of a topic. It is at this point that the concept of expertise gets discredited.
Now, when you hear someone actively promoting their claims to be experts - the ones we see all the time on social media - there's an immediate reaction of hesitance and prudence. How do you identify a genuine expert?
For one thing, they certainly exist. These are the people who have spent thousands of hours trying to fundamentally understand a topic. Who have worked hard to discover what are the best solutions for a set of specific problems - not only in theory, but in real life throughout client engagements.
What people want and need is not claims of expertise, but proof.
If you promote yourself as an expert but I can't find the evidence you have dedicated enough time and effort to develop that expertise, I'm not taking your claim seriously. Some companies might, but you can't fool everyone all the time.
Being featured on national media outlets, winning industry awards, and having a strong digital footprint can and should be used as signs of trustworthiness. The way I see it, however, they are not enough to prove expertise.
There are two ways for you to provide real proof of expertise:
- By delivering transformative results to clients.
- By extensively documenting your learnings with some level of scientific rigor.
Satisfied clients are the best proof of expertise there is, as long as the results you've delivered are transformative. Commoditized services consist of, by definition, solving a common problem that many people know how to tackle. Transformation means dealing with complex problems and requires deep expertise.
Thousands of recognized experts never sold consulting services. They provide proof of the time and effort invested into developing their expertise by extensively sharing their learning and ideas. It can be done through books, publications, white papers, researches, or even blog posts.
Not every blog post will do, and that is why I added: "with some level of scientific rigor". Someone can write 1,000 blog posts and still fail to demonstrate expertise if the ideas they are sharing don't hold themselves together. But this doesn't mean you need to run randomized trials for every social media post you write.
When we discuss complex topics, you will never be 100% right. But when you are rigorous enough, you will feel confident you can at least defend your ideas. This for me means:
- Ensuring your ideas are logical and don't contradict each other.
- Ensuring the numbers and statistics you eventually employ to make a point are reliable, and can be validated or replicated by others.
- Ensuring you are being intellectually honest, meaning you are not misleadingly framing a story or idea.
The post you are reading now, for example, is not backed by any data or statistics. It reflects my unique point of view on the topic of expertise and is based on my experience working with consultants who seek to monetize it. Some of these ideas might be challenged, but they are certainly not plagiarized or misleading.
If you want to be loud, then be loud. But you better be ready to back your claims up with real thoughts.
It sounds counterintuitive, but the biggest sign of expertise might be sharing what you've learned as you learn it, and calling yourself out when some of these ideas turn out to be poor.