Have you ever wondered whether or not you are an expert?
When asked this question about what defines expertise, you will hear a variety of answers. Many will reference key requirements such as an expert must have extensive knowledge in their field. Others will see education, published work, or years of experience as key qualifiers. Yet there are so many other dimensions of expertise that contribute to how visible, influential and authoritative they are within their community of practice or with the general public.
Who Qualifies as an Expert?
I started looking closer at this topic for two reasons. The first is my personal work with experts. Having worked with thousands of them across a variety of sectors I've observed that many are driven to develop themselves professionally as an expert to meet a variety of objectives. Often these are focused on raising one's profile and reputation among peers or with the broader market to inform the public. Some see media coverage being an essential part of their strategy while others are more interested in developing a larger audience for their research or client work, by speaking at conferences or on podcasts. Others have a focus on improving their PageRank on search engines. All these activities can enable important objectives such as attracting new clients, research funding or talent.
The second reason for this deeper dive into expertise is a need to better organize how we look at experts within organizations. My work with communications departments in knowledge-based sectors reveals that they are keen to learn more about how they can better engage their experts to build reputation, relationships and revenue.
However, better engagement starts with a better understanding of what qualifies someone as an expert - what attributes can we objectively look at that define expertise? With that knowledge, we can first better appreciate the amount of work experts have put into establishing themselves in their field. Then organizations can nurture this expertise in a more collaborative way to accomplish shared goals. My observation is that with a little more insight, empathy, and alignment, both experts and their organizations can accomplish incredible things together. And there has never been a more important time for experts to "show their smarts."
By definition, an expert is someone with comprehensive or authoritative knowledge in a particular area of study.
While formal education and certifications are a starting point for expertise, many disciplines don’t have a set list of criteria to measure expertise against.
It’s also important to recognize other dimensions of expertise that relate not just to the working proficiency in a field but also to the degree of influence and authority they have earned within their profession or community of practice. Because of this, expertise is often looked at as a person’s cumulative training, skills, research and experience.
What are the Key Attributes of Expertise?
In evaluating your accomplishments and the various ways you can contribute as an expert to both your community of practice and the public, here are some key questions that can help you assess how you are developing your expertise:
- Have you completed any formal education or gained relevant experience to achieve proficiency in your chosen field?
- Are you actively building knowledge in a specific discipline or practice area by providing your services as an expert?
- Are you generating unique insights through your research or fieldwork?
- Are you publishing your work to establish your reputation and reach a broader audience such as publications or books?
- Are you teaching in the classroom or educating and inspiring audiences through speaking at conferences?
- Do you demonstrate a commitment to impact your community of practice and help advance your field and generate an impact on society by informing the public?
- Have you established a reputation as a go-to source for well-informed, unique perspectives?
Some Additional Tips to Help you Develop Your Expertise
To further the discussion, I’ve also shared further thoughts about the meaning of “expertise”. As you think about developing your own personal skills, or if you are a communicator who is responsible for engaging with your organizations experts, here are a few additional principles to keep in mind.
Experts Aren't Focused on Some“Magic Number” Related to Hours of Experience
As the rule goes, you could become a genuine expert in a field with approximately 10,000 hours of practice — roughly 3 hours a day, every day for a consecutive decade. But is that what it really takes to become an expert?
But is that what it really takes to become an expert? Or did Gladwell oversimplify the concept of expertise? Some of his assumptions for “Outliers” (which became a major bestseller) relied on research from Dr. Anders Ericsson at Florida State University who made expertise the focus of his research career. Contrary to how Gladwell outlined it, Ericsson argued that the way a person practised mattered just as much, if not more, than the amount of time they committed to their discipline. It also depends on the field of research or practice one is involved in. Some disciplines take decades to achieve expertise and many experts will admit they are just scratching the surface of what they are studying, well after they have passed the 10,000-hour mark. That might be just the first stage of proficiency for some disciplines.
Experts are Continuously Learning
It’s difficult to claim proficiency as an expert if you are not staying current in your field. The best experts are constantly scouring new research and best practices. Dr. Anders Ericsson observed in his work that "deliberate practice" is an essential element of expertise. His reasoning was that one simply won’t progress as an expert unless they push their limits. Many experts aren’t satisfied unless they are going beyond their comfort zone, opening up new pathways of research, focusing on their weaknesses, and broadening their knowledge and skills through avenues such as peer review, speaking, and teaching. The deliberate practice occurred “at the edge of one’s comfort zone” and involved setting specific goals, focusing on technique, and obtaining immediate feedback from a teacher or mentor.
Experts Apply their Knowledge to Share Unique Perspectives
While many experts conduct research, simply reciting facts isn't enough.
Those who can provide evidence-based perspectives, that objectively accommodate and adapt to new information will have more impact. Expertise is also about developing unique, informed perspectives that challenge the status quo, which can at times be controversial. Experts know that things change. But they don’t get caught up in every small detail in ways that prevent them from seeing the whole picture. They don't immediately rush toward new ideas. They consider historical perspectives and patterns learned from their research that provide more context for what's happening today. And these experts have the patience and wisdom to validate their perspectives with real evidence. That's why expert sources are so valuable for journalists when they research stories. The perspectives they offer are critical to countering the misinformation and uninformed opinions found on social media.
Experts Connect with a Broader Audience
Many experts are pushing past traditional communication formats, using more creative and visual ways to translate their research into a wider audience. We conducted research with academics in North America and in Europe who are trying to balance their research (seen in traditional peer-reviewed journals) with other work such as blogs, social media, podcasts and conferences such as TEDx - all with the goal to bring their work to a wider audience. While that's an essential part of public service, it pays dividends for the expert and the organization they represent.
Experts Are Transparent
More than ever, credible experts are in demand. The reason for this is simple. They inspire trust.
And the overnight success some have seemingly achieved has come from decades of work in the trenches. They have a proven record that is on display and they make it easy to understand how they got there. They don't mask their credentials or their affiliations as they didn't take shortcuts. They understand that transparency is a critical part of being seen as credible.
Experts Don’t Take “Fake It Till You Make It” Shortcuts
The phrase “fake it till you make it,” is a personal development mantra that speaks to how one can imitate confidence, competence, and an optimistic mindset, and realize those qualities in real life.
While this pop psychology construct can be helpful for inspiring personal development, it gets problematic when it becomes a strategy for garnering trust with a broader audience to establish some degree of authority - especially when this inexperience causes harm to others who may be influenced by what they see. When self-appointed experts take shortcuts, promoting themselves as authorities on social media without the requisite research or experience, this blurs the lines of expertise and erodes the public trust.
Experts Are Generous
The best experts are excited about the future of their field, and that translates to helping others become experts too.
That's why many openly share their valuable time, through speaking, teaching and mentorship. In the end, they understand that these activities are essential to developing the scale and momentum necessary to tackle the important issues of the day.
How Do You Show your Smarts?
How do you personally score on this framework? Or if you are in a corporate communications or academic affairs role in an institution how does this help you better understand your experts so you can better develop your internal talent and build your organization’s reputation? As always we welcome your comments as we further refine this and other models related to expertise. Let us know what you think.
Download our Academic Experts and the Media (PDF)
This report, based on detailed interviews with some of the most media-experienced academics across the UK and United States draws on their experiences to identify lessons they can share in encouraging other academics to follow in their path.
The Complete Guide to Expertise Marketing for Higher Education (PDF)
Expertise Marketing is the next evolution of content marketing. Build value by mobilizing the hidden people, knowledge and content you already have at your fingertips. This win-win solution not only gives audiences better quality content, but it also lets higher ed organizations show off their smarts.
Peter Evans Co-Founder & CEO
Recognized speaker on expertise marketing, technology and innovation