Tuesday, 16 October 2012

What makes an expert?

ex·pert  (ek'spurt)
1. A person with a high degree of skill in or knowledge of a certain subject.
a. The highest grade that can be achieved in marksmanship.
b. A person who has achieved this grade.
adj. (ek-spurt) Having, involving, or demonstrating great skill, dexterity, or knowledge as the result of experience or training.

The web- no, the World- is filled with experts. People who claim that they can show you how to start a business, make money, how to be happier, more successful, have better sex, raise better kids, win arguments, use social media to make cash or have a more fulfilling social life. There was a time when experts were people of learning; people who had studied and worked in their chosen area, often for decades. People with gravitas, wisdom and insight. Now it seems experts are ten thousand a penny.

So what makes someone an expert? Is it learning plus experience- or is that just competence?

If you call yourself an expert, what can people expect of you? Should it be you that confers expert status on yourself, or others? 

What standards can you say you have set yourself? Are you necessarily officially qualified in some way?

Is being good at something, passionate about it and keen to share what you know good enough? How do you assure people that your expertise goes beyond what's worked for you and will deliver for them too?

I was told the other day that someone was a 'Twitter expert.' I stifled a laugh and said "Yes, so am I. I know how to use it too." It seems the defining line between us was that they advise businesses on how to make money through tweets. I pondered for a minute whether that made me an expert on the car park behind our offices: I've advised people that they risk getting clamped if they park without a pass. Ta-da! I have saved them money. Does it make me an expert? It's doubtful.

A retired teacher friend of mine (and someone I consider an education expert, given his decades of experience and knowledge) says "Expert is a level beyond Competence - it's certainly into the extra knowledge/understanding/skill range. Is it beyond Unconscious Competence into Reflective? And capable of extending into more complex areas?"

He then wandered off to 'look at Vygotsky for a bit.' 

Ade of @OHCSolutions says "Social Media has radically changed the world of info. So, for me, Expertise is now more about deep insight, skills and relevance."

So, what is an expert in your eyes? I doubt that it's someone with umpteen degrees- but possibly limited experience in applying that knowledge. I doubt too that it's someone who's been 'doing it for years' but never tested their methods or sought official recognition or qualification of their talents. I am guessing its somewhere between the two- meaning we're back to the issue of Competence, and how much further one has to go to become Expert.

For me, it's as Richard and Ade say above: it's training, qualifications, experience and that added something that takes you beyond 'Qualified' and into 'Expert.' Ade defines it as insight, and I agree to a large extent. I think that communicating that insight is something that's largely down to how much passion you have for your chosen field, and how you present yourself.

So, budding experts- here's a few things to keep in mind.


if you're often asked "How did you...?", "How can I...?" or "Tell me how..." then you have knowledge that has worth to others. But- that in itself does not make you an expert. My kids often ask how to iron a shirt. It doesn't make me an expert on ironing; it just means I can solve that particular problem. Until next time.


Our life experiences have made us who we are today and determine our future goals too. Draw upon your story to connect with others. Share the fun stuff about success, happiness and wealth, but tell people the truth about how you achieved it. People want to hear about your successes, but bad experiences have enormous value too. Hearing about how you coped and emerged from tough times or what you learned from your mistakes or even complete disasters) can be more inspiring than stories of rainbows and unicorns. To someone facing dark days, hearing from someone who has been there can make all the difference. Share the knowledge you have about life as well as specific subjects that impact on our personal and business lives.


If you're going to be an expert, do it right. This means choosing one area and sticking to it. This is not a 'spray job' whereby you glean only the key info in several areas of knowledge so that you can skip between different areas depending on where the money is. ('Business gurus' turned 'social media experts' almost overnight, I am looking at you.)

It means hours of research, hours of testing theories. It means listening to all schools of thought in your field, not just the ones you agree with. It means not being afraid of starting again if you realise you're wrong.


Don't introduce yourself as an expert if you know there are flaws in your knowledge and your experience is limited. Be aware that what worked for you may not work for the person in front of you. Listen to their needs rather than impose what you think will work. Recognise differences, define common ground, and you'll both move forward with more trust in your position. (Oh, and claiming 'expert' status after a short time of doing something without encountering any problems? No. Just no.)


Tweet. Blog. Facebook. LinkedIn. Go to seminars, conferences, meetups, tweetups. Make friends with people in your field. Give some knowledge to people for free. Prove your stuff. Show the World what you know- but don't discredit yourself by getting carried away the first time you get something right. Listen. Compare stories and experiences. Don't resist changing the way you view something just because it's not what you thought.

Is there a business value to you knowledge and expertise? Are you ready to try it? Really, honestly? Are you ready to see them reap the rewards of your expertise? Are you ready to get it wrong on someone else's dime- and know what to do to put things right?

A lot to consider, I know, and I am still not sure I come close to getting it right. In short, I'd recommend you let others confer 'expert' status upon you. Claiming it- and being found out to be lacking- is embarrassing, can create serious difficulties and discredits the work you've done to learn and develop the skills you possess.

And if you want to be recognised as the best person to seek out- be passionate about it.



  1. I thought about Vygotsky for a bit. The key is the identification of the learner's competence zone and their zone of proximal development - where they will progress to next. The expert can identify the learner's place and see the zpd, can use their own knowledge to model or counsel the movement of the learner through their zpd. Of course, once out of the zpd that becomes the comfort zone, and another zpd beckons...
    The expert is the person who leads you through to greater understanding and insight on the other side.

  2. "The expert is the person who leads you through to greater understanding and insight on the other side."

    Nail. On. Head. Thanks Richard!