How Not to Act Like an Expert

David and Blair make a list of the common mistakes that people make in trying to portray themselves as experts.



BLAIR ENNS: Hello, David, how are you?

DAVID C. BAKER: I am good, Blair. How are you doing?

BLAIR: I'm doing really well, thank you.

DAVID: Have you ever said you're not doing well when I've asked you that question?

BLAIR: Actually I haven't because as soon as we press record, it's like I go into bright chipper mode. I know the last time we're doing this, I lost my thought in the middle of the conversation because it was a late night, the night before. Then, I was coming into the studio and thinking, "Oh, God, I'm so tired." It was another late night and we got all these content deadlines. And I was thinking I'm so tired. I just don't feel very good. But then as soon as you get close to show time, I actually feel great.

DAVID: Yeah, when people talk to me, they often tell me how it brings out the best in them like all of the sudden, they're smarter, they're better looking, they're richer-

BLAIR: You never hear, "Well, I was feeling great up until 30 seconds ago but something just sucks the energy out of me." You never hear that? All right, enough of the chitchat. Today, we're going to talk about how not to act like an expert. I guess that's the... You wrote a white paper on this. We're going to use that as the guideline for the conversation but I'll just maybe set it up and say, "Okay, you're in the business of offering management advice to what you call expert practices. The idea is someone is already an expert in something, they seek you out for help in a certain area.

How often do you... Like at first glance look at a firm, you get an inbound inquiry. You go to the website, you think, "Oh, wow, these guys really, really have it together," and then you get into the engagement you start to uncover. What percentage of the time are you left... I don't want to say disappointed because there's not necessarily a judgement there, but what percentage of the time are you left thinking there isn't the depth of expertise that I first imagined there would be?

DAVID: That doesn't happen very often, but the first part of that question maybe-

BLAIR: I just say you have to never work again [crosstalk 00:02:25]

DAVID: Right, yeah. How come nobody ever call that for this one [crosstalk 00:02:28]. I'd say 15%, 20% of the time, I go to an agency's website and I'm really impressed, and very seldom do I find that it's hollow. In fact, a lot of the time I find that the other agencies in the category, the category where they didn't impress me, it turns out they're actually pretty impressive but it just hasn't been communicated clearly to their website. It's a low number to start but it doesn't usually end up being hollow. A lot of these people are really pretty good experts. It doesn't get translated very well though until you get to know them really well which doesn't work on a sales perspective, does it?

BLAIR: Yeah. There's this incongruity, at least, sometimes between how you would expect an expert to behave and then how they behave.

DAVID: Right. The behavior is different even from the inside. Maybe somebody really is an expert but maybe they're not behaving like an expert too and those are different. I think what we are going to talk about today was a little bit more about how you behave but there's an underlying assumption that with the right behavior, you have the right insight as well and you combine both of those two. It's a great story at that point.

BLAIR: I always look at things from the buyer's point of view, so as a buyer, you uncover the website of this really interesting firm, you're reading the thought leadership and these guys are really smart. They have a strong point of view and you think, "Wow, these guys are it." And you pick up the phone and as things start to happen and there are these, not so much words although words are off in the interface before between the behavior then the customer but things start to happen and you start thinking, "Oh, well, it's a little surprising to me that you did that."

We're going to talk some of those things that you do that maybe transmit through your behavior, that the fact that you're not the expert that you might first have appeared to be even though as you point out, the truth is there is a depth of expertise there. It's just not being paid off by the behavior.

DAVID: Right, exactly.

BLAIR: It's probably a horrible way to set this up, but let's go. I know you've got a bunch of things, your list of behavior and other items that signals that might cause somebody to question whether or not the expertise is really there. What's at the top of your list?

DAVID: The most important thing to me is just this being too busy to articulate it, their expertise. There's all these excuses for, "We've come to laugh..." You've heard it, I'm sure, many times just like, "Yeah, the cobbler's son doesn't have any shoes and we laugh about those things until we've laughed for decades and then it's not funny anymore," or, "We're too busy solving client problems to really articulate the expertise."

But I was writing something this morning. It was a blog post that I haven't put up yet but I was working on it. It just hit me for some strange reason, it's like I wonder how many principles out there have a lot of interesting things in their heads and they just simply don't have the time to put it down. That translates to my mind to priciness. Well, I think you've talked a little bit about this. It's like your pricing should be such that every once in a while, you can put your feet up and think and be developing, I guess, forward-looking, big picture stuff to help all of your clients.

Being too busy to articulate thought leadership is probably the biggest one because I think discipline is at the heart of expertise, more so than intelligence. It's discipline. It's having the time and the energy and the foresight to do it and most anybody who has those things is going to be an expert of some kind.

BLAIR: If you think of the most successful agency principles or even entrepreneurs, and I just had a couple of conversations this weekend with a friend of mine who was quite successful. You see this pattern where they're just so ruthless about what they do not do. They just carve out, get rid of dump, delegate, et cetera, those things that don't help them forward their highest goals.

You're saying that, yeah, a common pattern is firms and/or principles or experts of any kind are often too busy to take the time to articulate thought leadership, but if you really are an expert at what you do, you'll be able to charge enough. You'll be able to create some time and space to do some of those important things. I think in a knowledge-based business if you're an expert in anything especially in a consultative-based organization, you've got to take that time to write. That's how you communicate your expertise.

DAVID: The higher up you are in the organization, the more time you should be spending doing that sort of thing. I don't know if you get these out-of-the-office emails all the time when you send out a notification that you've just published a new blog post like I do, but I'll get [inaudible 00:07:41] send it out on the weekend or near holiday or middle of the week or whatever, I'll get anywhere from maybe 50 to a couple of hundred of these out-of-the-office emails.

I can't remember the last one I got where somebody said, "I've taken this week off to work on the next book project." It probably isn't happening but even more like in a softer sense, you'd think you'd want to get a little bit of credit for that thing too it's interesting to see how people... They almost feel like if they're not earning money or doing something directly for a client, they're not contributing to their agency when as you've said the higher up you go in an agency, your job is really to think about thought leadership, service offerings, IP, and so on and you don't have time to do it like the friend you were just talking about, you said that they're ruthless about saying no. What are they doing with the time they say that they have because they say no, they're often doing things like this. That's why it's so important to me.

BLAIR: Yeah. He texted me a link to something to read and I read it. It was really provocative. I texted back a question and it was a big open-ended question that required a long answer, and he responded by texting back a recorded voice memo, and I was so proud of him because I thought... It was the weekend. He didn't want to get into a long phone conversation but it was too long to be able to write a response. He was driving, he just recorded it and sent me the recording. I thought that was ruthlessly efficient. I really appreciated how he did that. We could spend all day in the entire podcast talking about that.

Let's move to the next item on your list in here. You're talking about how available you are to the client.

DAVID: Yeah, this is an interesting phenomenon, particularly for me because I really enjoy anthropology and I enjoy learning. If you divide the world into developed cultures and undeveloped cultures, that's a pretty dangerous thing to do, I guess, but moving beyond that obvious opportunity to say something. In developed cultures, experts are inaccessible. It's just the way we've set things up. When they have to mix with the unwashed masses, then we put uniforms on them typically, like a pilot in an airport or a police officer out in the crowd or something like that.

Sometimes, we put uniforms on everybody to remove any distinctions, like in a Catholic day school or something like that. But generally, experts are inaccessible in developed cultures and when they are accessible, we put uniforms on them. In undeveloped cultures, the most accessible people are the experts. That's the village elder. It's always a male, and anybody can come and talk to them at any point. They welcome little kids, adults, whatever. They're most accessible.

In our desire to win prospects and clients over with our availableness, our accessibility, in essence, we're undercutting ourselves by becoming so accessible that we're not viewed as experts. It's an interesting phenomenon and it's almost a zero-sum game. Not quite that but a lot of poorly positioned firms are hiding that. They're hiding behind being very available in a customer-centered culture at the firm. They're masking poor positioning with great customer service, and that feeds into this lack of expertise. It's almost like they've got everything but the drive up lane at the place. Clients choose the menu, so that's the point, they're being too accessible to be viewed as an expert.

BLAIR: Let me ask you question, do you have your mobile phone number on your business card?

DAVID: No, I don't. In fact, I don't let any client have my mobile phone. It's partly because of my strange mind and then I have to have a very firm separation between personal and business life. If I'm not in the office and I have to dial a number to a client and they would have my mobile phone because of caller ID, I always dial through a voice-over IP system because I don't want them to have it. I simply do not want to be that accessible to people. They can text me at the business line. They can't text me in my mobile line.

BLAIR: Somebody hasn't explained this idea to public relations practitioners, this idea of being overly accessible. And I get the value of once you're hired, once you're... I know some people who have multiple business cards, one with their direct email address, one with their mobile phone number that go to clients but never to people who are not in that inner circle.

DAVID: Right.

BLAIR: We're talking about how not to act like an expert. You've covered two things on the list. The first one is to be too busy to articulate thought leadership and the second one is to be immediately accessible to the client. What's next on your list?

DAVID: Well, asking for work. It seems like, again, this is something experts... We have this vision of experts, and is informed by all kinds of data, whether it's real or not doesn't matter. Experts are, they're good thinkers. They're usually busy, like we can't envision a world where experts aren't busy because that would imply that they aren't in demand, that other people don't recognize their expertise and so on.

It's sort of a slap in the face for that notion for us to picture an expert asking for work. Now, it's fine for an expert to engage you carefully and thoughtfully and thoroughly in the selling process but the idea of asking for work should be... It slaps us in the face so much that it can happen sometimes but it should be the exception that proves the rule every once in a while.

For instance, an expert who does ask a prospect for work, that should seem so odd and so out of character that it's okay, but it should happen so rarely that it really does strike them as out of character.

BLAIR: Or the manner in which they do it.

DAVID: Right.

BLAIR: It's an unfortunate truth that human beings are repulsed by neediness.

DAVID: Yeah, absolutely. I just had a strong reaction thinking of needy people that I've run up against in my life and how difficult that is. Yeah, absolutely. But let me flip this around. You know I don't understand the sales process like you do. How do you reconcile this? Like are there situations where you could ask for work in the right way without eroding your positioning? Because I notice when you made a comment a few minutes ago, you said, depending on how they do it, what did you mean by that?

BLAIR: Yeah, I think of lead generation in three tiers. The tier one lead is somebody who an inbound inquirer, somebody who reaches out to you. They see you as the expert, so your thought leadership activities of speaking and writing drive in tier one inbound leads. A tier two lead is somebody who is interacting with your content and through their behavior, they leave clues that, A, they know who you are and, B, might have a need. You pick up the phone and reach out to them and you can do that appropriately. You can say, "Hey, I see that you read a couple of articles on my website about pricing. Do you mind if I ask? Is there a challenge that I might be able to help you with?" Then, a tier three lead is just a name on the list. It's a demographic clue, not a behavioral clue, so you buy a list of people who meet your target audience.

Now, experts rely heavily on those tier one leads driving inbound inquiries but also can be sophisticated and subtle about really actively mining those tier 2 leads that people are interacting with your content and you think, "Wow, this person is like red. Everything on X. I should send him an email or I should... Or pick up the phone and call." I think you would agree that most reasonable people would have an easy kind of nonthreatening conversation with the prospect on the other end.

Tier three leads, there are some firms who just drop down to what I call the bottom of the ladder of lead generation in the state every year. It's 20 years where they're just smiling and dialing. I think even the most expert firms can do some tier three outreach and what we advocate is a top 20 list. Just pick the 20 most highly coveted clients like those organizations you want to work with and then pick up the phone and just very...It's almost like you're not hunting, you're farming. Pick up the phone, establish a connection and just begin the relationship and just be forthright. Say, "You know, here's what we do. We're experts in this space helping companies like this, solve problems like that. Here's a small number of companies that I would really like to work with in my career, you're one of them. I wanted to say hello and begin the relationship."

Then ask, "Now, that we're in a relationship, is there anything you're working on that I might be able to help you with? If not, then, okay, great. Nice to meet you. I'm going to stay in touch from time to time," et cetera. That's a respectful I approach I think. Now, you can take that guidance and you can put it into different people's hands and they'll do different things with it, but I think it's perfectly reasonable for even the most highly sought-after experts to reach out and establish relationships with those that they think that they can best help or most interest in having a long term relationship with.

DAVID: Okay, got you. There's not a desperation behind it. More of a sense of help and interest.

BLAIR: Help and interest and patience. If they sense that you need to kill something that you can eat today [crosstalk 00:18:02]

DAVID: Hungry kids with you and he played the [inaudible 00:18:05] on the desk.

BLAIR: What's next on your list?

DAVID: All right, be wildly relevant. In other words, have an opinion on everything and express the ability to do anything. It's like the guy at the bar who has an opinion on everything and thus, you come to mistrust it a little bit because there's no way any human could have thoughtfully prepare an opinion on all of those things. Being widely relevant as opposed to going somewhere very deep and you and I have talked about this ad nauseam in terms of positioning but it's just worth mentioning that there are no completely broad experts. Expertise flows from something narrow enough that you can actually be an expert.

BLAIR: Yeah. If you don't find yourself from time to time saying, "Yeah, you know, I don't actually know anything about that," then you're not building credibility for what you do know.

DAVID: Right, exactly. Yeah, if you don't ever say no, then your yeses really don't mean anything.

BLAIR: Yeah, okay, how not to act like an expert? Anything else?

DAVID: How about primarily local clients, because I don't think that we could have said this maybe, I don't know, 15 years ago, but the way that the world has been Googlelized, we don't think of geography as a barrier anymore. If most of our clients are nearby, then it makes it seem like we are not in great demand. If you list your clients, list your work, it's pretty easy to get a sense of how much of an expert you are. Hypothetically, if we say, "Okay, you want 15 clients, so maybe," and you're in the US maybe eight of your clients ought to be in the US and two in Canada and two in Europe and then one somewhere where you want to travel all the time, or something like that. Just the idea of not having just local clients.

BLAIR: Yeah, your geographic trading area is a reflection of the depths of your expertise. There's this saying about profit not being recognised or being seen as a profit in his own land. I think if you want to be seen as an expert in your backyard, the best thing you can do is ignore your backyard and go pursue some engagements elsewhere. I had a client once who was invited to speak in Lisbon and he's in the west coast United States, and I said, "When are you going?" He said, "Ah, I'm not going. I don't have many clients in Portugal." I said, "You call that organization back and you take that speaking gig and then you come back and then you talk to people about the fact that you were invited to speak in Lisbon." Have you ever had clients say to you when you're talking about the need to spread your trading area geographically? Have you ever had to push back about, "Well, I don't like to travel?"

DAVID: Yeah.

BLAIR: What's the response to that?

DAVID: Well, if you're the principal of the firm, you're probably not going to be the one traveling in the first place. It will be probably be somebody else, plus you can get your clients to travel. Those are the two main things I tell them.

BLAIR: Yeah, plus, I remember we did a new business summit years ago when we're talking about this point and somebody stood up and said, "We received over a million dollars in fees from a division of a Fortune 500 company I won't name before we ever met the client." The idea that you're doing business in Russia or even just in the other side of the country, it doesn't mandate that you get on a plane all the time.

DAVID: Yeah, it's so interesting. I'm based at Nashville but I hardly ever do any work here and I don't know when this will be published, hopefully, long enough after this recording that it won't hurt me but this prospect is local and they wanted to get together for coffee. I said, "Well, you know, why don't we do a phone call first?" That didn't really work out and then it went on and on and they just couldn't understand why I wouldn't get together.

From my perspective, it was that well, I don't get together with people anywhere so it doesn't necessarily make sense for me to get together in Nashville plus that's two or three hours worth of time. What's the downside? You're going to get free advice during that time and it's not going to help me necessarily, so let's at least start by phone and then if we can get together, fine, but probably we won't get together and we're slated to work together now and we still haven't met. We still haven't even talked on the phone.

BLAIR: Then, people's need to interact face to face differs from person to person and you and I are in the [inaudible 00:23:46] range where we don't actually need to look people in the eyes to be able to work with them. We would work somewhat remotely.

DAVID: Right, yeah.

BLAIR: Once I started hiring people, I actually moved my office out of the office, my desk out of the office. I'm in a nice quiet place right now.

DAVID: Keep escaping people.

BLAIR: Yeah. How not to act like an expert? What else is on your list?

DAVID: Just one thing, one other thing and that's simply the use of -ly words, superlatives, whatever. It just-

BLAIR: Is that an adverb or an adjective? That's an adverb, right?

DAVID: An adverb is now a -y word, right? I don't know, it's partly I hate the misuse of language but "somebody being the leader in such and such" or "the world's best" or "the most" whatever, like as soon as I hear that, I think, "Okay, that isn't true or probably isn't true so what else is suspect about this?" I think maybe we could go back to just telling the truth in our statements and not being afraid of putting our own capabilities into a greater context, greater perspectives so that people can make informed choices. I just don't... Let them discover whether I'm good or not. Let's not trump at that. That's the last one. These are just things that I just picked up over the years that kind of smacked against being an expert and that language thing. It's a smaller point but it comes up a lot.

BLAIR: So, instead of saying, "I'm an expert in this space," how might you frame a claim that communicates your expertise?

DAVID: Maybe you say, instead of "the leading," maybe you say, "a leading," so that it's not quite like putting yourself at the very top of the heat. Let other people do that. Just put yourself near the top if it's true and if it isn't true, then think of some other way to say it, I guess.

BLAIR: All right, so how not to act like an expert? I'm looking at this white paper you published. I'm not sure when it was. I think it's a few ago years now and you've got another one on here and it sprayed thought-ish. I want to bring in that because I love the term, "thought-ish," not Scottish, thought-ish generic content.

DAVID: Yeah, because it's not terrible but it's not really very thoughtful either so it has a little bit of thought in it but it's not thoughtful. That was the idea. After that, I wrote a piece that actually was most controversial piece based on comments I've ever written. It was about distinguishing between content and insight and anybody can spot this stuff right away, like if you go to the new section of a website, well pretty much you know you're going to find announcements about awards they won or whatever it is. But the insight portion of a website, when you read that, you should have some aha moment even if you're intelligent and even if you know quite a bit about marketing. If both of those things are true, you should still have aha moments and if you're not having those aha moments, then it's just thought-ish. It's not thoughtful content. That was the point of that.

BLAIR: How real is the fear that as in I've been an expert in this space for 20 years, I'm going to run out of aha moments because I will have discovered everything, thought of everything, seen everything?

DAVID: Well, it could be that people smarter than me face that but it sure isn't true for me. I find that... I'm always throwing ideas that I want to write about into this Evernote file and then I'd pull ones out of there as I write and the list keeps growing. It's like I think you've described it as you go into this room you've never been in before only to discover all kinds of new passages leading out of that room to other places. That's what keeps me very, very interested in what I do. There are times when I wish I wasn't doing consulting. I was just writing or speaking but frankly, consulting is when I think of new things I want to explore and write about and that stuff doesn't occur to me all that much in any other setting, so I can't imagine running out. When that happens, I'll let you know. It hasn't so far.

BLAIR: It's also the experimental platform where you get to prove or disprove your fantastic ideas-

DAVID: Or just ideas.

BLAIR: By having your clients prove that they're silly ideas.

DAVID: Yeah, not so gently.

BLAIR: I think that nothing illuminates our own ignorance more than learning. You learn something, a new idea presents itself to you and then that illuminates how little you know about something else. As long as you're continuing to learn and I know you're like me, you learn through reading but primarily through writing. As long as you're continuing to learn, then you're continuing to uncover areas where you know nothing about.

I know I've been to that period of my own career a few times where I feel like, "I'm stuck, there's nothing new." The reason there's nothing new is I'm not exploring. I'm not writing. I've hit a rut or hit a wall when it comes to writing. I think if you keep going deep into content, content with your area of focus narrow and deep, then you keep uncovering these crevices or as we say crevice in Canada.

DAVID: It's not that you are proved wrong with more learning, although there are times when I definitely have been wrong. I could think of probably several dozen very specific circumstances where I've been wrong but mainly, it's just additional insight like seeing something that you just simply didn't see before and just getting a more complete picture about how the world works or how you apply psychology to something else or whatever it is. It's really exciting.

BLAIR: Or, back to the doors metaphor... It's not until you walk through one door that you realized there are these other rooms. You didn't even see them until you walked through that one door.

DAVID: Right.

BLAIR: Okay, this is really helpful, David. Hopefully, our listeners will take this to heart. If they're feeling like an expert, they can run a little test against this list. I'll just recap the list. How not to act like an expert? Be too busy to articulate thought leadership. Be immediately accessible to the client. Ask for work. Be widely relevant. Have primarily local clients. Use superlatives and -ly adverbs in describing yourself and then spray thought-ish, not Scottish, generic content. This has been great. Thank you very much.

DAVID: Yeah, good. Thanks, Blair.

Marcus dePaula