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How to Sound Like an Expert

How to Sound Like an Expert

Wondering how to sound like an expert? Interested in presenting yourself as an expert? If so, this helpful advice is written just for you.

In our business, we need to convey confidence and expertise.

People hire us for our expertise in strategy, in marketing, in messaging, in branding, in public relations, in search engine optimization, in design, in digital advertising, in nurture marketing, in content marketing, and a host of other services that we offer.

As our Walker Sands professionals gain expertise, we encourage them to assert themselves as experts. After they've paid their dues to learn their craft, it's time to move into expert mode and claim the credit they deserve. For some, that's easier said than done.

Training an Expert to Convey Their Expert Status

It turns out projecting oneself as an expert isn't something that comes naturally to everyone. Many people need to be trained on how to sound like an expert, and surprisingly there isn't as much material out there on sounding like an expert as you might expect.

Given the lack of insights on how to convey expert status, I decided to write this blog post. Let's start our discussion with this list of phrases that I've heard experts use to convey their expertise:

  • "What we've seen work well for our other clients is…" - This phrase conveys that you are basing your comments on real-world experience and in-the-trenches results. What you are saying is not just conjecture.
  • "For clients like you, what we've seen work well is…" - This is an improvement over the first one, don't you think? Instead of conveying general expertise, the minor change in wording suggests that you have highly relevant expertise that applies to the audience you are addressing.
  • "There are three ways that companies like yours typically will address this type of situation…" - By listing out all the possibilities and discussing them in a structured fashion, you convey that you understand the world of possibilities and know the pros and cons of varying approaches.
  • "Research suggests that the best approach for this is…" - With this phrasing, you convey that what you are recommending is based on objective research, and that it is not just your opinion. You also convey that you keep up to date on relevant industry research.
  • "Our research suggests that the best approach for this is…"- This is a subtle variation on the previous expert phrase. In this case, the research is your research, not somebody else's. There are many variations on this one that reference expert phrases like "our data suggests" or "we've tested this and determined."
  • "We find that a best practice is…"- Best practices are everywhere, and people likely will want to hire you as an expert because you know what best practices are for the task at hand while they don't. By dropping this phrase into your conversation, you tantalize the audience with the possibility that you are a rich resource for best practices that will take them from where they are to where they want to be.
  • "I was recently interviewed on this very topic and…" - You can get into dangerous territory here. You don't want to sound arrogant. But the gist of this expert phrase is that it conveys that somebody else out there thinks you are an expert. A variation of this one might reference your being on a panel at a conference, e.g. "I was asked that exact same question from somebody in the audience when I was on a panel at the recent XYZ conference."
  • "We have a methodology for approaching this type of situation…" -- You don't just have an answer, you have a complete methodology for solving the problem. This certainly conveys expertise, don't you think? You'll hear top consultants talk about their "frameworks" and their "diagnostic exercises" -- they use phrases like these because they convey an exceptional level of experience and expertise. If it works for them, it can work for you.
  • "We've seen this result in a 50% one-year ROI in 90% of the cases where it's been used." - Dazzle them with numbers. Most people are impressed when people can recite statistics. So, whatever you do for a living, find some interesting stats, memorize them and then pull them out of your pocket when you need to look smart.
  • "We would recommend [insert approach here] because [insert rationale here]" -- There is a lot of research out there that suggests that using the word "because" is very effective in persuading somebody to do something. As an expert, you'll want to take advantage of this fact…because it works.
  • "Let me show you what Apple and Google are doing. They are doing exactly what we're recommending you should do." -- Citing big brands always helps you sound more like an expert. By referencing what smart, highly-regarded companies are doing, you show that you keep track of industry best practices. In addition, you piggyback on their brand.
  • "Let me show you something we did for another client of ours." -- When making a recommendation and citing yourself as an expert, it's important to have examples ready at hand from your own track record. By showing a specific example of your work and talking through the great results it got, you give the client confidence that you can do exactly what you are saying you can do, and have really "been there, done that."

Speaking with Authority

A big part of sounding like an expert is psychological. You have to own it. You have to play the part.

Not surprisingly, the way you speak and carry yourself is a big part of whether others will trust you as an expert. Here are a few helpful hints to speak with confidence.

  • Speak up -- It's a tautology, to be sure, but to speak confidently, you have to speak. If you are in a meeting and say nothing, people assume you have nothing to say, that you are not an expert on the topic at hand. If you're a passive wallflower, you've failed from the get-go to convey yourself as an expert. So, do speak up. In every meeting you attend, make a point to say at least three smart things.
  • Think before you speak -- When Walker Sands provides media training to our client executives, we tell them to envision their words before they speak. The same applies to you. If you rush to respond, you're likely to be less articulate. Construct your thoughts before you say them and do a quick review mentally to make sure you're on the right track. Then and only then, speak.
  • Kill the fillers -- For many of us, it's hard not to say filler phrases like "um" and "er" when we speak. I find myself doing it fairly often even though I know it makes me sound less confident and articulate. The occasional filler is fine, but you should actively work to not use fillers. They make you sound less confident, which can undermine the expertise you are trying to convey.
  • Kill the young-speak -- Beyond "um" and "er," there are specific filler phrases like "like" and "you know" that instantly convey that you are in your early twenties. You won't hear a 55-year-old baby boomer using "like" four times in a sentence. Since age, in the mind of many, is a proxy for experience and expertise, try to sound older than you are. That starts with not saying "like" and "you know." The next time you go to a meeting, try pretending you are fifty and see if that helps.
  • Never feel inferior -- When talking to a CEO, view yourself as the CEO's peer. When talking to anybody senior for that matter, view yourself as their peer. If you start the discussion with any sense of insecurity, you'll likely come off as being weak, hesitant and unsure. Don't be arrogant. Just be confident.
  • Slow it down. Experts speak slowly. If you rush through what you have to say, it suggests you're nervous or unsure. Articulate each word and put a very short empty gap between words.
  • Stand up when you speak. Somebody once told me that they were astounded to realize that if they were sitting at a conference table in a meeting and they then stood up before speaking, people seemed to view them as being wiser and more authoritative. Personally, I don't use this one, but it makes sense that this would work.
  • A statement is not a question. Ever hear somebody say something that is an opinion or fact but they raise their voice at the end, as if they were asking a question? In my business, maybe somebody says "I think Wordpress is the best CMS for you?" and there's a little intonation peak at the end that makes the statement sound like a question. Don't do that. Experts speak authoritatively, so avoid raising your voice at the end of a sentence.
  • Record yourself -- Just as professional athletes view game tapes after their games, you should grade your performance after you have the opportunity to present yourself as an expert. I recommend recording yourself on your smartphone and then playing it back. Identify opportunities to improve and then apply those improvement concepts the next time you have an at-bat.
  • Ask others for feedback -- I can't think of a single time that a young person who works with me has asked me after a client meeting "How did I do? Do you think I did well? Do you have any suggestions for how I can improve?" That's a shame. You simply won't get better if you don't ask for feedback. If you work with people who you respect and trust, ask them for their advice on how you can improve.
  • Study grammar -- If I'm listening to somebody, nothing undermines my faith in them faster than a grammar faux-pas. For example, a state senator in New Mexico recently had this to say about an adversary: "I think both her and the governor are bad for the state…" Really? Wow. As soon as you make a grammar mistake like that, you lose all your credibility. Read books on grammar and check out some of the amazing grammar websites that are out there. As your grammar improves, so too will your stature as an expert.
  • Keep current on expert phrases -- Whether it's "best practices," "industry benchmarks," "low-hanging fruit," "quick wins" or whatever the smart-person phrase du jour is, you might want to keep your ears open for what smart people are saying when they speak. If it works for them, it might also work for you.
  • Don't overdo it. Nobody likes a pompous, arrogant jerk. There's a fine line between being an expert and being a know-it-all, pretentious prick who can't play nice with others. Whatever you do, don't cross that line.

Lead with Your Recommendation

I strongly recommend that when you start speaking, you start with your key point or key recommendation.

The alternative approach, which I don't recommend, to making an expert recommendation or statement is to talk and talk and talk and then make your recommendation, as in "blah blah blah -- I recommend XYZ."

Flip that approach on its head and lead with the recommendation, as in "I recommend XYZ. Blah blah blah (articulate rationale here). For those reasons, we would absolutely recommend XYZ." The first approach does not convey expert status. It makes you sound like a rambler who is lost and maybe is searching for the right answer. By stating the conclusion up front, you make it easier for your listener to understand what you are saying and you convey more expertise in the subject at hand.

What to Do When You Don't Know the Answer

Should an expert always act as if they have all the answers? Unequivocally, my answer is no. Part of being an expert is knowing when you don't know something. In the situation where you don't know the answer, the best response is "I'd like to circle back with you on that question."

An alternative way to say it is "I'd like to put a little more thought into that and I'll follow up with you after the session" or "There's some good research on that issue, and rather than just respond off the cuff, I'd like to review the research and then circle back with you later." If you work at a consulting firm and there are other experts who might know the answer, you could also say something like "I have a few thoughts on that question, but I've got a colleague who has spent a lot of time on that particular question. I'd like to check with her, and then follow up with you with a thoughtful response tomorrow.

I'm not a fan of saying "I don't know" or "I'm not sure" explicitly. It's OK to do it every so often, but if you say it too often, it's a tell that you might not really be an expert because it sews seeds of doubt with your audience. If you try to avoid those clear admissions of ignorance, as I'm recommending, you're likely to say them rarely, which is exactly the right frequency for an "I don't have a clue" confession.

What About When There Isn't a Right Answer?

"It depends" is another phrase that can get you in trouble. Use it sparingly. People want answers. They don't want a complex series of if-then logic that kicks off a migraine. Instead of saying "it depends," think through all of those dependencies, make a decision and make a strong recommendation, with confidence.

It's OK to acknowledge that there are some gray areas, so you might say "There are a number of factors that play into that decision, but I would recommend you…"

If you truly are not sure about the answer, don't say "it depends." Instead, ask clarifying questions. For a website developer, if somebody asks "Do you think we should have a blog on our site?" you might ask them "Do you have internal resources who will be willing to post at least one new blog post each week? If not, do you have budget to outsource that work?" Then, after getting the responses you need, say "Based on what you've told me, I would recommend…"To me, that's a much better response than a wishy-washy "it depends" answer.

Don't Just Answer Their Questions -- Take Charge Instead

You've probably gathered from what I've written so far that part of what it takes to be considered an expert is being able to answer questions credibly, articulately and intelligently. That's true, but a true expert won't wait to be asked a question. They take charge of the conversation and proactively showcase their expertise in a way that is productive to all involved parties.

Let's say I'm a website designer and I'm in a meeting with a client to talk about redesigning their website. The client is not likely to ask me "Do you think we should have our phone number up at the top of the page?" But I can bring this up proactively by saying "One thing I notice on your current site is that you don't have your phone number prominently displayed on every page. We've done some tests in which we've added the phone number prominently at the top of client websites, and we've seen on average a 30 percent increase in lead gen directly after we've made that simple change. This is something we would absolutely recommend you do when you've redesigned your new site. It's simple things like that that we've seen time and time again help our clients to improve the lead gen capabilities of their website and better use their digital assets to drive business growth."

Notice the difference between just sitting around waiting to answer a question versus proactively offering my insights? With the latter approach, I impress the client with my knowledge and expertise. I also convey to him that I am proactive in bringing my expertise to bear to help my clients. By taking control of the conversation, you give yourself an opportunity to shine and say smart things, practiced bits of wisdom that you've said time and time again to others.

As an added benefit, there's less risk in looking stupid after you take charge. If you just sit there fielding questions, there's a good chance you'll be asked a question you don't have a good answer for. By taking control, you mitigate that risk.

Asking Questions Conveys Expertise

OK, as long as we are on the topic of answering questions, I'd like to note that it's actually good if you ask questions and not just field them. When I meet somebody, I judge their credibility and expertise based on the questions they ask me. Smart people ask smart questions. They are insatiably curious. They know that only by asking questions can they get to root cause and the heart of the matter.

The key takeaway on this one is to build your inventory of smart questions and learn how to use questions to diagnose problems. If you can do that, you'll be doing a great service to your quest to attain expert standing in your profession.

Treat Being an Expert Like Getting and Staying in Shape

Being an expert isn't easy. If it were, we'd all be experts. Just as an athlete trains, just as somebody who wants to get in shape must go to the gym regularly, so too an aspiring expert must work on improvement with diligence and discipline.

Noted sage and scholar Hillel once said "He who does not increase his knowledge, decreases it." Keep this in mind as you work to grow your expertise. You should read tons of books and trade publications, follow and learn from myriad experts online, go to conferences and talk to smart people. Never rest on your laurels. Never feel satisfied with what you've learned to date.

Most importantly, get practical, low-risk experience being in expert mode whenever you can. At Walker Sands, in our Digital group, we ask even our youngest and newest team members to lead internal professional development sessions. We do that because we know that the best way to learn is to teach. When you have to articulate to a group what you know, it forces you to organize your knowledge and fill in any gaps before you make that presentation.

Document What You Know

It's good to have a repository of go-to things you can say that makes you sound like an expert. As you progress in your career, as you learn new things, make a mental note of them and store them away for future use.

Even better, write it down or key it in. Create a "What I Know That Matters" diary and periodically add new items to it. This isn't the place to record trivial or obscure insights or even practical tips that make you more productive but that nobody else cares about it. No, this is the place to record your thoughts and expertise on matters that actually matter to the people whom you want to impress.

Until you build this base of smart things to say, you are in improv mode. You're having to think on the fly. As an expert, thinking on the fly is something you should, of course, be able to do, but it's hard work. It's much easier to just go back to your playbook of things to say that convey expertise.

Speaking of playbooks, we have done a considerable amount of work on messaging playbooks for entire companies. We work with the company to document their messaging and their perspective on key industry issues. The company then loads that brilliance that we've documented into an app. When employees are about to meet with prospective customers or be on a panel at an industry conference, they can easily access the previously agreed-upon talking points that make them sound like experts. The beauty of this is it makes the entire company look smarter, and it also avoids a scenario in which two people from the same company are espousing diametrically opposite opinions on the same issue.

Mental Blocks

With respect to sounding like an expert, I've covered a lot of things so far. But I haven't touched on the psychology of acting like an expert. Mentally, some people have psychological blocks that prevent them from grabbing expert status. Here are a few I've heard over the years:

  • "I've only been doing this for two years. How can I claim to be an expert?"
  • "I once said something in a meeting and I was wrong. Ever since then, I've taken the approach of keeping my mouth shut."
  • "I feel like being an expert is like bragging. My family always told me that bragging was a bad thing and that I shouldn't do it."

OK, I could write forever on why each of these excuses should not preclude you from trying to become an expert or from presenting yourself as an expert.

But, for now, simply be aware that you may be your own worst enemy in your quest to be an expert. Be introspective and think through if you have any beliefs that prevent you from asserting yourself as an expert. Once you identify your blocks, destroy them as fast as you can.

The Ethics of Sounding Smart

Throughout this blog post, I've given you some good advice on how to sound like an expert. Of course, it's one thing to sound smart and it's another thing to be smart. There are books out there that can help you become something you are not. For example, if you get a job because you read "50 Great Responses to Common Interview Questions," you've likely tricked your way into a job you may not be qualified for. That's not what I'm recommending here.

Don't use these tips to sound like an expert when you aren't one because that won't last. You'll get busted in a hurry. No. This is written for those of you who are experts but don't convey confidence in your interactions with other people.

When I see that, I think it's a shame. You're so smart. You know your stuff. It's time to get the credit you deserve. I hope this is helpful to some folks out there. If it is, let me know. Also, if you have any suggestions to add, please join in the conversation by adding a comment below. Thanks!