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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:
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.
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.
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:
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!