"Please stop calling yourself an expert! Even if you're not a fake, you're probably wrong!"
Harsh? I'm not sure. And I shouldn't have been eavesdropping. But it was one of those exasperated statements whose tone and message sort of penetrates your commute-time daydreaming whether you intended it to or not. And after that, I forgot what I had been thinking about.
‘Experts’. Pretty much anyone can claim to be an ‘expert’ these days. It’s a popular label, not dissimilar to the other hugely popular and also too-often artistically interpreted ‘entrepreneur’. In fact, if you google ‘expert’, it comes up with well over a billion hits.
It's a very crowded space.
Unfortunately, over-use of the term 'expert' only serves to undermine it. Because by its very nature, not everyone can be an expert. And not everyone deserves the title. And some of those who use it are downright dangerous to unsuspecting and trusting consumers.
What’s driving this overuse of the term?
There are a multitude of factors, but amongst the most prevalent is the pressure on us as individuals and businesses to be something better than we might otherwise be judged to be.
This pressure is frequently exacerbated by the increasingly short time-frames in which we have to demonstrate how we are that much better than our peers. It’s not just impatience that makes us use the term unjustifiably. Frequently, it’s the overriding sense that there’s no time to generate a proven track record any more and competition is fierce, so using what we hope are the right corporate / HR buzzwords to create a convincing impression will have to do.
But this consistent overuse of a term that should command respect and appreciation has essentially undermined its natural, professional and slightly exclusive meaning and has turned it instead into just one more 'white noise' buzzword - the exact point made by my frustrated fellow passenger on the train: "oh yeah, don't tell me, you're an expert. Blah, blah! Isn't everyone?!"
You only have to turn to social media to see the breath-taking range and volume of contributors declaring themselves to be an ‘expert’ in something and promising you incredible results in return for what’s in your wallet.
I’m not for one moment suggesting that every ‘expert’ is a faker, or even that all those who use the description of ‘expert’ undeservedly and a little too creatively, are shysters. But as the audience for these declarations of expertise, we should perhaps be a bit more discerning and a little less trusting of those freely waving the term around.
And as individuals, we should also take care how we use the label when we describe ourselves. Misuse of it doesn’t just cause scepticism of the term generally; it can cause serious individual reputational damage and undo all efforts to create a compelling impression.
One of the downsides of our ‘media on tap’ lifestyles is that verifying someone’s actual expertise, and their genuine qualification to credibly pronounce on topics that are important to us, is not always easy. Sure, LinkedIn CV’s and their job history and testimonial sections especially, really do help and should always be checked if you’re planning to rely on something that someone has said. But beyond that, where do you go? Many of us don’t even go that far.
The recent advice and real life examples provided by Hannah Martin on The Talented Ladies’ Club web-site is a salient warning to all those who trust - and part with their money - too easily. In her article ‘The Six Figure Business Con’, Hannah’s tips about how to ensure someone is genuinely credible and trustworthy are well-made.
Leaving aside the fakers and creative licence-takers, there’s then the fact that even those who genuinely deserve to use the description ‘expert’, still get it wrong; something that’s never been more starkly apparent in today’s post-truth environment, where ‘the experts’ have frequently been criticised for predicting outcomes that just didn’t happen (and which in hindsight, should arguably have been more apparent).
Just because you're not 100% right every time doesn't mean that you can't be an expert; but it sure as anything doesn't help your credibility, or the reputation of experts collectively.
So what does it take to be credible as a true expert today?
Ensuring that you, or the ‘expert’ you’ve encountered, meet Hannah’s criteria is a great start.
The linked article by Richard Portes below, recently published by the London Business School, is a good, short read and a decent defence of true experts - those who don’t deserve to be undermined by the many ‘fast-buck-fakers’ that we increasingly encounter in our newsfeeds and our networks.
There are plenty of true and genuine experts. What I’ve always found interesting is that the majority of those who really are ‘expert’, don’t describe themselves as such. They don’t need to. And generally, for those true experts, you can swiftly and easily validate their credentials, including finding out what independent and credible third parties say about them.
And for those of us who aren’t (yet) experts, well, there are plenty of realistic and savvy universities, employers and businesses who place a greater value on authenticity, aptitude, great customer service, ambition and honesty, than they do on self-published and not verifiable descriptions.
Call me an idealist, but so much more can be achieved when people and businesses are authentic, verifiable and don’t have to ‘blow their own trumpets’ to get attention. Indeed, someone else’s endorsement of what a person or business has done and achieved for them is probably one of the most powerful and compelling pieces of ‘marketing’ there is.
So yes, we do need the true experts, as Portes argues – just not the overuse of the term where it is clearly not deserved.
Just because you use the label, it doesn't make you credible.
"I think the people of this country have had enough of experts" Michael Gove touched a populist nerve. Leading up to Britain’s referendum on membership of the European Union, he delivered a soundbite that gained wide currency. Gove, then Lord Chancellor, declared: “I think the people of this country have had enough of experts with organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong.” So was he right? Are people fed up with experts? And more importantly, should they be fed up? Would policies be superior and people be better off if the views of experts were ignored?