On Being an Expert

As I am a reluctant speaker and presenter, one of the redeeming values of me delivering workshops at conferences is that I am often able to attend and learn from other people’s sessions. In a time of declining resources, it really is a free and often serendipitous kind of learning.

This week I sat in on a keynote address delivered by a vivacious and fun blonde who was presented as an expert able to assist participants with their management and leadership challenges. Without a doubt she knew how to engage an audience. She was cute and funny and moved continually throughout the audience giving away $5 and $10 bills and throwing a variety of objects including bananas, chocolate bars, loonies, and rubber balls. While she did deliver an enjoyable and entertaining session, I’m not sure I would consider her a leadership expert. She said all the right things about change and attitude but none of it was really new or innovative. Instead, like many other keynote speakers these days, it seemed she had taken a somewhat generic session, tweaked it to fit the audience, and spun it with her own giveaways gimmick. While it certainly worked for a lot of people, it didn’t sit as well with me. It took me a while to figure out that it was because I would have preferred to have heard from a real leadership expert. Yet, when I chewed that over, I realized I wasn’t even sure what I meant by expert. What exactly does it take for one to be an “expert”?

I do know an expert is someone who others would look to when they want more information.  In this case, the speaker definitely had information. However I’m thinking it takes more than information to be seen as an expert. For sure you would have a lot of information about your topic off the top of your head but you also need to demonstrate that you know where to find more. Real experts are also comfortable enough with their own knowledge base that they are also more likely to be the ones crediting others within their field.

As important as information is for being seen as an expert, it is perhaps one’s commitment and practice within the field that sets one apart as an expert. While the theory and information is important, a real expert will also have experience and the stories to tell about how they have applied it. She or he will be able to demonstrate innovative ways their knowledge has been applied as well as how it can be applied to situations or as solutions to problems that haven’t yet surfaced or been identified. Those stories are critical because they facilitate our learning and understanding of the information being conveyed. Additionally the stories and learnings that result from their application of the theory is often what motivates us to want to apply it ourselves.

Experts are also typified by the collective knowledge and experience they have that in turn lends itself to conveying their confidence, authenticity, and openness. As a result they will also be the ones ready to listen and find new ideas and approaches. Real experts know they don’t have all the answers.

The other common characteristic I’ve seen in experts is that they are typically very good at explaining what they are doing and why. Unlike more generic presenters, they don’t seem to need the jargon and are able to take a complex issue and explain it with great clarity.

The experts who I want to hear are also those who remain curious and committed to ongoing learning as they recognize they must continue to grow rather than rest on their laurels. It is almost as if to be an expert one first needs to learn that the more one knows, the more one learns they don’t know. Consequently, they continue to seek new answers and approaches.

When all is said and done, I do wish the banana thrower continued success as a keynote speaker (and perhaps more accuracy with her throws). But I do know if I am ever in a position to influence the choice of a keynote speaker, I’ll be the one pushing for a passionate “expert” from within our own field rather than a speaker with a generic message and a gimmick.

Posted on 04-18-10


Brenda - as someone currently preparing to present at a conference, I am taking this blog to heart.  Great advice!

•Posted by Janet Naclia  on  04/19/10  at  11:07 AM


I love this! So true, these days in information overload.

•Posted by Dianne  on  04/20/10  at  03:36 PM


So very interesting, Timothy Ferriss in his book ‘The 4-hour workweek’ talks about becoming a top expert in 4 weeks. On the other hand Seth Godin in ‘Outliers’ says it takes 10K hours to become an expert.

Check out this blog at
with further discussion on the expert conversation.

It includes a video of Godin discussing the difference between ‘hit’ and expert via spaghetti.

•Posted by Karen  on  04/24/10  at  01:03 PM

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