How to be an expert (and Spot One if You're Not)

By Stephen Ekstrom | Fire Starter Brands LLC

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Recent long flights have given me some time to think about what makes someone an "expert" in their field?

This question first came to mind when I was invited to speak at a conference for shopping center and destination marketers. I realized that I've become someone that others look to, an expert, when they need more information on the professional travel marketplace.

When did this happen? I didn't study tourism in school, I hate shopping and I never took a class on destination marketing; in fact, I never knew this field existed when I entered the work place. 

Thinking about how I became a "go-to" person on this topic has made me think about how anyone becomes a person to call when others need help, about how people become experts in their field. It isn't as simple as learning everything there is to know about a topic and printing up business cards. We all know someone who thinks they've learned everything there may be to know about a subject and can't find their way out of a wet paper bag - you have my permission to call these folks "educated idiots."

So... What is an expert?

Understandably, knowledge is an important quality when it comes to expertise, it's only one of several factors that makes someone an expert in their field. Here are five characteristics of real experts:

  1. Knowledge: Being an expert requires a tremendous working knowledge of your subject. Memorized information is a part of this understanding and the other part comes by knowing where to find the information you haven't yet memorized.

  2. Commitment: Some may call this experience. How long you are committed to doing this work is a major indicator of your understanding of the topic. In his book, The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle writes, "With the same amount of practice, the long-term-commitment group outperformed the short-term-commitment group by 400 percent. The long-term-commitment group, with a mere twenty minutes of weekly practice, progressed faster than the short-termers who practiced for an hour and a half. When long-term commitment combined with high levels of practice, skills skyrocketed."

  3. Ability to Communicate: Expertise without the ability to share that knowledge with others is virtually pointless. Dustin Wax wrote, "Being the only person in the world who can solve a problem, time after time after time, doesn’t make you an expert, it makes you a slave to the problem." For a while you will be able to make a great living solving the problem but you'll eventually be replaced by someone else who's learned your secret, can communicate better and is willing to share it with others.

  4. Your Network: The major difference between a professional and an expert is that the expert is connected with others. Those with shared interests engage in a social way, creating a platform to exchange ideas, promote innovation and, of course, provide referrals between those who need help and those who can provide it.

  5. Curiosity: Experts want to know more about their field. They recognize their own limitations and are eager to learn from others. They seek new answers, new viewpoints and new opportunities to expand their field. Experts know that they don't know it all and they are constantly looking to learn more.

How to become an expert

It just happens... Yes, some people just fall into the category of expert without a lot of foresight or planning. This is how it happened for me, becoming an expert in tourism marketing without ever making that my goal. Consciously or not, we all pursue expertise by attending school, learning on the job, personal study or some other route.

Developing expertise takes time. Here are a few things to focus on if you'd like to become an expert in your field:

  • Keep learning: Being an expert means being aware, sometimes painfully aware, of the limitations of your current level of understanding. There will never be a point at which you are "finished" learning your field. Invest in a lifelong learning process. Continue to look for new ideas and viewpoints both within your field and from outside that can help broaden your understanding.

  • Network: Build strong relationships with other people in your field. Seek out mentors and be ready to share your knowledge with those who have less experience. A bit of self-promotion is a good thing; make sure that people who may need your skills are aware of your existence.

  • Practice: Get out in the field and practice what you've learned. You wouldn't trust an SEO manager who's name doesn't come up on google, right? Let your daily practice reflect your expertise so that others can trust you as an expert.

  • Presentation: Learn to use whatever tools you need to present your expertise in a positive light. Others will make a quick assessment of your skill level based on their impression of your brand. Your brand is a combination of the words you speak, the look you present and the message your materials deliver. Use each opportunity for a first impression to distinguish yourself as an expert, not an educated idiot.

  • Sharing: Share your knowledge often and widely so that others understand how they can benefit from your expertise. Entire industries are born from a handful of experts that have shared their knowledge - bloggers, SEO/SEM experts, personal shoppers, etc.

How to identify an expert

There are a lot of people out there passing themselves off as experts who haven't got a clue what they're doing. How can you tell if someone is selling you a pile of poo or if they're the real thing?

Here are a few things to look for:

  • Commitment: Experts are enthusiastic about their fields of expertise. They love what they do and see their work as a privilege, not an obligation.

  • Authenticity: A true expert is looking to help their industry and prospective clients. They can easily tell you what service(s) you need and, more importantly, those you don't need. They don't need to sell to you when they offer the insight you need.

  • Open dialogue: Experts should be willing to explain what they are doing, unless they are magicians. They want to share their knowledge and are confident in their abilities. A hack is insecure, more likely to tout trade secrets and protective of their role as the sole source of knowledge.

  • Open-mindedness: Experts are always looking for better ways to do their work, better solutions. They should be able to recognize the mistakes that non-experts have made and why they happen. Experts listen, knowing that they don't have all the answers while wanting to solve the problem.

  • Clarity: An expert should be able to communicate what they're doing and why. Every industry has its jargon and experts are those who can share their understanding with people who don't carry a thesaurus. Experts are less interested in impressing people with big words than they are in sharing what they know.

  • Ask Around: Experts are known by their peers. They're connected with people who work in the field and have spent time building those relationships. They're known for their work, knowledge and experience. Pick up the phone, visit LinkedIn, check with a trade association and use your own social network to find people who know people that can help. While you're at it, be sure to connect with me on LinkedIn.

Do you need a tour & travel expert? Click here for a free consultation.

I'm sure there are things you can add to this list. What do you think it takes for someone to be an expert? What advice might you give for someone who's looking for an expert? What would you tell a friend who's looking to become an expert?


ABOUT THE AUTHOR...

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Stephen Ekstrom is a well-recognized tourism marketing professional whose influence reaches over 500,000,000 travelers every year. He's been profiled by the New York Times and appeared on CBS, NBC and NY1. He is a fixture in the travel trade and has served as a board member, expert panelist, committee chair, mentor and program facilitator. Fire Starter Brands, founded by Ekstrom in 2010, manages a network of nearly 5,500 opted-in global travel trade buyers, advising and assisting smart travel industry suppliers and destination marketers. Stephen currently lives in South Florida with his two dogs, Match & Rudy.