“Expert” is about as squirrelly a professional designation as there is. In my job with Esquire, I’m often called upon to be a cocktails expert (I direct most of the spirits/drinking coverage), a pop-culture expert (I direct a lot of the film/TV/music coverage) and a cars expert (I edit the cars column). All of that, of course, makes me an expert (or “expert”) on how you get to be an expert.
The steps: 1) Have some experience in a certain field. 2) Add the word “expert” to your e-mail signature.
Whether you’re an expert or an “expert,” you may end up with recognition from peers, a book deal or, most common, a guest speaker/panelist gig. The latter occasionally means money, but it always means connections, publicity and respect.
There are two kinds of speaking gigs: those you’re qualified to do and those you aren’t. You must be able to tell which is which. What you don’t want to do is feign expertise you don’t have. This is a waste of everyone’s time.
How to know if you're an expert
Here’s the test: You get a call or an e-mail or an engraved invitation asking you to “please come to our conference and speak about [YOUR AREA OF EXPERTISE].” Does the invite make you feel nervous and unworthy? Or confident, ready, relaxed?
If you don’t feel nervous, then you’re ready to be an expert. The best speaking gigs are the ones that allow you to simply draw on your years of experience. The worst are the ones you have to study for. If you feel nervous, you might still be ready to provide expertise, but you need to make sure your nerves are about speaking in public—which is normal—and not about posing as something you’re not—which, although common in business, is just a really bad idea.
But if you know what you’re talking about? If you can help people understand a problem, a skill, their business?
“It’s a rare chance to not only share your experiences and perhaps mentor other young people in the audience who are just getting their start, but also to get some feedback from your peers and get that through the questions they ask you or their reactions to you,” says Robert Kline, co-founder and CEO of San Francisco-based hotel investment and asset management company Chartres Lodging Group, and a frequent lecturer. “No matter what business you’re in, any form of marketing or exposure is generally a positive thing.”
It’s a positive thing if you understand the obligations involved in responding to an invitation to be a speaker: the obligation to share your thoughts if you know more than the other people in the room, and the obligation to not share your thoughts if you don’t know more than the other people in the room.
How to prepare
First: Ask the moderator or host exactly what subject you’ll be addressing, how long you’re expected to speak and answer questions, and who the audience will be.
Second: The day before the event, type 10 questions likely to be asked or topics likely to be addressed and develop responses. (If your expertise needs to be delivered via a speech, you’ll have to prepare one, but that’s for another column.)
Third: Have fun. Now, I’m generally skeptical when someone says “have fun” before I’m about to engage in something professional. Fun is for weekends and after work. Fun is for children and retirees. Fun is not for business.
But when it comes to the guest-expert game, fun is important. You’re probably not getting paid for this, after all (see sidebar), so it’s important to approach it in a relaxed way. And the best way to relax is to fully assume the authority that your hosts and the audience are recognizing. The whole point is that you know more about what you’re talking about than anyone else in the room. Embrace that. Otherwise, you’ll be nervous and twitchy. And twitchy people are not having fun.
How to behave like 'an expert'
You must seem self-confident. You must seem a little self-righteous. The key to being an expert is to not equivocate. State your position. State why you think it’s a good position. Be direct. Be bold. Your audience doesn’t want to be placated.
They don’t want their positions confirmed or their experiences validated. They want to be surprised. They want to have something to question, judge, argue against or accept and embrace. They want something to work with.
But you must balance the self-assuredness with humility. You must thank your host. You must thank the audience.
“As soon as anyone gets up at a crowd, the first thing they do is thank the host. Say thank you so much, it’s such an honor, thank you to XYZ Corp. that has graciously invited me to this event,” advises Jill Schlesinger, a business analyst for CBS and a frequent guest speaker. “In the body of my presentation, or if I’m moderating a panel, I try to give a little shout-out to the sponsoring company in some way that makes sense. I tend not to want to go speak for an organization that I wouldn’t feel I would want to say something nice about, because I try not to do business with people I don’t like.”
You must express how much of an honor it is, because it is an honor. These people have come to listen to you. Imagine that. You’ve spent years developing your business, your craft, your wisdom and skill. And now people simply want to hear you talk about it. This is not a gig you have to master. You’ve already mastered it.
Key technical matters
If you’re not going to be paid, consider the costs you will incur because of the gig—time, especially. Make sure the gig is worth it.
Fact: Roughly 20 percent of guest experts regret agreeing to be guest experts. (Note: There is no factual basis for that figure.) This is because they didn’t ask enough questions before accepting the invitation.
Upon accepting, ask what the scope of the talk should be.
Anticipate 10 subtopics or questions that will likely arise during your presentation, and make notes on each one.
Find out about the audience. What’s their experience? How much do they already know about the subject? How likely are they to heckle you?
Note: If you know you’re going to speak in front of a heckle-ready crowd (at, say, the International Association of Jerks and Punks convention), you will undoubtedly be part of the 20 percent. And you need to get paid for that one.
Always thank your host.
Then thank the audience.
Then thank the sponsor.
That is the end of your humility.
The rest of the time, you must be bold, clear, self-assured.
You must not be boring.