An interesting side conversation popped up the other night while I was teaching networking. I had mentioned that I got a lot of the material for the course from the many mistakes I made when I first started to learn how to network. What came out of the conversation was that many of us seem surprised when someone we consider an expert “levels with us”. In other words, when someone admits that they still make mistakes, weren’t always proficient in their area or expertise or are still learning or working on improving. At first, I was surprised that many people feel this way but then when I thought more about it, I can understand why.
Let’s start with defining an expert or guru. Think about it for a moment: what makes someone an expert or guru? To some it’s knowledge or certification, to others it’s a following. In my opinion, an expert is someone who has a system that works the way they say it does (and I don’t mean systems that have fine print or are misleading).
The big challenge today is that anyone with a lot of time (or a lot of money) can appear to be an expert. With social media, blogging and do-it-yourself web sites, it’s pretty easy for anyone with the desire to do so to look like a guru. There are so many motivational experts out there that they could form their own countries. And there are probably tens of thousands of people lurking on-line with a sure-fire way for you to get rich quick. There are even social media experts that can teach you how to get thousands of followers on Twitter or Facebook and satisfy your need to look important.
As I poke around cyberspace looking for others that write about public speaking, I find a lot of people that have taken a class or watched a video on public speaking and feel like they’ve learned the secret to it all. I also see a lot of folks who believe that their experience with Toastmasters makes them an expert — I used to be one of them. I saw one web site where the person’s tag line was “Specializing in the Toastmasters Method of Public Speaking Instruction.”
So are any of these people really experts? They could be — but truthfully, it’s not always easy to tell. Many of these people are simply experts in their own minds — we’ll call them pretend experts because they’re pretending to be something they’re not. Some of them are emerging experts — people that are absorbing information on their topic like a sponge and although they may not have the years of experience, they’re walking the walk every day. And then there’s a small minority of people out there that are true experts — people with a good system that helps most of the people that use it.
How can you tell which category a person falls into? The key is honesty. If the person is a true expert, he or she will have the confidence to tell you things that others won’t. You see, most experts like to show that their systems work by demonstrating growth — and they usually use themselves as a case study with a before and after story. The pretend experts exaggerate both ends of the story — for example, a weight loss guru might say that she weighed 600 pounds at one point but then slimmed down to a perfect size six. Emerging experts will often exaggerate one end of the story, but not nearly as dramatically as the pretend expert — so in the weight loss example, the woman might say she was once over 200 pounds (and will not disclose that she was pregnant at the time) and now fits into a size six. A true expert will give it to you straight — in this case, the woman might say she lost thirty pounds in thirty days.
Where honesty gets a bit fuzzy is when it comes to the present. Pretend and true experts alike are often not going to tell you that their system isn’t for everyone or that they still struggle with challenges today. Pretend experts will never admit to any failures and will flat out tell you that their system works for everyone and it permanently addresses the issue. For example, I read a blog post from a public speaking expert that said he never receives negative reviews when he presents. When I looked at his website, 90% of his testimonials were from various officers from Toastmasters clubs.
Emerging experts are more likely to admit that their system isn’t for everyone than they are to say that they are still improving. Again, they don’t have that confidence yet — even though their system might be pretty solid. I once watched a woman present and thought her material was excellent. She was asked by an audience member about how to deal with nervousness before a speech. Her answer made perfect sense but then she added “since I started doing that, I haven’t felt nervous about speaking.” Then afterwards, she and I were talking and she told me about an upcoming engagement that she was nervous about. I didn’t take her to task on it because I could relate to her (and since she only asked my opinion on her material, that’s all I commented on).
Real experts will typically either answer honestly or give an indirect answer. So if you were to ask if their system works for everyone, they’d either say it’s not for everyone, or they’d say that so far it has but if it doesn’t, there’s a money back guarantee. Sometimes the expert is sales savvy where other times they honestly believe that their system has worked out all its flaws. A common practice with real experts is they’ll use an indirect story where they recently didn’t do the right thing, but once they caught themselves, everything was better. So a speaking expert might say that they were overconfident and didn’t practice their speech as thoroughly as they wanted to and ended up feeling very nervous when they were about to hit the stage.
So the bottom line is this — experts are people too. Despite what they say, they still make mistakes, go though difficult periods and face challenges. The trick is to learn to distinguish a real expert from a pretend one and that can often be done with questioning. Before I invest in a system by an expert, I like to test it out by trying out their less expensive products (usually books or free articles) or grabbing their products from the library. That usually gives me enough information to research the system and see if it’s worthwhile. In some cases, others have done the work for me — there’s a great web site rating the gurus of real estate investing by John T. Reed that casts doubts on many so-called experts, including those that have made the New York Times Bestseller list. So even a big following doesn’t necessarily make one a true expert.
James Feudo owns the Boston Web Design Agency JVF Solutions and loves blogging about personal development and communication in his spare time.
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