What kind of an expert are you?

Years ago, when I taught English as a Foreign Language, a student asked me to explain how continental drift worked. As a confident, authoritative teacher, I launched into it – and halfway through my garbled explanation, I realised several things. First, I know my geography is hopeless. I’d only recently discovered that the West Indies weren’t West of India. I had no idea how continental drift worked. Second, I was assuming that as Teacher, I had all the answers – but I didn’t. I had all the answers about the English language. Third, my whole class was also buying into that assumption, The Teacher Knows All, even though one of those students had a doctorate in geology. I stopped, checked that they understood the phrase’s meaning, then asked the geologist to explain the mechanism.

When you position yourself as an expert, it’s easy to vacillate between two extremes. On the one hand, you may doubt yourself: “Why do I think I know so much? Who am I to declare myself an expert?”. On the other hand, like me with continental drift, you may push it to extremes and find yourself grandly pronouncing on all sorts of things, well beyond your realm of actual expertise. When you recognise what your expertise is, and what it isn’t, you can find the balance between those two extremes.

99U’s recent article on Understanding how to frame your expertise gives a brilliant model for understanding your expertise. In it, Tara Mohr identifies four types of experts: the survivor; the cross-trainer; the called; and the specialist. You can read the whole article here, to identify which type you are. This post is going to look at how each type should approach their book.

The survivor

You’ve been through something, learned a heck of a lot along the way, and now you are on fire to share what you’ve learned.

We want to read people’s stories: we want to understand how they coped with extreme situations; we want to compare their experiences with our own.  For someone with depression, for example, reading other people’s experiences can be immensely helpful. As a “survivor” of whatever experience you’ve had, your story has huge value. When you write your book, these are the key pointers to bear in mind:

  • Focus on your story and the lessons you learnt. Resist the temptation to generalise that and turn it into advice for the reader: that’s not the kind of expertise you’re offering. Any psychologist or counsellor will tell you that what works for one person won’t work for everyone. No psychological or medical study is based on a sample of one. But one story can have huge value.
  • Structure it around clear stages in your experience: that might be chronological, or around how it impacted on different areas of your life.
  • Be honest: include the times you didn’t cope, the times you broke down, the times you messed up. It’s tempting to gloss ourselves up and put on our finest face – but how will that help people struggling through the same situation, facing the inevitable setbacks, failures, and difficulties?
  • Get clearance from the other people involved. If the story involves close family and friends, tell them what you’re going to write about and why. Let them see a final draft. It’s only polite, and may save you a lot more trouble.
  • Get a sensitive editor who will keep an eye on the tone. When you’re close up to an intensely personal story, sometimes the tone can go awry.

The cross-trainer

In our context, the “cross trainer” is the physicist who takes a look at a problem in medicine, the family therapist who writes about fixing dysfunctional teams at work. Cross trainers have deep expertise in field “x,” and bring ways of thinking from field “x” to bear as they look at field “y.”

My art teacher teaches me a huge amount about writing – I get insights from him that I wouldn’t get from any writing teacher. His knowledge about the creative process is invaluable and transfers to writing perfectly; his insights are often easier for me to understand in the context of art, instead of the too-familiar context of writing. If he started advising me on plot pacing, though, I’d bristle.  When you’re cross-training, your expertise is valuable precisely because it’s different to your readers’ expertise. When you write your book, these are the key pointers to bear in mind:

  • Identify clearly what expertise you’re offering them – and what you’re not. My art teacher is offering expertise on the creative process, not writing mechanisms. Stick to your expertise and don’t try to stray into theirs.
  • Speak their language and a common language. Express your expertise in terms they will understand, which highlight why it’s useful to them. Sometimes you even need to plan your content in two columns: one column for your expertise; one column for how you explain it to them and what they get out of it.
  • Start and finish with them. In each chapter and section, start with their needs and their situation, then draw the material from your expertise, then go back to them. Don’t assume they can join the dots and apply the knowledge themselves: they’re not experts in your field, so what’s clear to you isn’t always clear to them.
  • Trial your expertise on them. Find people in your target readership and give them chapters, white papers, and drafts of your book. Because you’re not in their field, you need to road-test whether your expertise does translate across the way you think it does. (This will also help you build a community of readers.)

The called

Then there are those people that dive into a project out of a sense of calling. They feel an inner, mysterious sense of “this work is mine to do.”

Someone who feels “called” to a particular field often isn’t an expert, at least in the sense we usually think of. You might not have the expertise – but you do have the passion, which is more valuable than you realise. In her ongoing Wisdom Project, Kimberly Snellow realised she desperately wanted to write down the collective wisdom of the world, the lessons we each learn. She didn’t think she had the whole world’s wisdom – but she had the passion to set about collecting it. Don’t dismiss a project you feel strongly about because you don’t have the expertise: harness your passion to gather the expertise. Other people might be experts but lack your passion; it’s down to you to make it happen. When you write your book, these are the key pointers to bear in mind:

  • Write your mission statement down, early on. As you move on, learning new information, it’s easy to forget that original burning clarity, or get so deluged with data that you can’t see the wood for the trees. Hold onto your vision.
  • Gather the expertise: that might be collecting it, collating it, doing research, interview people – whatever form it takes.
  • Don’t feel you have to become an expert. Unless you’re actually intending to retrain and change career, don’t. Your role here might well be as midwife, as go-between between the experts and the wider world.
  • Keep some distance. Occasionally, step back from the project completely. Go back to your mission statement; look at the field with an outsider’s eye again. This is especially important when it comes to planning your structure.

The specialist

The specialist has formal training (degrees, certifications) or lots of work experience in the area of their project. They might also achieve their specialist knowledge by conducting extensive research on their topic.

This is the most assured expert position: when someone says, “What makes you think you’re an expert?” you can point to years of experience, dozens of jobs, and relevant qualifications. This isn’t only true for people who work in huge fields like “the whole of marketing!” and “all of finance!”.  Don’t dismiss your micro-niche: recognise how deep your expertise in that area is. When you write your book, these are the key pointers to bear in mind:

  • Speak your readers’ language. You’re writing this for people with less expertise than you, otherwise what’s the point? So keep jargon to an absolute minimum. Don’t try to impress them with your terms – impress them with how clearly and simply you explain things.
  • Include the 101 lessons. The basics you learnt early on are often the first things your readers need to learn. No teacher is ever ashamed to go back to basics. Get their groundwork clear so you can carry them through to the masterclass stuff.
  • Define your scope clearly. If you’ve been working in this field for years, your expertise won’t all fit in one book.  Assume you’re going to write between four and seven books and decide clearly what this particular book is going to be about.
When you know what kind of expert you are – and what kind you’re not – you can speak with authority, without cringing, without posturing, standing firm on what you know.

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