When is an expert not an expert?

When is an expert not an expert?

Today, everyone seems to be an expert. There’s so much (warning: buzzword incoming) ‘thought leadership’ around, it becomes extremely hard to determine who really knows their stuff, and who is merely parroting information and insight researched from Google.

There is too much content out there that aspires to showcase expertise or authority while merely rehashing information and ideas from elsewhere, without adding any unique value or insight. The information may still be accurate and valuable. But it ain’t a sign that the writer, or the brand who paid the bill, is any more of an expert than you would be if you simply popped the same keywords into a search engine.

Anyone who reads my stuff regularly or has heard me speak will know I’m a cynical and skeptical grumpy old bugger. So, naturally, I’ve developed an irrational bias against a lot of what passes for ‘expert commentary’ and ‘thought leadership’ these days. And when anyone ever accuses me of being an expert, I’m quick to correct them for fear of the stigma (my own irrational stigma, remember) sticking to me.

Ironically, I’ve also stated elsewhere that I believe ‘expert’ or ‘thought leader’ status is defined by others, not by ourselves. So if others want to award me that status and authority, should I argue?

But being branded an expert still makes me nervous. I feel it sets an expectation that I should have the definitive answer for everything related to content marketing and strategy — and that’s just plain unrealistic. In short, I don’t like the expert tag because I’m far too aware of my limitations and the boundaries of my knowledge.

You have to stick within what I call your circle of competence. You have to know what you understand and what you don’t understand. It’s not terribly important how big the circle is. But it is terribly important that you know where the perimeter is.

Charlie Munger

“I don’t know” can be the right answer

Mark Twain said, “If you have nothing to say, say nothing.” But unfortunately there are many who act as if saying nothing would reveal a weakness. So when asked a question outside of their ‘circle of competence’, they say anything, even if it is ill-informed or overly-subjective twaddle, to cover up the holes in their knowledge.

It’s as if they’re afraid that, if they give the honest answer of “I don’t know”, the ‘expert’ tag will crumble away and their hourly rate will come crashing down with it. Of course, the opposite is often true, as by giving a poor answer they potentially do far more damage to their expert reputation.

When I run a content marketing workshop or speak at events, I’m often asked technical questions and software recommendations.

Of course I’m aware of the various digital tools available to marketers, and use many of them. But my experience of them and insight into their use can never be comprehensive enough to venture an opinion on whether Joomla is better than WordPress or which of the many social media monitoring dashboards to use. How can I recommend or advise others on their use when I haven’t had reason or opportunity to work with more than one or two platforms in any serious way?

The technology is simply not my area of expertise. Apart from anything else, the irrelevancy of focusing on digital marketing technology bores me. It’s like a creative writing class focusing on the different functions of Microsoft Word.

Therefore, I’ve always steered clear of getting too deep into the technical side of content marketing and openly say so when asked such questions. For one thing, deconstructing every Facebook algorithm update or experimenting with every new platform that comes along would take far too much time and effort away from mastering what I feel are far more important skills — the art of producing effective and well-written content.

True experts recognise the limits of what they know and what they do not know. If they find themselves outside their circle of competence, they keep quiet or simply say ‘I don’t know’.

Rolf Dobelli: The Art of Thinking Clearly

Ask the right question of the right expert

If I do need something technical doing, I bring others on board. I might need a new website, but I’ll get someone else to build it. And that someone will be skilled at building websites, not designing content strategies. Want a recommendation on which CMS to use? Ask the web developer. Want advice on the content to put on that site? Ask me.

Plus, Google is already packed with plenty of information and commentary on almost every marketing technology topic you can imagine. Remember when Pinterest became an overnight sensation? Remember how every third tweet seemed to be a link to an article on how to make your website more Pinterest-friendly or a hundred other technical issues? Whenever any major new technology comes on the market, within days there are hundreds of such blog posts, providing commentary, comparisons and ten-step guides on every possible technical detail.

Why? Because it’s easier for marketers to blog about technical tips — promising ten steps to this or how to build that. And because it’s hard to have a unique opinion on how to set up a LinkedIn ad campaign or set up Pinterest board, most of these posts contain parroted information replicated many times over across the web.

On the other hand, it’s far harder to explore and write about the vagaries of the creative process and human behaviour, both of which will actually have more to do with whether a marketing tactic is successful or not.

So if you attend one of my content strategy workshops in Sydney or Melbourne, or hear me speak at a marketing conference, don’t ask me the technical question. Google it. That’s all I’d be doing anyway. The difference is that I’ll be honest about it.


  1. It’s may be old and hackneyed but the adage “honesty is the best policy” still holds true.

    And, having the honesty, to say ‘I don’t know’ invariably wins over bluster and even worse, lies.

    It was brought home to me many years ago now, more than I want to admit. I was selling CAD systems, well, one CAD system and the market leader, then and probably still now, was AutoCad.

    It was back in the days of DOS, when machine memory was 640k with the limitations that had on performance. The CAD system was better and streets ahead of its nearest competitor. But, like many other technological advances didn’t have the marketing clout behind it. And, as such less market exposure and considerably more difficult to ‘sell’!

    I was demonstrating the system to an ‘old hand’, an architect of many years, who had never used a computer before or even a word processor. (It was that long ago!)

    The demo was going well and nearing the end was being asked more and more questions. Most of which were easy to answer but the more questions he asked the less real explanations I was giving so eventually I said, “I don’t know if that is possible or not”! But, I did say I would find out.

    He would suggest me to others and give glowing testimonials which were often both undeserved and sometimes embarrassing.

    It was only years later that he said, in general conversation, that the reason he placed the order, way back then, was that I was ‘honest enough’ to admit I didn’t know. From then on he knew I wouldn’t try and b******t him.

    Ever since, have never been afraid to admit I don’t know. And, it was a lesson well learned!

  2. Hi Jonathan
    Indeed a very insightful discussion on something that litters the web.
    But having been a beginner in marketing not that long ago, I can attest to the fact that it is not all done for the wrong reasons, even if there are many non-experts regurgitating the same stuff. It is a learning experience for the beginners.
    Unfortunately, when you are no longer at that level, it is painful to see so much drivel out there, but if these people do not write, they will never learn. So I try not to be too harsh myself.
    I hope I have moved on and give more insightful information these days. I certainly try, but it is not always easy, and getting content out there for new websites is something a goal unto itself.

    Look forward to reading more of your wisdom
    take it easy

  3. Anyone who decides to learn any topic will be EXPERT in no time. I define EXPERT as someone who knows more than 99% of the population.

    Don’t hire on expertise. Hire wisdom and experience. You need someone who resonates and understand your situation and knows how to get you to your goal.

    You have to please the boss and make the numbers work, but you’ll get much farther if you get a personal connection with someone who will help you make your story work.