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March 1, 2011
Beware the Social Media 'Expert'
About 23 years ago, my boss at the time sat me down for a little chat. He was 75; I was 27.  He had asked me to prepare a report for him (on a topic that I no longer remember), and in it I had referred to certain “experts” that I believed would support the conclusions I had drawn on the report.
He had read the report, and was a little peeved. “Experts?” he said. “My boy, how do you know they are really experts?”
“Well sir,” I said, “They said they were.”
“And you believed them? I’m going to tell you something you should remember for the rest of your life, because you need to hear it: Always beware of anyone calling himself an expert at anything.
He was right—I should have been skeptical. Saying you’re an “expert” is quite a lofty boast, when you get right down to it. It implies that you know just about everything there is to know about a topic. You’ve got it all figured out. You know all the roads on the map, and where they lead.
But is that really possible? I suppose it is, if it’s a very simple premise. Like, “I’m an expert at screwing in light bulbs.”  
But let’s look at more expansive areas of possible expertise—like social media, for example.
Given that this medium of communication is not even a decade old, and continues to change and mutate like an out-of-control virus, and has so many uses and nuances, could anyone really and truly say they are an “expert” at social media?
I don’t think they can—and like my boss cautioned me 23 years ago, we should be wary of any such declarations.
However, that doesn’t mean there are not many, many good people out there who know quite a bit about social media and, combined with complementary knowledge, great communication skills, and a lot of common sense, could make a big difference in helping a company use the medium to its best advantage.
To me, the above qualities sound more like someone who is an authority on the subject, and has built some influence out there with his or her fellow practitioners. And, if they don’t already have answers, they know where to find them.
Those qualities make up a combination that is hard to resist for anyone looking for help and advice, because even though the potential employee may not be an “expert,” they still have the ability to cover a lot of territory on the subject matter.
Because of my involvement in Social Media and my live event business, SOBCon, many people have asked, “How can I be an expert in social media?”
As you can now predict, my answer isn’t what they expect. I say there’s no such thing, but there are several ways to stand out from the rest of the crowd, not only in social media, but also in just about any field of interest:
  • Have a thirst for knowledge (and share it, to establish authority)
  • Always keep an open mind
  • Build influence by reaching out and participating in the conversation
  • Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know,” but always add, “but I’ll find out”
  • Make it about them, NOT you
  • Act like a leader (without declaring that you are)
  • Never say you are an expert
(You knew I’d throw in that last one.)
So take my old boss’s advice, and beware of “experts.” And don’t worry about becoming one yourself—just build your authority and influence, and you’ll get to the head of the pack. 

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Terry Starbucker has a wealth of entrepreneurial business experience, the output of a successful 28-year career as a manager, leader, and executive, primarily in the cable television business. His popular leadership blog is TerryStarbucker.com, and he is a co-founder (with Liz Strauss) of SOBCon, one of the best learning forums for small- and medium-sized business owners in the U.S. Follow him on Twitter.
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