How to stop pretending and become an expert in 5 steps

Updated to Business, Speaking on January 23, 2023.

I have a beef.

It started subtly – various phone calls. At first I wasn’t even aware it was happening…

I would get questions like “I’ve been speaking for a couple of years. What do I need to do to get more speaking gigs?” Or, “I’m going to write my first book. I want it to be a best-seller. What should I do?”

Typically, I would launch into a series of questions to learn more about them, their expertise and their goals.

That’s where the problem started.

It started with mild surprise changing to annoying discomfort and then ending in a full blown beef. Here it is.

If you want to build a successful speaking career, sell lots of books or have a killer online course you need to become an expert.

If you haven’t earned the chops to call yourself an expert, please stop pretending.

Let me explain.

If you aspire to be a public speaker, keynote speaker, trainer, workshop leader – whatever you want to call it…it’s a frick’n BIG DEAL.

When a client hires you to speak at their event, or trust you with their team, or to advance the skills of their employees, they want an expert. And they certainly expect they are hiring an expert.

Makes sense, right?

You don’t hire an amateur plumber to work on your house or trust a pilot fresh out of air school to fly your family on vacation. No siree, you hire an expert.

It’s just like an iceberg…

Tip of the iceberg

On my first trip to Antarctica I spent a lot of time taking pictures of icebergs. Massive, magnificent, icebergs are also surprisingly good analogies for what an expert is.

Icebergs are surprisingly good analogies for what an expert should be

Just as there is only about 10% of an icebergabout 10% of an iceberg showing above the surface of the water, an expert knows more – a whole lot more – than they can ever possibly share. It’s hard-won knowledge that may never see the light of day.

But what does come to the surface (like the small area of the iceberg that we get to see) is pure gold.

And what is below the water – all the experiences, clients, experiments, writing and lessons learned from painful mistakes – is fodder for endless speeches, books, articles and advice.

That’s what an expert is: someone who has put in the time and hard work to now offer valuable, unique solutions for their clients.

There’s no manual on how to become an expert. But one thing is clear…

You need to invest an extraordinary amount of time, money and effort to discover that top-of-iceberg sweet spot that makes you invaluable.

Covey was a teacher, then a professor, for almost two decades before achieving worldwide recognition for his seven habits model.

Adrianna Huffington had already gained massive fame as a business leader before teaching us how to get more balance in our lives.

And the list goes on with: Cheryl Sandberg, Brené Brown, Simon Sinek, Patrick Lencioni and Gary Vanerchuk.

If there is any trick to becoming an expert, it is this:

first admit you don’t know what you don’t know.

You don’t know what you don’t know

The problem with knowledge acquisition is you don’t know what you don’t know until you stumble across it. It could be a new twist on leadership you discover in Chapter 12 of your latest Kindle download, an off-hand comment from the speaker at a conference, or some uncomfortable client feedback that (once you recover) motivates you to get better at your game.

We all have blind spots – those areas that will trip us up because we don’t know they’re there.

The only way to overcome our blind spots is to stay curious and open to new approaches.

When I was coaching speakers about growing their business I soon realized that after all my years in front of audiences, what I thought was easy and intuitive was a struggle for a lot of my students. For example, how to orchestrate a peer-to-peer coaching experience with 200 people and not lose control. Or, how to use stories to teach a lesson.

So, I started to design simple models (like my SLAP model for using stories to teach lessons).

The question is what do you need to learn?

The following 5 steps to becoming an expert is my version of what it takes. Of course, your unique level will determine what’s relevant for you, or not.

Regardless, have a quick scan, and then I encourage you to go back and pick the one area you can work on. For this reason…

If you want to stand out, command high fees and fill your calendar you need to start with your expertise. Yes, there are nifty techniques for building a following, going viral on YouTube or selling a truck load of books the day it goes live on Amazon.

All good stuff.

But, we still live in a world where results matter.

Experts know how to create valuable, unique solutions for their clients. And experts will always float to the top of the speaker bureau’s list, Amazon best-sellers list and income earners.

Are you ready to become an expert?

5 Steps to becoming an expert

1. Think long game

If you want to earn a living as an expert you’re in for the long game. Just like financial planning, your health and raising kids, every small thing you do today impacts what you enjoy many years later.

Start by describing (include type of work, income, the team you want to build, products…everything) where you want to be in 5 years. This is your career—it’s time to start planning it.

2. Stay hungry

Every day you are exposed to better, different – even worse – ways of doing what you do. It could be a random blog post, LinkedIn update or the book you’re reading. When you stay hungry you are always looking for clues that will open the next door.

Experiment with a simple, portable system for collecting and assimilating ideas. Richard Branson famously carries a small notebook, I use a journal and EvernoteEvernote. Create a system that works for you.

3. Ask more than tell

When I step off stage I can either feed my ego or grab the next 5 minutes for market research. And one of my favourite questions to ask is “What was the most important lesson you got and what is one thing you’ll do differently?” The answers to that question have helped improve my keynote immensely over the years.

Get into a habit of asking questions. Accept that you don’t know everything and that your success depends on what you can learn from others.

4. Own your stuff

Want to make more money? Create your own learning models to help your clients apply a complicated process, like how to coach an employee.

When you develop your own learning models you help people practice your insights and you become more credible. Success will follow.

Don’t believe me? Look at Mel Robbins (5 second rule), Simon Sinek (Start with Why), James Clear (updating Charles Duhigg’s habits model), FISH, Who moved my cheese? etc.

5. Create more

I am convinced that writing blogs, articles, books – even long-form social media updates – makes you a better thinker and builds expertise. It’s like practicing new material on a live audience, but without the airfare.

Start by choosing one medium you commit to updating on a regular basis. I prefer my blog and LinkedIn. For you it might be your blog, Twitter and Medium. What’s important is that your audience goes there and that you show up with the goods.

Authors like Charles Duhigg, James Clear, Pat Flynn, and Sally Hogshead were all prolific contributors online long before they hit the best-sellers lists.

I want you to be an expert

When you are an expert you can help more people. When you help more people it all comes back to you.

More clients, more opportunities for collaboration on new products, more wealth and…helping more people.

That’s why I want you to be an expert – a marketable, successful, wealthy expert.

That road can be a whole lot shorter if you start with a plan.

Most people who come to me for advice need to stop chasing marketing schemes or wasting their time learning some new software and get down to the hard work of becoming an expert.

The world is waiting…

Enjoyed this article? Here’s 3 more all about finding success in the expert space:

Death of a public speaker
Five Ways to Make Your Speech Stand Out
How to live like a millionaire with zero-based living


Photo credit: Photo by Marius Ciocirlan on Unsplash

Photo of iceberg by Alexander Hafemann on Unsplash