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You say you're an expert. I say you “know” squat


sahil_merchant_iconAs I lie in bed writing this on a Sunday morning, I am bracing myself for a wave of criticism. There is going to be a fair dose of irony in this article, and depending on where it meanders, I can imagine it pissing off a lot of people.

This last year, I have been less insular and have started to embrace social media, read more content, contribute myself via this blog and through numerous speaking gigs, and engage more widely with lots of people. And over this time, I have been literally besieged by experts — people who are gurus in this or that, trying to sell me their wares or professing talents that will transform my world.

The disappointing thing is that, while I may be initially impressed by what these people claim, upon digging deeper I have inevitably felt let down. It is much easier to write about stuff and sound really knowledgeable than it is to do it and make it work at scale.

Most of the people who write on Anthill and Smart Company and other similar business websites and stand-alone blogs are supposed to have credibility through a proven track record. How discerning are we as readers? Do we background check these people, research their company status and performance to determine whether they are deserving of our professional trust?

Mine is bigger than yours

I have probably seen this more in the realm of social media than in any other sphere of business activity. There are heaps of people with half a billion twitter followers and 73 individual blogs with massive spans of influence. Yet, have they actually done anything? Who cares how many twitter followers you have? You people sound like teenage boys comparing the size of your genitalia. Show me the ROI. Show me how your expertise in social media has led to your company’s improved performance. Too many people are out there focusing on personal brand building but can’t link this through to company bottom lines.

I have made the same observation in the marketing and branding arenas. Too many bloody experts who have marketed themselves or their personal egos, but still don’t sell many things to many people or provide services for which lots of companies are willing to pay lots of money.

This is not to say that every business writer is full of crap. (Gee — that point of view would make me very popular, wouldn’t it?!) Some people out there reek of credibility through a track record of stellar experience. It doesn’t have to be a track record of success, but rather, hard-earned experience and real business acumen. That is what I want to see.

Take someone like Domenic Carosa, a friend of Anthill. While I don’t know Domenic personally, here is a man who has seen some stuff. How about Tom McKaskill on Smart Company? He writes about strategic exits but doesn’t need to yell from the roof tops about how many he has been involved in. Or Paul Breen who writes “Weekly Wisdom from the Bull”. He doesn’t start off every blog entry with “when I created the Calendar Club and fathered the concept of pop-up retailing in Australia…” These are guys who have had real experience in real businesses beyond the sphere of the noise created by them speaking and writing in public.

Learning is more important than knowing

Hang on… did I just stumble on something profound or so damn obvious that I am a fool for having previously overlooked it?

  1. The very fact that people make noise in a public setting lends them credibility.
  2. Now, more than ever before, we have means of spreading that credibility virally.
  3. People are therefore able to create personal brand bubbles built around perceptions of expertise.

So, perhaps the lesson for me is to ask one very discerning question when deciding which people to take heed of when confronted by a sea of so-called expert content. I won’t ask, “What do you know?” but rather, “What have you learned?” Learning something and knowing something are completely different concepts. The former denotes experience. The latter points to hot air.

This question also requires me to dig beyond the surface of brand bubbles. Learnings are rarely as visible as a personal brand. Domenic Carosa ultimately lost his company, but his “failing” only makes him more credible in my mind because the man has been through things that many of us can never fathom. When I first heard Tom McKaskill speak, someone next to me uttered “who is this guy”. The fact that I hadn’t heard of the companies he has been involved with didn’t matter. Just because I hadn’t heard his buzz didn’t diminish his learnings and experience. And how many people know the name Paul Breen? You should. His insights are based on having been there and done it.

Opinions are free — just don’t claim them as expertise

Time now to address the white elephant sitting on my bed. Yes, there is an element of irony in what I write. I too am now making public noise via this blog and I have also been criticised and questioned. This is a good thing and readers have every right to do this.

Where I feel comfortable with this blog is that from the very outset I have maintained that I am not claiming expertise in any one area but rather sharing thoughts as they come to me in the context of building a business (on the rare occasions that I actually find the time to write them down).

Opinions are free. As readers, we need to decide for ourselves which to engage with and which to let through to the keeper. As we are bombarded by more and more content and more persuasive personal brand stories, our bullshit filters have necessarily become increasingly sophisticated. “Learnings — Yes / Knowledge — No” is perhaps the first weapon I will now employ when confronted by all of you experts.

Sahil Merchant is founder of mag nation. Follow him on twitter: @sahilmerchant. His launch post can be found here.