Back when I was hired to do technical support for a major biotech firm here in town, I was really worried about being exposed as a fraud. Sure, I knew a thing or two about science, but to knowledgeably discuss and (gulp!) troubleshoot through nearly 2,000 biological products, assays and even instruments? C’mon! You had to be an expert to do that.
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And yet, just a few weeks later, I was doing exactly that. And just a few months later, I was even getting bored because the questions weren’t challenging enough. That’s not to say that certain customers didn’t stump me- but the work became easier and more predictable even after a month of time. I stayed in that company for over five years until I went full-time with my freelance writing career.
So, what did I learn from my time as technical support scientist that can apply to any freelancer who does not consider himself/herself a “subject matter expert”?
Stop thinking of yourself as not an expert.
Unless you’ve been living under the rock, you already have expertise in a wide range of topics. Do you think you know nothing about retail business? If you’ve worked as a cashier at Walmart, you’ve had some exposure to business topics like inventory control, branding, sales cycles, etc.
If you’ve worked part-time as a line cook at McDonald’s or as a waitress at Applebee’s, you probably know a thing or two about the restaurant business. I myself started becoming very knowledgeable about work-at-home job opportunities and making an online income because I was always hustling to make some side cash while in grad school.
If you keep your eyes peeled and ears open, you will hear all kinds of expert topics discussed by your bosses, colleagues and customers. All you need to do is look, listen and learn. For example, here’s how I became an expert in crowdfunding.
Master the Pareto Principle
Known also as the 80-20 rule, the Pareto Principle proposes that 80% of the outcomes are the result of only 20% of all possible causes. Thus, if you can pinpoint and learn about that vital 20% of expert information, you will be able to resolve 80% of the questions, issues, etc. that you encounter as a bonified “expert.”
I saw this occur during my own tenure in biotech technical support; although my company sold numerous products, most of my calls were on 20% of them. As a result, I became very proficient on those 20% of products.
Know just a little bit more…
I currently do a lot of SEO (search engine optimization) and SEM (search engine marketing) work with several of my clients. Between keeping track of the Google zoo (e.g. Penguin, Panda) and figuring out how to tighten my ad groups, there’s a lot to absorb. I still don’t know everything about the e-commerce world- and I doubt I ever will.
However, as I’ve learned, I don’t need to know it all; I just need to be one step ahead of my clients. Thus, when I pick up on the latest news about corporate blogging, I’ll casually mention to my clients how blog posts need to “soft-sell” a company’s products. And you know what? Everyone thinks I’m a genius for making that suggestion, despite the many published articles on the topic.
If you’re about to teach a class on a given subject or just meet someone over lunch to talk about X, Y and Z, don’t sweat it that you don’t know everything. Just read up on the latest news surrounding that topic and carefully incorporate the newest and snazziest buzzwords that the “real experts” are using. Adopt a “niche-within-your-niche” that you can learn about and know quite well; this narrowed expertise can help you if you are suddenly called upon to provide an example.
Control your exposure
I noticed long ago how many subject matter experts rarely teach “live” classes where students can just ask any question and obtain an immediate response. Many courses, especially those offered online, are prerecorded, and the submitted questions have often been hand-picked (and answered) ahead of time. It’s not that these experts are faking it; however, crafting careful and insightful responses to questions on a range of topics is a challenge. And it’s a challenge that’s far better addressed if the expert has had some time to think of and look up additional resources.
If you are concerned about being asked a question that you don’t know the answer to, consider providing your audience with written and/or recorded information ahead of time. Have your audience submit its questions to you so you have the time needed to formulate a good answer. Once you’re more confident and know what kind of questions to expect given the Pareto Principle, going “live” won’t be as intimidating for you as before.
Craft your message
Most of us are experts at something if we examine ourselves carefully enough. And typically, our expertise is in a very defined subject matter. As such, if you are going to tout yourself as an expert in warm water fly fishing in ponds and lakes, don’t start talking about salmon. In fact, don’t even answer questions about salmon because that’s not your niche. Knowing what you don’t know is just as important as talking about what you do know.
If you know just one area of a really large topic, establish your expertise in that niche and take advantage of it. That’s what your clients will be looking for anyway. Also, by establishing yourself in a very defined area, you won’t have to worry too much about competition. Your clients, though small in number, will know whom to reach out to for additional work, information and products.
The Bottom Line
As a freelancer, every new project or client you take on puts you in a “non-expert” position, forcing you to learn and grow. I was trained to be a scientist, not a writer. I have no journalism degree, yet somehow I’ve become a newspaper reporter. I didn’t even know what SEO stood for back when I started talking about it.
Face it: if you wanted to be comfortable and do only what you’re good at, you would’ve stayed at your old (employed) job. In the process of becoming an expert, you must dive into the discomfort of not knowing. To grow (as an expert, a person, or just about anything else) is to be uncomfortable. And when you’re too comfortable, you’ve stopped growing.