How to Become an Expert on Nearly Any Subject

Expert

The key to online success is authority. The key to authority is knowing what the heck you’re talking about, and being able to express it well.

So what’s the key to knowing what the heck you’re talking about?

One of the things that holds people back from creating information-based businesses is the insecurity that they’ll never be able to learn enough to be an expert. Here’s how to become insanely knowledgeable about nearly any subject under the sun.

If you’re a one-eyed man, work with that

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

You’re not going to get to Nobel-prizewinner authority status using what you read in this blog post. (Although if you think you are, kudos to you for thinking big.)

There will always be people who are smarter, more skilled, and more knowledgeable than you are. Don’t let that get you down.

You don’t have to be Richard Feynman to teach high school physics. You don’t have to be Joshua Bell to teach violin to a three-year-old.

Sure, you want to be the “best in the world.” The best in your world. You don’t have to be the entire planet’s foremost authority on your topic. You might have the best content among the folks who are advertising on Google AdWords. You could be the foremost expert in a particular online forum. You might be the biggest expert in your town.

If you’re the best in the place where your customers hang out, you’re the best. Don’t turn your nose up at being a big fish in a small pond. There’s a lot of success, satisfaction and wealth to be found in small ponds.

And all those folks who truly are wiser about your topic than you are? Those are your teachers and mentors, whether or not you ever meet them face to face.

Study what they’ve written. Synthesize their work into your own. Give them ample credit for educating you. When you openly acknowledge your debt to them, a portion of their credibility rubs off on you.

Make it easy

You might not be the planet’s greatest authority on your topic. But it’s just possible you could become the most accessible authority.

Make life better for your customers by taking something hard and making it easy.

Take boring scholarly articles and turn them into interesting audio recordings. Take complicated diagrams and turn them into good stories. Take books written 40 or 50 years ago, update the language and the examples, and turn them into Camtasia videos.

If I want to learn to cook Italian food, I may not be ready for a renowned master like Marcella Hazan. I might want the simple recipes and breezy style of a Rachael Ray.

In order to learn, teach

There’s no better way to become a master than to find some fellow apprentices and start teaching them.

You start by teaching the folks who know absolutely nothing and don’t know how to find the basics for themselves. (Or who just don’t want to.) Teach the tried-and-true. It doesn’t matter how many other people are doing it. Do it well, put your own personality into it, and you’ll find students.

As you teach, you’ll find that the “simple stuff” gains a new depth and richness. You’ll start to see things about your topic that you never did before. And as you keep learning, you’ll be able to teach more and more sophisticated students.

Before you know it, you’re a guru.

You can study for decades and not learn what you can by teaching for a month or two. Just remember to be honest about your skill and experience level, and you’ll find the right students for you.

Begin with the end in mind

Your goal in becoming an expert isn’t to look and feel like a giant smartypants. It’s to help your readers and customers.

You might want to neatly letter this on a card and stick it somewhere you can see every time you use your computer. IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU.

Blowhards and know-it-alls have a tough time online. The “social” nature of social media means there’s always someone with a pin looking to deflate that bloated ego. When you try to position yourself as “the smartest guy in the room,” you’ll find yourself ducking constant potshots.

On the other hand, serious students are rewarded. (They still get potshots, but they have a community to help deflect them.) When you approach your subject with curiosity, modesty, and a sincere desire to help, you’ll find raving fans.

As long as you always keep your audience and their needs at the forefront, you can’t lose.

About the Author: Sonia Simone is co-founder and chief content officer of Copyblogger Media.

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Comments

  1. You’re hitting on all the cylinders with this one, Sonia… especially with your “teach to learn” advice and the “it’s not about you” reminder.

    Your authentic voice always shines through in your writing making it very easy and enjoyable to “get” your message.

    Glad you’re “out there” sharing and doing what you do best. :-)

  2. I like the idea of being the most accessible authority. If you’re one of the few in your niche participating in social circles (outside your niche) the “expert” cred seems to grow.

  3. So true, Sonia. As a former computer instructor, I know firsthand how much you can learn from having to teach and be prapared for every question that comes your way from students. Nothing is worse than having to say, “That’s a good question. I’ll have to get back to you on that.” After the first one of those, I made sure I mastered everything I taught.

    Regards,
    Shane Arthur
    twitter: shanearthur

  4. you are phenomenal!–thank you!–harold

  5. Interestingly enough, I am a one-eyed man trying to figure out what to write about!! And while it may be crass (or not) try to make a living doing it as well. Any ideas appreciated ;-)>

  6. Sonia,

    Inspiring post. Thanks so much for writing it. At times it’s tough to remain committed to teaching and writing because there’s so much competition out there. As you said, we all want to be the best in our fields. However, you put in nicely when you said, “There’s a lot of success, satisfaction and wealth to be found in small ponds.” It’s important to constantly remind ourselves of this truth.

    I appreciate this perspective, and it’s exactly what I needed at this time. Thanks again!

  7. Thanks for the great post!

    owwwwwwwwwww baby! I am excited.

    great info. Differing experts in different size ponds….

    there can be more experts out there!

    take it easy copyblogger!

    DBK

  8. Perfect pitch, as always, Sonia!

  9. Great article Sonia – I especially appreciate how you point out that the more you teach, the more you learn. So true.

  10. Sonia, I’m visually impaired and blind in one eye. So…am I king?

    Great post. It really is about being relatable.

    You really want your audience to say, they are just like me, but they have a wealth of knowledge that I want to tap into.”

  11. Great points Sonia. It is easy to become overwhelmed with information and feel like the one who is the beginner.

    Take what you’ve learned however, and shift it to the right audience and suddenly you’re the expert. Take to people outside your normal circle of information, and suddenly you realize that there is an entire world out there needing your expertise.

    I’ve also found that if you want to learn something quick start writing or blogging about it. Doing so forces you to process the information and present it in a form which others can understand.

    Jim
    Socialmarketing20.com

  12. Sonia,

    You nailed it!

    I was reluctant to accept a volunteer opportunity at a local not-for-profit two years ago, but found that I absolutely loved teaching folks about business startup. I don’t know everything, but with over 30 years experience, I know what I know very well and I know where to get help for what I don’t know.

    I was able to reach so many more entrepreneurs than I could in my private CPA practice. In 2007, I changed the focus of my business to concentrate on teaching.

    I also joined Teaching Sells as a charter member. It was the best investment I made for my business that year and I encourage everyone to pay close attention as Brian and Tony open up the doors again.

    I recently joined Brian and Jon Morrow in their Partnering Profits class where I’m learning the skills I need to take my business to the next level and help even more solopreneurs and micro business owners get their companies started with strong foundations.

  13. Good piece!
    Here is another idea. You pick up 3 or 4 of the best books on a topic/subject that you know nothing about.

    You study the heck out of it. Then start teaching others.

    Before you know it. You going to be an expert in that subject.

  14. Oh, this is one of my favorite debates! Now that the legacy media aren’t the only ones with printing presses, how do we know who the real experts are?

    I think it boils down to this:
    http://twitter.com/tmonhollon/status/1142515488

    Expertise comes through experience, so get some!

  15. I agree in principle, about teaching being a great way to learn, but there has to be a limit, surely, to how authoritative a person with 4 books of study under their belt can sound? In the teaching profession they say you are one day ahead of the students, but in reality, you have all your work experience too, to back you up. Just saying.

  16. You might not be the planet’s greatest authority on your topic. But it’s just possible you could become the most accessible authority.

    That, right there, was exactly what I needed to read today. I was feeling a bit overwhelmed about all there is to learn in a brand new hobby niche of mine, and thinking there’s no way I’ll ever be able to know “everything” in that particular area, spinning my wheels a bit about the whole thing… And in those two sentences I realized that that’s exactly what I’m already bringing to the table. Sure, I don’t know everything (who does?), but I can communicate what I do know in a way that makes sense to my audience. I can make the topic accessible and relevant and applicable.

    Thanks!

  17. Thanks everyone!

    Lawton, great point. You’re not setting yourself up as some alternate higher life form, just a person like them who happens to have useful knowledge. (And yes, you are king.)

    Sheryl, I love that story, thanks!

    DBK, sounds like you’re ready for takeoff!

    MikeK, I know how that goes. You might start by thinking about what would be most helpful to the people you want to reach as customers. That’s a great way to narrow down the overwhelming array of options.

  18. Sonia,

    Perfectly written, and inspiring. Thank you so much for helping me see the obvious. Sometimes the obvious is not so obvious to those like me who think I may not be good enough to teach others.

    Regards

  19. Inspiring.

    “Those who need to learn most teach best.” — Richard Bach, in Illusions: the Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

  20. @Sheryl-“I know what I know very well and I know where to get help for what I don’t know.”

    Huge.

  21. Spot on post, Sonia.

    When I first started building up my presence online I did worry that there were (too many) others who knew more, who were “there” first, who had great sites and very large audiences and therefore: “what could I do?”

    But I eventually realized there are plenty of people who hadn’t a clue of these other folks, and even if they did, I could provide something distinctly different and valuable.

    So I started creating sites and blogs and people came, found my info helpful and a percentage went as far as purchasing products. I got more interested in specific niches and that helped even more.

    Just yesterday, I heard a quote along the lines of “don’t worry about the millions out there, just make a really solid connection with a thousand people and you’re home free.” Of course, you could revise that figure up or down to your needs.

    Don’t feel dwarfed by the “pros” or “experts” online. When they first got started, most of them were just trying to figure out how this whole online thing works…like the rest of us.

    Thanks, Sonia.

    • Stan, well said. I first started writing to find out what I would write about! I just wanted to improve my communication skills and to share some useful ideas.

      • Sonia, thank you for an encouraging post that inspired many people.

        Becoming a world-class expert at something takes about 10,000 hours of practice. That can seem daunting. But Sonia’s post shows that we can still contribute value as we teach what we’re learning along the way.

        And even though we won’t be the foremost authority in the world, we’ll still be a helpful and accessible expert to all those around us who know a little bit less than we do.

  22. Great thoughts.

    I don’t want to get in over my head, but expertise is certainly a “subjective” characteristic. There is no universal or objective code, or measuring stick for determining when someone because an expert… that’s not how it works.

    It reminds me of little kids, for some reasons. A few days ago my little brother (9 yo) was telling me how his friend “Josh” was an expert at karate. :) It’s always a question of relativity — you’re an expert to your readers as long as you know more about the topic of your post than your reader does.

  23. Hi. thanks a lot for the helpful tips. you make it sound ‘doable’ so i’ll go right ahead and try them out!

  24. I too really loved your point about “to teach, learn” — it reminds me of something someone I admire once said, that “to be interesting, you have to be interested” — you have to be curious and always interested in what’s going on in the world around you. Wise words, and thanks so much for your post.

  25. Brian you have good points and I and everyone else are trying to make sure we share “expert” advice. But since there are so many people who say they are experts when they are not then it makes it difficult for the average person to know what is true or not.
    So I think you need to establish yourself for a while and built a community (like you have) for people to listen to your “advise” otherwise anyone can just talk….

  26. Even though I’ve spent 10 years looking for ways to improve my health and energy, and whip myself into better shape, I’ve never learned so much as what I have since I started blogging about how to do it. I guess teaching/communication is the way to go.

  27. I agree that the more that you teach the easier it gets and the more knowledgable you get. Even with the same material each teaching experience can be different as the students/targeted audience differs. Their expectations and meeting their demands is the challenging part of it.

  28. Hi Sonia,

    This was a great post, especially the point about “if you want to learn, teach”. I read somewhere that if you spend an hour reading on a subject everyday, in 5 years you’ll have the equivalent of a college degree. I suppose blogging on a subject everyday will have the same result.

  29. My Rachel Ray experience.
    I picked up a new food magazine the other day (Fine Cooking) because the recipes were quick, simple and looked yummy. Several people had written to the editor and asked if they would make their recipes more challenging and gourmet. If I had wanted challenging and gourmet, there are other magazines!

    Know your target audience.
    We all learn on a gradient scale.

    Sheila

  30. If anyone struggles with the whole “I can’t “TEACH” until I’m certified or qualified by someone else to do so, don’t use the word “TEACH.”

    Words pack so much power and this word may very well regress you back to being in a position of lesser power than a guru/teacher/mentor.

    For our first 20+ years we were inferior to “TEACHERS.” Would it be any wonder that we might have some paranoia around this subject as big kids called adults?

    Then we get out of school and if we’re “NORMAL” we should go be inferior as an apprentice and move our way up a ladder for another 20-30 years.

    This programming gave me some “TEACHING” issues.

    But there’s a way you and I have overcome this in our lives already. How? Show and Tell. Remember in elementary we got to bring toys, animals whatever we could schlep into class and stand in front of the room and talk about it?

    You were teaching the class about something you we’re in love with. And your teachers were either smart or were protecting their ego’s by framing what you were doing as just “Showing and Telling.”

    If the word “TEACH” freaks you out a little, simply “Show and Tell” what you’re passionate about or more of an expert on, until you fully own “TEACHER” status in your mind.

    Awesome subject Sonia,

    Talk to you again soon,
    Note Taking Nerd #2

  31. I’m surrounded by a bunch of unsung heroes.

    They quietly and effectively play to their strengths and succeed in amazing ways. Sort of like actors doing their job effectively, not like stars with glam.

    I used to think success came with bells and whistles, but now I realize that success is when the response meets the challenge, and you get to scope your challenges.

    I like your point on deflating bloated egos. I’ve seen that if you compete with others, they shoot you down. You compete with yourself and others lift you up.

    I also like your point on being a big fish in a small pond and being the best in your world. It’s like incremental king of the hill, sometimes starting with molehills. Success builds momentum and it snowballs.

  32. I needed to exactly this. Thanks for a great, post.

  33. Thanks Sonia. Great Post. I have been ‘trying’ to become an expert for a sometime now. This is a great resource.

  34. ‘Expert’ is relative.

    There will always be someone who knows more then you and there will always be someone who knows less then you.

    You are an expert to all those that know less.

  35. Wow! This was really an inspiring piece. My take away is that all of us whether we acknowledge it or not, are good at something and can help somebody else learn. It’s up to us to be brave enough to share that with the world.

  36. -Synthesizing their work into your own is hard part. Folks stress the importance of creating fresh content but rarely show others how to. With time and practice, people will learn to effectively synthesize their thoughts, views and so on, with others found in the blogosphere.
    – Learn by teaching… when I was a TA for a college professor and when asked to teach, you better believe I knew the material. :) It’s a whole new ballgame when you have to teach on a topic.
    -Mig

  37. love the quote “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king…”

    Great post

    AJ Kumar

  38. I love the idea of “being the best of your world”. With this mindset you really have not be the foremost expert in the world to become a successfull teacher of any subject.

    Keep on writing Sonia!

  39. Thanks so much sonia.. this is really a great resource

  40. Great post! I am amazed everytime someone else says “It’s Not About You”. The truth is… it’s not!

  41. Ah… but in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is also a freak! :)

    That said, some very useful points. Thanks.

  42. begin with the end in mind is one of the seven qualities of a successful person. one thing not in the post is the importance of colors. authority colors are blue grey and black which all authority blogs to some degree incorporate these base colors. then comes the writing what the article says

  43. Robert, LOL. Those of us who write, create, do things without being told, build businesses, build blogs, build communities, and zig when others are zagging are doomed to freakdom. But that’s ok, because being a freak is actually much more fun than being normal. :)

    Thanks for the kind words, everyone, they are much appreciated.

  44. One of my favorite sayings in life has been “It’s not the truth…it’s the delivery. You definately hit the nail right on the head here. “There really ISN’T any such thing as a dumb question. If you have the knowledge to answer it immediately. (you gain the satisfaction of knowing you helped someone) thats a good thing. If you don’t know the answer get it! Then give it to someone else. That’s a good thing too! In my industry I cannot tell you how much technology experience I’ve gained just by asking (what I thought were dumb questions) or by taking the time to reply to someone elses. Many people are really aprehensive about asking questions simply because A: They think nobody will bother answering them or B: Because people like to over emphasize their superiority in their tone. (see my favorite saying). Some really great comments here too. Blowing your own hord should be done with moderate breaths. It’s not always about me that’s why I like to post possitive comments to peoples opinions I value. Very nice work. Thanks.

  45. Sonia, great stuff as usual. Learning by teaching is a deceptively simple concept. Thanks.

  46. Sonia:
    I’ve been thinking about this exact thing lately. Many people do not value their own opinions because they don’t consider themselves an “expert”, but I think that’s a misnomer. Striving to be an expert is going to make you tired very quickly. However, you shouldn’t hesitate to contribute to the conversation, because that’s exactly what it is – a conversation. Not between experts and everyone else, but between people who are all trying to figure it out together.

  47. Harold:
    I’ve always been told that does who can’t do teach. I wonder hows this lays with what you’re saying.

  48. Sonia,

    I’ve been doing research on “building authority” for my next book and found your post… Thank YOU

    Not just for this particular post but the whole thing. I can come back and get more ideas for the book, and my customers.

    Jorge Olson

  49. Nice post Sonia, I have been thinking along these lines over the last month too. I had the inspiration to share the things I know, ‘teach others’ and in the process of putting it in writing I have confirmed what I have learned.

    You might enjoy it: http://www.brandPulseCheck.com

  50. This is one of the best posts I’ve read in a long while. How many niche markets and ideas I’ve scrapped because I was too insecure about what I didn’t know rather than learning what I needed to know. Thanks for the encouragement.

  51. “In order to learn, teach” … I agree 100%. In order, to become an expert in one subject you need to teach and share your experience with others. What better way is then to start a blog about what your passionate about.

  52. Thanks to those of you who responded to my offer to send you a free guidebook on writing bip-vignettes in exchange for editing my website. I got great edits – they seemed to follow exactly what your article speaks to. Thank You, once again.
    Also, my offer is still open free book for free exit to the next 5 people, since I have some new “stuff” up.

  53. Yes, I should have editied my comment before pressing submit. That was intentional, but it was a good example my being in too much of a rush all the time.
    I think I should tape your article to my computer screen!

  54. You are so right in your thinking – this post is excellent! Thank you for sharing!

  55. Sonia,

    Write on! If learning is fun for a teacher, he or she will make it fun for students.

    Thank you.

  56. I think one of my favourite points that maybe you intentionally left out of this article was that the more you learn about any particular topic, the more there is you realize that you DON’T know.

    Approaching that feeling with a fire and intensity work harder is great stuff to have.

  57. This is definitely true. My blogs were once a hodgepodge collection of mostly anything I could think about. Now I’m learning to focus on where I’m best at.. something that touches the heart of other people :)

  58. Learning by teaching… As one of my old ex-teachers said (with some humour): “If I notice that I don’t understand something, I quickly teach it to my student’s, and I’ll just understand it right away.” =)

    Inspiring article! Thanks.

  59. “In order to learn, teach” … I agree 100%. In order, to become an expert in one subject you need to teach and share your experience with others. What better way is then to start a blog about what your passionate about.

  60. “Many people do not value their own opinions because they don’t consider themselves an “expert”, but I think that’s a misnomer. Striving to be an expert is going to make you tired very quickly. However, you shouldn’t hesitate to contribute to the conversation, because that’s exactly what it is – a conversation. Not between experts and everyone else, but between people who are all trying to figure it out together.”

    Caleb Gardner, that’s a very interesting opinion … and so true!

  61. Thanks for sharing.

    I agree totally with what you’ve said – You may not be the best in your field, but you may be the most accessible person they would get to meet.

  62. I was pointed to your site and am pleased I did. I was thinking about how to become an expert but getting over the hurdle of not being “the” expert was holding me back. I like the idea of being an expert in a small pond and I agree about teaching to learn. Time to get on with it.

    thanks!

  63. As an educator my job requires teaching people to learn a subject that is often unfamiliar or daunting to them.

    I just love what you said about teaching to learn! It’s so true and I’ve found that as a result of teaching I actually learn heaps of new things everyday.

    In many ways it certainly is possible to teach yourself to become an expert if you have high levels of determination and commitment. As the saying goes, education is for life!

    Bravo on a great post.