What to do when you’re not the expert

Jane Sheffield
Lead Trainer & Owner
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Last week I trained a scientist who had recently started a new role. She was feeling nervous about an upcoming presentation.

Her concern was, “I don’t feel like a subject matter expert – yet”. I get it. 

Presenting can be stressful at the best of times. But when you are new in a role, it’s super stressful.

  • You don’t feel like a ‘subject matter expert’ (yet!).
  • You don’t know your audience well.
  • You really want to make a good impression.

All combined, this makes for a super stressor event.

So, the first step in reducing this stress is to break down the pressures you are putting on yourself.

Does your self talk sound like this?

“I must be knowledgeable”.
“I must be the expert on this topic”.
“I must be able to answer every question – perfectly”.

These are typical examples of what I would call ‘demander’ statements. Demands we put on ourselves before we present. 

The issue with demander statements

First up is the use of the word “must”. This makes them into demands. Something that you must achieve (a.k.a., pressure). Demanding that you achieve something is likely to increase your nervousness.

Secondly, it is difficult to know when you have achieved them. Because, how do you know when you are knowledgeable enough? After all, you can always gather more knowledge, right? And if you are as geeky as me, this search never stops, so who is to say when you achieve the status of expert.

Finally, there’s just no way to guarantee somebody won’t ask a question that you can’t answer. We have a powerful saying at Effective Speaking: “If you want to know more than anyone else in the room, then speak to an empty room”. You will always have some element of doubt.

Putting unrealistic demands on yourself in not helpful.

What should you do instead?

Here’s what your audience wants – to listen to someone who is credible and valuable.

No one wants to listen to someone who doesn’t know what they’re talking about. But being knowledgeable is only one route to credibility. And credibility and being knowledgeable are not synonymous.

How can you be credible and valuable?

1. Craft a valuable message

Ensure that whatever you are saying is of value to your audience. No one wants you to waste their time. Trust me – there are many ‘experts’ out there that are experts in time wasting! Prepare a valuable business discussion and tell your audience something new. 

2. Be honest

Be upfront about what you know, and what you don’t know. When your audience are more experienced than you are, try calling it out first.

When I first started my career as a Presentation Coach, I was asked to step in for someone and run a communication session for a group of very senior leaders in New Zealand Defence Force. I was scared. I was younger than most of my audience. I was less experienced than most of my audience. Would they take me seriously? 

So I decided to start my presentation like this:

“I have many experienced communicators in the room today. Many, more experienced than myself. So I am not going to talk to you about how to command more respect when you speak. How to project more gravitas or have more presence. No. Quite the opposite. I want to talk to you about being a more comfortable business communicator.”

3. Set boundaries

Scope your topic to make it quite clear what you are talking about, and what you claim expertise in. You can make this as narrow as you like. In fact, most ineffective presentations are far too broad and cover too much material. The more targeted your communications are, the more effective they will be.

4. Use your experience

Talk about your topic from the point of view of your experience of it. Position yourself as an expert on your own experience. Simply put – there is no one who knows about your experience better than you do.

With my client last week, we soon realised that she had been in her audiences’ shoes, not that long ago, and had recently learnt the material she was now teaching them. While this initially had made her feel vulnerable, she could actually use this shared experience as an opportunity for connection. SO, it was in fact a strength, not a weakness.

Remember – you don’t need to be the most knowledgeable person in the room to be an effective communicator. Make it your goal to be credible and valuable instead.

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