4 Questions Experts Can Answer Without Thinking by Scott James, Greenleaf Book Group

07 May


This spring, I spent a lot of time at happy hours during SXSW Interactive, and while the venues changed, many things stayed the same: Smart people wearing clunky lanyards, sipping free drinks and talking about the future. The energy was electric, and everyone was there to learn, meet interesting people, and grow.

I got to talk to a lot of established experts as well as a lot of people building a platform and reputation around their expertise. In many ways, my SXSW conversations weren’t all that different from the conversations I have everyday with authors about brand strategy around their books.

As I talked to people, it struck me that there was a clear line between experts who have built a platform and brand around their expertise and experts who are great at their work but haven’t figured out how to launch that one big idea or build a truly successful platform.

I think there’s indeed a “secret sauce,” and it’s simple yet profound. Experts know the answers to questions like these:

  • What are you doing right now that’s working?
  • What is it about what you say that makes people care?
  • What are you doing next?

Experts who have built a platform around their expertise are ready to talk about these things at the drop of a hat. Their answers, at any given moment, may be trending positive or negative, but the telling fact for me is that experts with big ideas think about specific, high level gauges of success, progress and growth all the time and guide their actions and initiative accordingly.

If you’re building your own platform as an expert or have a big idea you’re looking to launch in the not too distant future, here’s your chance to test yourself on where you’re at with these questions.

  1. What’s working? Experts know. Why? Because they measure. This is true in every aspect of what’s happening, whether it be on the web, in print, or in person.

Experts who build a business around their expertise know which email approach adds the most to their bottom line, they know which events get them more clients, and they know if flying to a certain city for a certain client is the right move. They know this because they have a system in place to keep track, and they take the time to assess and understand. They take the guesswork out of trying new things. Every successful expert I talk to can tell me the two or three things they do that drives their business and expands their audience—and they can tell me without thinking about it too hard. It’s part of everything they do and how they do it. Can you tell me the two or three most effective things you did last year?

  1. What is making you stand out? This is always compelling to hear from someone who knows. If an expert understands his or her differentiator and personal brand, it sounds simple and obvious—of course, that’s because they’ve done the work.

Most people just stumble through an answer and talk about what they themselves like about what they do, or what they are excited about. This misses the point. Experts with strong personal brands know that they are swimming in a crowded ocean, and they can pinpoint what it is about what they do that other people get excited about, and they know how to talk about what they do in a way that honors their uniqueness and targets the specific needs of the people they want to influence. Can you tell me how the essence of what you do will change my day to day life?

  1. What’s next? Experts have a long-term plan, but they also know the specific project (or projects) they are doing next.

Experts think several steps ahead, and that ability to be deeply in the project that is happening now but also already be thinking at 50,000 feet and how today is laying a foundation for three years from now is a difficult mental tightrope to walk. But where some people get buried in the details of their current project and let everything else go, missing the forest for the tree, experts can walk that tightrope because they know it’s critical. Experts can’t afford to wait until after their current project to think about what’s next. And really, none of us can. Can you tell me the next big idea you’re launching?

  1. What do you want to be doing in 5 years? This may feel like cheating because it sounds similar to #3, but I think of it as distinctly different. I’m talking about what you want to be actively doing day-to-day, not which accomplishments you want to check off.

This is a key nuanced difference I see over and over in the way experts who are making it happen talk about their future vs. those who are still looking for the right way forward. Successful experts build a community that they can work and grow within, so the question becomes how they want to be doing their work and with whom, rather than what award do they want to win or what endgame they want to pursue. Do you have a vision for how you want to be spending your time 5 years from now?

Scott James is the manager of brand strategy at Greenleaf Book Group, a publisher and distributor best known for its innovative business model, distribution power and award-winning designs.


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