You Can Shake This World

My 17-year-old son, Evan, has been going to school in Costa Rica since early February. He’s a high school junior and is down there on a five-month “exchange” program (although as far as I can tell, we haven’t gotten anyone in return).

Last week, after being away for about three months, he came home for a nine-day visit. As you might imagine, this was a big deal for the rest of the family, since this was by far the longest he’d ever been away from home.

Three months is a long time when you’re 17, and as we drove to the airport that night to pick him up, I couldn’t help but wonder how he might have changed. Would he be taller? More mature? Fluent in Spanish?

As it turned out, the answer to all three was “yes.”

But the biggest difference between “February Evan” and “May Evan” was none of these … it was his handshake. In just three months, Evan’s handshake had evolved from that tentative, awkward grope that most teenagers reluctantly surrender, into a quick, firm, confident, snap.

You know me, I’m not shy. So I asked him, “What’s up with that?”

He explained…

It seems there’s a ritual in his little Costa Rican high school (in the entire country, for all I know). Every morning, as the kids gather before the first bell, each boy shakes hands with every other boy and kisses every girl. Three months and countless handshakes later, he’s become a bit of a handshaking expert (and, I’m guessing, a kissing expert, but we didn’t get into that).

As we drove home, and as I nursed my newly crushed hand, I got to thinking about “writing as an expert,” and how this also takes time and practice.

Here’s what I mean. When I ask workshop participants why they want to publish an E-Newsletter in the first place, one of the top reasons cited is always, “to be positioned as an expert.”

That’s a good reason. Few of us publish for its own sake; we do it as a marketing tool.

But being considered an expert involves more than just the value of what you say (or write). Part of it – a significant part – has to do with how you say it.

Experts speak in a definitive, unqualified way (sort of like I just did). Non-experts – or those who don’t yet feel themselves to be expert; it looks the same to readers – hedge by…

…Hiding behind statistics. It’s fine to drop in a stat here or there. But if you want me to view you as an expert, you need to do more than just report the news. You need an opinion regarding the facts.

…Hiding behind established authorities. Here as well, it’s fine to quote people in your field if they have something particularly appropriate to say on a topic. But if all you’re doing is “hosting” the thinking of other experts, I’ll start seeking out those people instead of you.

…Hiding behind words. Few people – at least the ones with garden variety-sized egos and personalities – come out of the box speaking in an authoritative way. It’s an acquired skill and if we’re new to what we do, we probably don’t have it yet.

Until then, we wonder if we’re good enough, smart enough, experienced enough … expert enough, to voice a clear, strong opinion. So we use lots of qualifying phrases: “In my opinion,” “It seems to me,” “I believe that.” This is a problem for at least two reasons.

First, it waters down the message. Shouting, “Godzilla is coming, everybody run for their lives!,” for example, is a lot more persuasive than shouting, “Pardon me, there appears to be a large lizard outside and in my opinion he may be angry about something.” People don’t play close attention to watery messages.

Second, it waters down you. After all, if you’re not 100% certain about what you’re telling me, then maybe I should go hire someone who seems to be. (Note that I said “seems to be,” not “is,” because you, my friend, know plenty enough about whatever it is you do. You just need to get better at convincing me.)

So anyway, here’s what I guess I think. According to 83% of Harvard marketing professors, you might want to consider maybe trying some of these suggestions for your business. Or not. It’s worked for me but, you know, your mileage may vary or something.

Scratch that. Here’s the real bottom line: If you want people to view you as an expert, you need to start writing, speaking and behaving like one. Toss out the stats, stop referencing higher authorities, and edit out the qualifying statements. Then watch people pay attention as you confidently tell the world whatever it is you believe.

P.S. Will writing this way mean that some people will disagree and even take issue with what I have to say? Only if you’re doing it right.

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