A foundational part of the OpEd Project curriculum (as well as the Public Voices fellowship curriculum, the year-long program that provides scholars across all disciplines with the resources, support and skills needed in order to dramatically increase their visibility and influence as thought leaders) centers around the idea of expertise. When are we experts? Are we experts in anything? What defines expertise? For an idea to have maximum effect, the audience needs to know that you’re qualified in the topic. But before even that can happen, you have to believe that you’re qualified.
In a game called “Peak Credibility” during the public seminar, the moderators had us go around and say “I am an expert in _____ because ____.” The first blank could be as broadly or narrowly defined as we wanted–“I’m an expert in writing,” “I’m am expert in travel writing,” “I’m an expert in travel writing about Africa”–but whatever expertise you claimed had to be backed up with evidence in the latter blank. For example, “I’m an expert in travel writing about Africa because I’ve been to 10 African countries and have been published in numerous outlets.”
My group had a hard time owning their expertise. One particular thing that seemed hard for many was dropping in big name awards, companies, employers, or publications. At the OpEd Project, we call these big names “Shiny Baubles.” They’re meant to stop you in your tracks, like when you show off a diamond ring, eliciting “oohs.” The phrase originally derives from World of Warcraft: shiny baubles are a “fishing lure available to players” that “increase fishing skill for a limited time.” So essentially, they’re a booster that will make you more effective. This can be attending a prestigious university, working for/with a well-known public figure, or having experience at a top company or institution; they’re names that grab your audiences attention. One woman omitted Yale when mentioning where she got her graduate degree; another failed to mentioned big-name U.S. senators for whom she had been chief of staff. Almost all the participants, myself included, agreed that such name-dropping of these shiny baubles was “bragging”–not a good thing, we said.
We weren’t the first group to be hesitant to drop these relevant factoids in when declaring yourself an expert. Zeba Khan, the OpEd Project program coordinator during my seminar, told the story of a session where a woman was listing evidence for why she was an expert geneticist. She mentioned her Ph.D. in genetics, the fact that she was widely cited in academic papers, and that she taught at a university.
The moderators and participants were convinced. They were about to move on to the next participant, when someone in the room coughed, “Nobel Prize.”
“…Did you win a Nobel Prize in genetics?” the moderator had asked.
“Well, yes…” the woman replied, “…but it was a long time ago. And it was part of a group.”
How could this woman feel that this award was not relevant? We have been conditioned, it seems, to perpetually exercise modesty and avoid mentioning these pieces of information, no matter how relevant they may be. Of course no one wants to be the one who won’t stop talking about her Nobel Prize. But there’s a difference between saying “I won a Nobel Prize in genetics” when you’re ordering a coffee, and saying “I won a Nobel Prize in genetics” when you’re attempting to influence policy. Shiny baubles in this instance are relevant. They provide important information to your readers about your past experience. They signal to your audience that a well-known, authoritative institution on the subject has already recognized the value of your ideas.
“If you want to have impact, you need to use whatever’s in your toolbox,” Zeba said.
As we continued on throughout the room defining our expertise, we all got a little more comfortable using our tools, when appropriate–dropping in these shiny baubles, recognizing their value, and allowing ourselves not to be braggarts, but experts.
A lot of other issues spring from this discussion: how can we deal with the struggle of “how we look” when we share information versus what we can accomplish? If something really important is at stake, do you care if someone laughs at you or thinking you’re bragging? I’ll explore these in future posts.