How to Become a Subject Matter Expert in 6 Months [2023 Guide]
Nowadays, choosing to become a subject matter expert in a valid career choice.
People deemed experts have their pick of job opportunities:
- Funding opportunities based on their name and reputation
- Product endorsements and influencer deals
- High-paying speaking engagements
- Paid subscriptions
What does it take to become a legendary expert? There is a belief that experts are born with an innate gift, which puts them on their way to success and achievement in their field.
Research, however, paints a different picture. If you apply a strategic rigor to your work, you can become a subject matter expert on almost any field in a matter of months.
Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hours road to SME
Others believe it’s more about nurturing a skill. In his famous 2008 book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell took the world by storm, declaring that to be considered truly experienced and elite, “10,000 hours is the magic number of greatness.”
For most, the road to becoming an expert lies somewhere in between. They have a talent and natural skill that, when nurtured, flourishes. We’ve seen or read about that process unfolding for musicians, mathematicians, scientists, athletes, novelists, and more.
But what about marketing writers? After all, if you’re here reading this post, you’re probably a content marketer, copywriter, social media specialist, or working in a related field. While some careers have a straight line to follow to become an expert, others, like yours, are a bit windier.
Focus on your reading and writing skills
To qualify as an expert marketing writer, you, of course, need to be an expert writer, which in and of itself entails a lot. You need to express ideas clearly, concisely, and interestingly. You need to be able to translate data into meaningful content. You need to know about human psychology, how to empathize with people and how to use emotion to compel people to take action. And you need to know how to evaluate what content, messages, and formats will resonate with audiences. That’s already a tall order for one person but not insurmountable, especially with time and practice.
You’re all set if you’re lucky enough to write about marketing topics and how to persuade people through marketing. But what if you work for a cybersecurity company, a beauty brand, or a Fintech? Do you need to be an expert in that specific field too? Not quite.
Compelling content doesn’t come from just regurgitating or synthesizing information already found in the top five Google search results on any given topic. It stems from intelligent content, ideas that add to the conversation, insights, and originality.
The most captivating pieces of content and the ones that get the most traction tend to offer an original point of view, but how can you have a point of view when you aren’t a subject matter expert? How can you discuss the best crypto investment strategies or app development tools when you don’t know the ins and outs of the choices?
There are two answers here. The first is to collect the relevant information (more on that in a minute). The second is to organize and present info in a way that defends your point of view and eliminates that haphazard feeling that comes from basically lifting random, sporadic points from other articles.
Now, onto how to find that unique point of view.
Befriend actual experts, not Google
There’s a difference between having a good grasp of a topic as a writer and being an expert. You shouldn’t expect to become an expert in a particular topic since you aren’t in the weeds doing the work. You don’t have hands-on experience.
That leaves you stuck between a rock and a hard place. Brooklin Nash, the co-founder of Beam Content and a content marketing expert, explained why it’s essential to write like a subject matter expert:
“Buyers have more info than they’ve ever had, so you can’t get by with generic statements anymore. You could have with content in 2012, but now they know what they are looking for. It can become pretty clear pretty quickly if someone knows what they’re talking about.”
So, what should you do then? Nash says:
“I don’t know that any writer should expect to become an expert in a particular topic because they aren’t in the weeds doing the work. But what you can do is build a good understanding in a particular niche, so you know the right questions to ask, how to come up with the topics that are unique and interesting, and differentiated.”
If you’re writing about backend development, talk to backend developers and project managers about actually what matters to them. Learn what challenges they face, how they overcome them, and what their processes look like.
You’ll almost always find an ally among the C-suite. They have years (maybe decades) of experience; they built the company and product – they are the experts. But don’t discount mid-level and entry-level employees. They have unique experiences and other perspectives, making them a treasure trove of knowledge they are usually happy to impart, particularly during onboarding. Soak up as much as you can. But remember, they have jobs, too, and those two or three key people might not be available every time you need them as a resource.
It takes a community. Build yours.
The act of writing might be a solo task but gathering insights and knowledge is not. You need to build your own community.
When it comes to networking, most writers understandably gravitate toward other writers and marketers. Ok, you need that community. It will be of great value to you in the long term. Find writers, marketers, and storytellers you like and admire and connect with them.
But to learn a particular subject matter and be able to write with conviction and believability about it, you need to expand your subject-specific network too. It will give you the opportunity to build expertise, interview experts, and gather various opinions.
Personally, I’m not an expert in AdTech or cybersecurity, but many of my clients are in those industries, so I’ve spent a lot of time connecting with colleagues in those fields and interviewing them about specific topics. Most writers I know are in exactly the same boat and have taken a similar path to becoming subject-matter experts, Nash included. He’s written about sales, customer success, HR, product marketing, analytics, and more.
When talking about how he was able to be so successful writing about such a variety of topics, he believes:
“The reason I was able to write somewhat confidently was because I spent considerable time talking to others with extensive experience in those fields. I’ve prioritized networking, consistently setting aside 3-4 hours per week to network through messaging apps, Slack communities, Zoom calls. The net effect is that now I have a great bench of people, so if I need a perspective on sales engineering or someone who is a chief of staff for a VC, I can search through and see who it would make sense to talk to.”
The most important thing to remember is that networking is a two-way street. Consider it cyclical and cross-beneficial. You can’t just take from others. You have to make yourself available to help too. I’ve found that comes in different forms – sometimes it’s offering your point of view or advice to a startup founder before they’ve actually hired you; other times, you might get credit for your opinion when someone quotes you or gives you an opportunity to guest post on their site.
Everyone has something to offer, and you need to give to get. I promise whatever you give will come back tenfold in one way or another.
Put subject-matter expertise into perspective
Jobs and clients come and go. A few years ago, the median number of years a worker stayed with a company was around four. Evidence shows marketers leave their jobs even faster – with some 40% changing companies within a year.
When you think of being an expert, it’s important to put knowledge into two buckets: short-term and long-term. I’m never going to run advertising campaigns, launch an affiliate marketing company or be a cyber intelligence analyst. Still, since I’ve been writing about these topics for several years, I’ll put them in the short-term bucket. If my client list changes and suddenly I have a lot of FinTech clients, that short-term knowledge and expertise aren’t relevant anymore.
Nash’s advice is solid when he says:
“Dig into the actual work of writing and build towards being an expert in content marketing, copywriting, or long-form content. That’s long-term expertise. It’s valuable no matter what topic you need to write about.”
That approach to becoming a marketing or content expert will serve you throughout your career, and you can leverage those skills for any and every in-house job or client.
See the forest and the trees
You can always become a better writer; if you’re taking the time to be intentional about it, you get better every time you write a draft. You’re working as a writer because you have a writer’s skill set. Just as most app developers, solutions engineers, and operations managers aren’t fabulous writers, you don’t need to be a rockstar developer, engineer, or ops manager. You do, however, need to gain a sufficient understanding of the field.
You can become an expert writer in a particular field if you can (a) ask the right questions to uncover new insights instead of regurgitating information and (b) connect ideas and weave them into something that is truly helpful for the reader.
I’d like to bring this all back to something Malcolm Gladwell wrote, a quote I think will take you much further than the 10,000 hours one: Time spent leads to experience; experience leads to proficiency; and the more proficient you are, the more valuable you’ll be.
This article was co-written with Wordtune. Wordtune didn’t write the whole piece. Instead, it contributed ideas, suggested rephrasing alternatives, maintained consistency in tone, and of course - made the process much more fun for the writer.