Rule #2: Don't have all the answers (part 1)

In this post, I examine rule #2 of my Communicate Good homepage video, which lists ten all-important "rules to live by" for communications and PR success. To see my post on Rule #1 (Don't tell me what you do. Tell me why you do it.), follow this link.What I'm about to say, I've never admitted publicly. Earlier in my career, I had a fear that people would think I was a fraud. I was struggling with what I later would learn was a very mild version of the phobia known as Imposter Syndrome.

To be clear, at no time have I ever been a fraud (or fraudulent), nor did I believe in any rational sense that this was the case. Like most phobias, this was one that irrationally sprang forth from my subconscious.

Have you ever felt this way, even a little bit?

Thankfully, I was handed some wisdom several years ago that helped me move beyond this fear. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

First let's look at the reality of the situation. I have worked in the field of communications and PR consistently since 1994 and have accumulated a wealth of knowledge and expertise about my chosen profession. I have amassed experiences -- both successes and failures -- and served literally hundreds of clients during this time. I have run my own agency (twice), and articulated philosophies, approaches, methodologies, and systems for PR success. I have testimonials and endorsements from many satisfied clients. By any reasonable measure, I am not a fraud. And as much as I detest the term "expert," it's safe to say that I am more an expert than neophyte.

Yet the irrational sensation that I was a fraud dogged me at times. Ironically, I didn't have this early in my career, when I actually didn't know anything about PR. No, the fear grew slowly and quietly over time, as I ascended the corporate ladder in seniority and responsibility. The more I learned about PR and communications, the less I felt I knew. Typically, the fear was nothing more than a faint, nagging voice that I could easily squash, but every now and again it would shout at me. I would pass up speaking opportunities and the like -- not because I feared public speaking, but because I feared being called out publicly for a lack of knowledge.

Several years ago, I was chatting with a public speaking consultant, and confessed how I sometimes felt. I was more than relieved when she told me that this fear was quite common among professionals. She explained that it was particularly prevalent among contemplative individuals: people who were more likely to question the universe than believe they had the answers. She explained that the phobia grows over time because every single nugget of information learned can generate an additional three questions. It reminded me of the wonderful saying, “It is a wise man who knows that he knows nothing.

I asked the consultant what she told her clients who have this fear and her answer was straightforward and liberating. She said: “Know that you don’t have to have all the answers.”

It was the proverbial “aha” moment for me. In a business environment where everyone says they are an expert, I had always assumed that I needed to have all the answers … about anything remotely related to PR and marketing. I was being unrealistic and way too hard on myself.

To make matters worse, I have always been turned off by “know it alls.” And therefore, I had placed myself in an impossible situation: either A) act like I knew it all (and take on a characteristic that I disliked), or B) admit that I didn't have all the answers and was therefore not an expert. When I realized that being an "expert" was not about having all the answers, I was freed from my dilemma.

So if being an expert is not about having all the answers, what does make someone an expert? This question was not only fundamental to my own success as a service practitioner, but to the success of my clients, who also want to be perceived as experts (and "thought leaders") in their respective fields.

For starters, it's important to recognize that as we learn more and more about our given areas of expertise, and become mired increasingly in the complexities and minutiae, we forget that other people are not equipped with even the basic information about our professions. What we consider foundational knowledge -- things that are givens -- are often outside the realm of the average person's scope of experience. Therefore, when it comes to effective communications and PR, our job as experts is to distill the complexities of our work into its basic components. In other words, to spend less time worrying about every answer, and more time on how to convey the big answers.

In PART 2 of this post (coming to a website near you in September), I will address another critical element to conveying one's expertise. As the graphic above states, communicating one's expertise has less to do with having  all the answers and much more to do with being able to ask the right questions. Stay tuned...