How researchers get heard

Avoid the Valley of Untranslated Expertise

Every public expert faces the same question: What am I going to talk with non-experts about?

The wrong answer is “What I’m an expert in” — at least, as expressed by the list of the topics in which you are indeed an expert.

For instance, “fiscal policy and political polarization in Latin American countries” is a fine-sounding topic. It looks good on your bio page. But it’s a topic, not content. It’s not public expertise.

The difference? Topics describe fields or subfields you know about. Public expertise is that expertise applied to what the community cares or should care about. Between them is the Valley of Untranslated Expertise.

I was facilitating a content planning meeting for a client recently when the expert we were developing a content strategy for suddenly veered toward the Valley, listing all the topics on which they had expertise.

Before I could intervene, the expert’s boss cut them off for me. “Instead of topics and themes, why don’t we brainstorm the questions you’ll own next year?” the boss said to the expert.

That question saved the meeting. It was like a window had been thrown open and a warm spring breeze filled the Zoom call.

Brainstorming the questions you’ll own is so much more productive than brainstorming topics. Instead of saying you’re an expert in energy poverty and US climate policy (there are a lot of those around, you might have noticed), you instead ask: “How should the U.S. act to solve global energy poverty while also acting to solve the global climate crisis?”

That question is narrative: It implies both a white-hot tension between two dynamics and that we can shape a way forward that satisfies both.

That question is generative: Lots of different shoots of content (both big-picture and small-gauge tactical) sprout under its sun. You could thrive as a public expert for years under this question.

That question is differentiating: It implies you’re going to focus on reconciling two enormous global problems that seem unreconcilable on the face of it. Not many experts are playing in this field.

That question is open: It doesn’t imply a dogmatic answer. It leaves room for you to evolve with the evidence.

And that question is one that expert’s key audiences are probably asking, or should be.

So that question’s a great question. It is a great one for an expert to own and to be known for.

What questions will you own as a public expert in 2022? By asking the question, you’re committing to something more than Twitter reactivity. You’re committing to guidance and focus on a scale that makes you a resource, not just another angry voice.