*Note* This post and podcast episode contain explicit language, as regulars will know pretty much all rants here do. If you don't want to read / listen to that, skip this one.
Bloggers. Readers. Friends.
We need to talk.
Do you know what I love about All Freelance Writing readers, including you?
You're out there carving your own path, pursuing the career and lifestyle you want without feeling constrained by someone else's notion of the kind of "job" you should have.
You get up every day, and you don't simply write. You run a business.
Think about that for a second. You. A business owner. Not everyone has that in them.
Do you know what that entrepreneurial nature of yours tells me about you?
It tells me you're bright. You're passionate. You're persistent. And, most important, you're quite capable of thinking for yourself.
Yet every single day, it seems, I see writers just like you and me using their blogs and media platforms to spew complete and utter bullshit under the guise of expertise.
And every single day, it seems, I see readers just like you and me eating that shit up without a second thought.
We are the problem. Writers. Readers. "Experts."
Experts are funny things these days. Everyone wants to be seen as one. Yet no one wants to trust them.
Nothing illustrates the latter point better than this week's EU referendum in the UK.
Why trust economic experts when making economic decisions with widespread ramifications? What the fuck do they know anyway?
Why believe an expert in European law when they disagree with that warm fuzzy feeling you get from raging nationalism? Nationalism never did any harm after all. Right?
This is hardly a UK issue.
If you're familiar with US politics, you know we operate in a perpetual clusterfuck. That's never more evident than it is in a presidential election year.
*Checks her calendar*
Remember when we elected "Cool Dad" and his opponents at once tried to convince us he was an "other" (not a real American) and an "elite" who we couldn't trust (because he was some hoity toity lecturer in constitutional law or some shit -- who wants that in a president)?
In both the UK's Brexit debate and pretty much every presidential election we have in the US, we face these kinds of issues and arguments.
They're bullshit of course. But as consumers of news and information, we love bullshit.
Bullshit is easy.
It's not about doing what's really in our interests. It's about making us fear that "other" who supposedly wants to ruin or take over what we hold dear.
It's not about wanting citizens to vote on the real issues at hand. It's about discrediting experts as some sort of elitist scum of the earth who think they're better than the rest of us (unless those experts back up a person's or party's viewpoint of course -- then they're special little unicorns plopping rainbow-infused bits of "truth" wherever they go).
If we don't trust the people who actually know what the fuck they're talking about, maybe we'll fall in line behind the loudest voice appealing to our fears.
We, as a species, seem to have this incredible knack for throwing common sense out the window when fear is involved.
The experts are fighting a losing battle.
Those who want us to base decisions on fear -- and these people always exist on both sides of an issue -- they have a talent for something many experts lack.
That talent is for storytelling.
Talk to any copywriter. Talk to any marketing or PR professional. Talk to anyone really whose job it is to persuade and influence others.
Facts aren't enough. Statistics aren't enough. Brilliant ideas aren't enough.
You persuade people by telling stories, by appealing to their emotions. Find their pain points. Figure out what they fear. Then tell them how you, and only you, know how to make everything better.
Tell that story, and you win.
Politicians and their campaign staff have become masters at fact-less fear mongering. Their job is not to educate you. It's not to help you make well-informed decisions.
Their job is to manipulate you. And they are damn good at their job.
This is where experts are supposed to come in. They're supposed to hold the storytellers accountable. Their job is to educate and inform and help people make better decisions based on facts rather than relying exclusively on emotional triggers.
Experts often fail at this job.
People buy into the "experts are all elitist assholes" crap because experts do a lousy job countering it.
It's funny though. I know more than my fair share of experts, from professors to industry leaders, and I've found elitist snobs to be the exception, not the rule.
For the most part, "experts" are perfectly normal people, just like you. They just happen to know a shit-ton more about one particular industry or issue than you do.
Chances are good you are an expert about something they know very little about too. *gasp* Elitist!
The problem (or at least the problem I've witnessed over and over again) is that experts are sometimes absolute shit communicators.
They don't always know how to take those facts and brilliant ideas bursting out of their ears and get them in front of the people who need to hear them in a way those people understand.
In other words, they can be lousy storytellers.
And they don't always realize they have this problem.
Let me give you an example.
When I was in college, I had to take a couple of economics courses. The professor was known to be tough. But I aced that first course while everyone else struggled with it (and hated me for fucking up the curve).
I became an unwilling "professor's pet." I was almost always called on to come up with the answer if more than one student gave the wrong one, which left him visibly frustrated. And I was frequently asked to stay behind when he was excited about some economic development in the news and wanted to chat about it.
I had no idea why it was different for me. And I hated it.
My roommate was in that course with me. We sat together. We read the same material. I knew she was putting in the same amount of time. But she was worried she was going to fail the course. So one day she asked me if I'd tutor her, and I agreed.
That's when we figured it out.
I got back to our apartment one day and she immediately pulled me aside to ask me questions about that day's lecture. I was able to explain the concept she was struggling with and point her to a great example in our textbook.
She was shocked. I'd just gotten in the door after a long day of classes and work. How the hell had I found time to read the textbook already?
That was it.
The professor set the course up like this: we'd attend his lecture, then we'd read the corresponding section in the text, and then we'd come back to a quiz during the next class.
But that's not what I did. I always read ahead.
Basically, I was learning the material from the textbook (which happened to be a great one). Then his lectures simply reinforced what I'd already learned.
Good thing too. The guy was incredibly smart in the sense of being an economist. But he was a piss-poor lecturer.
He was the kind of professor who would become frustrated when students didn't understand things he'd spent 30+ years teaching and practicing. So while he thought he was presenting these brilliant lectures and most people just didn't "get" what he was saying, the truth was I was learning independently and simply using him as a supplement. He seemed to have no idea his teaching style (example-heavy after barely going over the fundamentals) might have been why other students were struggling.
You can be an absolute fucking genius when it comes to your industry or subject matter while not being cut out to teach that material to others.
That's where we sometimes see a disconnect.
It's why experts sometimes seem like elitist assholes who just want to rub their intelligence in your face. They don't. (OK. Maybe some do.)
They just don't always understand why you don't understand what seems like second nature to them.
And frankly, experts, that's on you.
If people aren't grasping what you're trying to teach them, it's not that they're all too dumb to understand what you're saying. It's that you aren't communicating well enough to be understood.
Yes, it fucking sucks that sometimes -- such as in the case of politics -- you have to go up against sleazy communications professionals. But guess what. They're experts at what they do too.
They will outshine you every single time unless you either learn how to communicate effectively or you partner with someone who can (preferably the less-sleazy breed of communications professional -- those other assholes give us all a bad name, so you shouldn't have a difficult time finding help).
Readers, you're not off the hook.
While it's up to legitimate experts to communicate their ideas and facts clearly, readers are ultimately responsible for their own decisions and actions.
Yeah. I'm looking at you.
If you find yourself making decisions in a fit of passion or rage, you're not being responsible. You're being manipulated.
And if you don't want "experts" treating you like you're a fucking idiot, then stop acting like one.
You know damn well when you read (or hear or see) something that gets you riled up, that content or message was designed to do just that.
You know when you see message after message that just reinforces your preconceived notions, you're being coddled and catered to by someone who wants you to trust them (so they can take advantage of that trust later -- whether that's to get your vote or sell you something).
When you play ignorant, when you give in, when you choose to ignore the lessons history teaches you, when you start parroting those messages instead of critically analyzing an issue and looking for facts that go beyond emotional appeal, you are the problem.
This is about so much more than politics.
I didn't mean for this to be such a politically-oriented rant. Really. But elections on both sides of the pond kind of play perfectly into the underlying issue right now -- that issue of experts and trust.
I actually hate to say it, but on some level I can't blame people for being skeptical of experts.
Don't get me wrong. When someone's spent a career doing, researching, or teaching something, you should fucking consider what they have to say in that area. Real experts are worth your ear every single time. Don't dismiss them until you've taken the time to at least hear them out.
But there's another side to the "expert" coin:
As if it isn't bad enough that legitimate experts have to deal with sleazy politicians and communications people trying to discredit them, they have to compete with fake experts.
As readers, you probably come across fake experts all the time. And I'd bet many of you don't even pay enough attention to realize it.
Let's turn our attention to blogs -- especially those you visit for professional advice as a writer. Pseudo-experts have been a fucking plague in the writing and blogging community for years.
Sean Blanda has a great post up at 99U on this topic. You should read it. Go ahead. I'll wait...
The post is about those who don't "do" before advising, who don't really intend to make contributions that matter, who are far more concerned with building their own platform and fake "expert" status.
You know the type.
These are the bloggers who sign up for paid membership sites, courses, or mastermind groups run by smarmy marketers (often masquerading as topic or industry experts in their own right, when really marketing their own shit is all they know).
The whole point of these groups or courses is to teach bloggers how to "become authorities," or some such nonsense, by focusing on visibility and sales. These are also the ones who lie and tell you guest posting on big sites before you've put the time into actually building experience makes you an expert.
Hate to break it to you, but all it does is make you an over-exposed amateur.
I was a little surprised by some of the comments on Blanda's post, such as one expressing delight that someone was "actually speaking about it."
Besides, the "problem children" never see themselves in the feedback.
"Oh, she must be talking about that other bullshit artist. Surely not me. Surely not my favoritest mentor in the whole wide world."
My personal pet peeve is the onslaught of freelance newbies who come in offering business advice to even newer freelancers when they haven't even fucking done the work yet.
Freelancing for one, two, even three years? That doesn't make you an expert, no matter how many of your besties include you in their "expert" roundup posts.
Yeah, the rest of us notice your perpetual circle jerk; it's kind of gross.
You haven't even gotten to the point where half of small businesses fail yet (about five years if you're curious). When you do, maybe you'll actually have something to teach.
Until then, e-books, courses, and webinars? You're not ready. You're still a beginner. You're still figuring shit out. You're still in that necessary "doing" phase (and that's not a bad place to be, so enjoy it).
If you're selling those things without real expertise to back them up -- if you're trying to suck newer writers into these little ventures of yours so you can make a quick buck off their naive backs -- go take a look in the mirror.
That's what an asshole looks like. Congratulations.
What's worse is these pseudo-experts often come to more experienced pros looking for advice. Then they turn around and share that advice on their blogs (no credit given of course) as if they're sharing their own little gems.
When this happens, bloggers are basically stealing expertise to try to teach something they don't even fully understand themselves. That's not only dishonest. It's dangerous.
You can't steal real authority anyway. You have to earn it.
What is authority?
Far too many bloggers mistake visibility for authority. But they're not the same thing.
You can get visibility by pulling stupid stunts, kissing people's asses (read: "influencer marketing"), or whoring your blog or reputation out constantly for exposure.
Authority, on the other hand, comes from actual knowledge and experience.
It's when you have your own stories to tell.
It's when you've gathered your own data to report, whether through research or analyzing existing metrics related to your business growth.
It's when you've taken the time to look at industry issues critically and honestly, and you have a well thought out opinion to share.
You don't build authority relying on constant round-up posts where you share quotes from actual experts because you aren't one.
You don't build authority by publishing guest posts just so you can associate your name with a popular blog.
You don't build authority by peppering your posts with statistics. Bonus points if you're too lazy to cite the original source and instead link to your favorite bloggers in the hopes they'll notice you. And, oh, we're going to chat about this again in a future post. Trust me. If not here, on NakedPR. A shit storm is a-brewin'.
No, you don't build real authority by doing any of those things. Does that mean those types of blog content are a bad thing? Of course not. They have their place, and in some situations they're your most logical option. The problem is when you start to think associating with experts makes you one in lieu of doing the work.
Do you want to know how you build real authority? You put the fucking time in until you actually have something significant to say.
Guest posts and open publishing platforms are a big part of the problem.
It's become too easy for anyone under the fucking sun to pretend to be an expert. Just publish guest posts on popular blogs. Join open (or semi-open) publishing schemes (thank you HuffPo). You can pretend to be an expert too!
Even better, when you get someone to agree to publish your "expert" content, just follow this simple tutorial:
- Make sure your post is super duper long.
- Add lists. People like lists.
- Regurgitate something you learned from a real expert.
- Throw in lots and lots of statistics so it looks like you actually did research and know something (given that you have no real experience to speak from).
- Make sure all of those statistics link to sources. No, not the actual studies. To bloggers you like who mention those studies.
- Then tell all those top bloggers you linked to that you linked to them. They like their egos stroked. Stroke it well enough or often enough and they might pat you on your little head and send you on your way with a shiny new link.
Congratulations. You look like an expert even though you aren't one. You should be proud.
Well, no, you should be completely and utterly disgusted with yourself. But I bet you're proud.
It's funny, isn't it?
Here we are, living in an age where legitimate experts are being treated like frauds. And at the same time, frauds put on their little "expert" hats and we fall for their bullshit on a regular basis.
Real experts tell us what we need to hear, whether we like it or not.
Pseudo-experts tell us what we want to hear because they know enough of us are stupid enough to trust them just because they reinforce our views (or delusions as the case may be).
Which one are you?
Which do you put your trust in?
Back to politics for a moment...
Look. I know what outcomes I want to see from upcoming votes. But I don't care how any of you vote as individuals, whether that's in the EU Referendum or in our next presidential election come November. That's your business alone.
If you legitimately feel a major change is the best way to solve the problems that weigh on you, whether that's leaving the EU or flip-flopping political parties in power in our Congress or White House, then vote for those changes. But do so knowing you'll have a hell of a long road ahead of you, because you're starting from scratch.
If you feel the best way to solve those problems is by maintaining influence and making changes from within rather than walking away or turning your back on a party, then you know where your vote belongs. But do so knowing you'll also have a hell of a long road ahead of you. Your job doesn't end with a vote. That's where it begins. That reform you want? It doesn't happen with an election or referendum. It happens in the period that follows.
What I do hope is that each and every one of you can look beyond the messaging you're bombarded with (from both sides). And I hope you can come out on the other side knowing you voted based on the facts, and also that you voted your conscience.
In the meantime, readers...
Pretty pretty please...
Can we stop demonizing experts? The real ones I mean.
How about we turn our pitchforks on the pseudo-experts who fuck people over left and right just to make a buck or manipulate their way into more votes? Or how about the marketers who teach amateurs being an "authority" is about nothing more than shouting just a little bit louder than everyone else?
That would be anger well-placed. And it would be about damn time.