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The Visible Expert®: How Ordinary Professionals Become Thought Leaders

The Visible Expert Program

In the professional services, there is no shortage of experts. After all, expertise is what drives our businesses. It’s why people seek us out and are willing to pay good money for our advice and services. Firms like yours are practically bursting with experts.

But some experts stand a little taller. And a few tower like sequoias above the rest. You probably think of these individuals as industry stars or thought leaders. But we’ve given them a special name: Visible Experts®.

Until recently, the path from unknown expert to prominence was poorly understood. Over the past few years, however, we’ve studied hundreds of Visible Experts, and we’ve learned a great deal about their professional journey. We’ve paid special attention to the strategies and techniques they used to raise their profile.

We also learned that these stars are not always gods among women and men. More often than not, they are regular folks like you and me. When they speak to a crowd of their peers, they are not necessarily the brightest minds in the room — which they freely admit. Most are ordinary people, albeit people who have taken their reputations to extraordinary heights.

So what’s their secret?

In this post, we’ll explain what Visible Experts are, what they do differently from ordinary experts and, most importantly, how any competent expert — even you — can retrace their path up the mountain until you reach your peak.

What Is a Visible Expert?

Visible Experts are professionals who have achieved prominence in their industries. They are quoted in the media and invited to speak at conferences. They are admired by their peers and sought out by clients. Their celebrity status allows them to command higher fees. And in rare circumstances, they may even become household names. Visible Experts are exactly what their name implies: individuals whose expertise and exposure rise above the rest.

At the very highest echelons, Visible Experts are often trend setters, innovators and leaders. But those aren’t essential traits. Most of them are mere mortals whose big idea was their conscious decision to build a personal brand. In fact, there are only three things you need to become a Visible Expert (other than actual expertise, of course — that’s a prerequisite):

  1. A willingness to teach
  2. Good communication skills
  3. Commitment

Visible Experts are teachers. That’s how they build their reputations. They willingly and openly share their expert knowledge without any jealousy or fear of revealing their secrets. In today’s Internet-fueled world, information on virtually any topic is a few keystrokes away. If you aren’t sharing valuable knowledge, then someone else will.

When you share your knowledge and teach people in your target audience how you solve the kinds of problems they have, something magical happens. You position yourself as a special kind of expert — one who not only demonstrates a mastery of the material but is unselfish, approachable and utterly helpful. You become essential and easy to trust. It doesn’t take long before that trust develops into preference. And when your followers are in a position to buy services like yours, guess who goes straight to the top of their list? That’s right, you!

Of course, you can’t be a good teacher if you aren’t a strong communicator. Visible Experts are usually very good at translating complex ideas into easy-to-understand concepts. When you are writing or speaking, leave your technical jargon at home. Instead, communicate at the level of a non-specialist. For some people, this comes easily. Others have to work at it. If you are in the latter camp, don’t fret. Nobody is good at everything, and to a large degree, clear communication skills can be learned.

All aspiring Visible Experts have to acquire new skills and develop new habits in the course of their ascent. And that requires a sustained commitment. Whether you are learning SEO techniques or trying to write a blog post every week (or both), you have to set aside the time and summon the energy to make the steady, incremental progress it takes to climb the mountain. Visible Experts aren’t made in a day or a week or even a few months. You’ve got to maintain your new mindset for the foreseeable future. The good news is that it gets easier the longer you stay on the path.

Benefits of working with a Visible Expert

Figure 1. Benefits of working with a Visible Expert (percent of respondents) Source: Hinge 2020 Visible Expert Study

What Visible Experts Do Differently

At Hinge, we’ve interviewed hundreds of experts, many of whom are legitimate Visible Experts. And it is always heartening when we discover that most high-profile experts are ordinary people. Behind the scenes they are no different from the rest of us. So what propelled them to prominence? What did they actually do differently from ordinary experts?

As it turns out, there are five things an expert can do to give them a distinct advantage:

    1. Claim a niche. The more narrow your expertise, the more valuable it is likely to be. Most Visible Experts focus on a specialized area. By building knowledge that goes deep rather than wide, they can truly master a subject or discipline. And by writing and speaking exclusively on that subject, they increase their odds of becoming closely associated with it over time.
    2. Study their audience. You can’t build a following if nobody cares about the content you produce. That’s why Visible Experts talk frequently with people in their target audience. Even better, many experts conduct formal research on their audience to get a less distorted view of their interests, concerns and burning questions. Visible Experts use this information to choose the topics they write and speak about. Because these experts address issues their audience cares about, their readers and listeners are far more likely to become avid followers.
    3. Sharpen their expertise. It doesn’t take extraordinary knowledge or intelligence to become a Visible Expert. But it helps to have a firm command of the material. Fortunately, the path to Visible Expertise—writing, speaking, teaching—forces an expert to learn along the way. Over time, their knowledge will grow deeper, their arguments sharper, their reputation stronger.
    4. Develop a visibility plan. Most Visible Experts don’t happen by accident. They are the product of deliberate planning. Building visibility requires an effective, systematic approach to personal marketing. But these experts don’t have unlimited time, so they have to put their effort into tactics that are likely to work. Fortunately, there are resources to help aspiring Visible Experts develop a visibility plan that works.
    5. Implement the plan. Of course, even the best plan is worthless if it’s never put into action. That’s why it’s so crucial that rising Visible Experts commit to implementing their plan. Only by putting in the time it takes and sticking to their plan’s prescribed schedule can experts establish critical connections with their audience and earn their admiration and trust. The process is simple, but commitment can be hard. Like forming any habit, carrying out the plan becomes easier with repetition.

 

3 Kinds of Visible Experts

Artists do it. Musicians do it. And so do Visible Experts: to attract a loyal following, they establish a signature style that defines the way they deliver their expertise. Here are three of the most common kinds of Visible Experts:

The Contrarian. This expert takes an unconventional—often controversial—stand on one or more important issues. He or she seeks to stand out by challenging traditional wisdom and presenting an alternative path forward. This type of expert is often suspicious of “best practices” and pushes the industry to be more innovative and more tolerant of risk.

The Curator. This expert collects, analyzes and promotes the best thinking from across the industry. He or she liberally shares others’ content and ideas, giving credit at every turn. This expert embraces diverse perspectives, helping people make sense of them and turning a confusion of ideas into easy-to-understand, practical applications.

The Bridge Builder. This expert sees connections where others don’t. He or she takes seemingly incompatible disciplines (for instance, autonomous vehicles and employment discrimination) and demonstrates how they they are related and why we should be thinking about them together.

There are, of course, many other ways that experts can pattern themselves. My point is this: it is far easier to create a memorable public persona if an expert behaves in a distinctive and consistent way.

 

The 5 Levels of Visible Expertise

In our research, we identified five levels of visible expertise. To extend our alpine metaphor, think of these levels as outposts positioned increasingly higher on the mountain. Most climbers are content to reach the first of these lofty stages, while a few determined souls feel compelled to push through the thinning air to the summit.

Level 1: Resident Experts. This is where most experts begin their careers, and the vast majority of them never leave its ranks. These individuals are appreciated within their firms, and clients respect and rely on them. But beyond those boundaries they are virtual unknowns.

Level 2: Local Heroes. When experts get active in their local business communities, their horizons expand, especially if they use their outreach as an opportunity to educate their audience. They may speak at business events, write blog posts or conduct webinars. And they may even attract a few new clients.

Level 3: Rising Stars. Frequent writers and speakers on their area of expertise, these individuals are relatively well known among peers in their region. They can bring in excellent clients who are willing to pay more for their perceived expertise.

Level 4: Industry Rock Stars. Every industry has a small cadre of these. They are the experts who keynote major conferences across the country and are quoted in top media publications. Because they attract the best clients and can charge top fees, these high-profile stars are key players in their firms.

Level 5: Global Superstars. These are the elite experts, and their reputations often extend around the globe. No longer niche players, they are broadly associated with their industries — and some are even recognized by ordinary people. These superstars command ultra-premium fees and are in high demand.

Figure 2 below illustrates how much buyers value Visible Expert at each level. Some Global Superstars, for instance, can command fees up to 13X higher than an expert who has no visibility!

 

Visible Expert Fees

Figure 2. Premiums buyers are willing to pay, by Visible Expert level

Solo vs. Team Ascent

When you hear “Visible Expert” or “thought leader”, you probably think of individuals who have climbed to prominence of their own volition. And in fact, most high-profile experts make their way up the mountainside solo.

But there is another, less lonely way to reach the summit (or whatever level you aspire to achieve). And that is to make the journey in concert with others in your organization. Some firms put groups of professionals through a program designed to raise their expert profiles. The benefits to the firm should be obvious — increased visibility and higher fees. But the individual experts get the benefit of working through their challenges and skills training together. They can lean on each other for answers, insights and motivation when the going gets tough.

One firm that has done this is Nishith Desai Associates, an international law firm based in India. They recently put seventeen of their attorneys through a year-long Visible Expert program. While a handful of participants failed to complete the program, the vast majority not only finished but produced impressive, tangible results that could be directly attributed to their new-gained visibility. For instance, many of the participants, some of whom had never done public speaking before, were now visible enough to be invited to speak at events around the globe. One of the firm’s practice areas, managed by a newly minted Visible Expert, was recognized by a major law journal as a leader in its field. An Indian government agency reached out to one of their experts to help develop new regulations. And the firm was able to attract multiple new clients as a result of their enhanced market exposure.

 

A Map to the Mountaintops

Every aspiring Visible Expert needs a guide to reach the peak of his or her potential. Below is a roadmap any expert can follow to take their reputation to new heights of visibility:

Phase I: Set Your Strategy

      1. Determine where you are today. Are you at Level 1, or are you starting from a more elevated position? Use the five levels described above to find out.
      2. Decide how high you want to climb. Are you determined to be a Global Superstar? Or are you content to achieve Rising Star status? Your level of ambition will determine what goes into your Visible Expert plan and how hard you will need to work to achieve your goals.
      3. Find your niche. Define your expertise as narrowly as possible so that people will easily be able to associate you with the expertise you will become known for.
      4. Define your audience. When you start writing and speaking, you’ll want to know exactly who’s reading, watching and listening to you.
      5. Learn about your audience. Even if you’ve worked in your industry for years, you probably don’t know your audience as well as you think. Using secondary and primary research, now is the time to correct any misconceptions and fill in the gaps. The more thorough you are, the more you will have interesting things to say to the people who follow you. Also, try to find out what they read and what events they attend. That way, you’ll know exactly where to reach them.
      6. Explore the competition. Learn who you are really competing against, as well as what other experts will be competing against you in the marketplace of ideas.
      7. Choose your issues. You can’t be known for everything. In fact, you will have more success if you write and speak on a narrow set of issues. These will be the things people associate with you and reporters will call you about. Even though you address only a few issues, you’ll find there is plenty to explore in each one.
      8. Assess your skills. Determine what you are good at and where you need help. At minimum, you should assess your skill and experience levels in the following areas:
        • Writing
        • Public speaking
        • Blogging
        • Search engine optimization (SEO)
        • Finding outside speaking and writing opportunities
        • Email marketing
        • Social media
      9. Develop your visibility plan. Keeping your goals in sight—and building upon the expert issues you’ve identified and what you’ve learned about your audience—start outlining your visibility plan. You can use some of the free resources from Hinge (for instance, this Visible Expert Guide) to help you. Once you have identified your tactics, turn them into an implementation calendar, applying specific deadlines to each task or deliverable. As you develop your calendar, consider which items should take priority and how much effort you can afford to put into each.
      10. Determine who is going to help you. Chances are you will need some help in one or more of these areas. Identify and line up your resources early.

Phase II: Build your visibility toolkit

      1. Create your media kit. You are going to be a public persona, so you’ll need an appropriate kit to promote yourself. Don’t skimp on your headshots—hire a professional to present you in your best light. If you do public speaking, put together a reel of clips from recent engagements. Organizations will be more likely to hire you if they can see you in action.
      2. Enhance your bio/build your website. Don’t be shy about promoting yourself on your website. Make sure your bio makes you sound like the expert you are and presents your credentials clearly and prominently. Don’t forget to be interesting! If you are a solo practitioner, make sure you have a website that not only supports your position as a Visible Expert but has clear calls to action and conversion mechanisms.
      3. Get set to blog. Blogging, combined with SEO, is one of the easiest ways to build visibility. Learn how to do blogging right and make sure you have a great platform available to get your voice out there.
      4. Set up your conversion tools. Conversion mechanisms are an important way to turn blog readers and web visitors into prospects. Get these set up as soon as you start your new writing push.
      5. Set up your social media profiles. Start with LinkedIn, and make sure your profile is complete. Later you may want to add Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.
      6. Select and prepare your email platform. You’ll need a platform that is designed for sending emails in quantity. Whether it’s Salesforce, Infusionsoft, Constant Contact, MailChimp or a similar service, make sure it has robust reporting features so that you can see how successful your email is.

Phase III: Implement the plan and track your progress

      1. Get going! By this point, you should already be well on your way to building new audiences and greater visibility. Focus intensely on doing the tasks in the plan. And try to set aside time each day to work on new skills. Make learning something new every day a habit.
      2. Track your implementation. Your success depends on your ability to stick to the plan. Be honest with yourself and track every time you hit or miss an item on your visibility plan calendar. Your goal is to hit them every time.
      3. Track the impact on your audience. You can measure this in a variety of ways. How much traffic are you getting to your blog posts? How many people attend your speaking events? Are you getting emails from people who are interested in your point of view? Are these trends increasing over time?
      4. Track your business results. Are you getting more leads as a result of your Visible Expertise? New clients? Higher revenues? Has your firm seen any tangible benefits from your rising stature in the industry? Are you able to charge higher rates or command higher speaking fees?

How to Get Started

If you want to become the next Visible Expert in your industry, the first step is to commit to it. If you are part of a firm, talk to your colleagues and explain what you are trying to do and how it will help the business achieve its goals. If you can get the support of the people around you, you will find it easier to carve out time during the day to do many of the tasks it takes to build your profile.

Then start working through the 20-step Visible Expert process. Download and read our free book, The Visible Expert: How to create industry stars. And why every professional services firm should care. It contains much more detail about the process, as well as the research behind it. And if you need training along the way, find a robust online resource that can answer your questions and teach you the skills to overcome any obstacles.

While not everyone is cut out to be a Visible Expert, it is a perfectly achievable goal for most professionals. But you have to want it. And you need to know that there is a proven, repeatable process you can follow to identify your strengths and weaknesses, set your strategy and develop the skills and infrastructure it takes to climb to the peak of your ability. Now start climbing!

 

Additional Resources

  • Ready to dive into the details and get started? Download and read book that started it all — The Visible Expert. You’ll explore the underlying research, read inspiring stories of real-world Visible Experts and get the proven, step-by-step program that has helped countless experts rise to greater prominence in their fields. Best of all, it’s free!
  • If you’d like a shorter but still fairly detailed overview of the program, check out Becoming a Visible Expert: A Guide for Professional Services Executives. In 24 pages it delivers the key ingredients of a Visible Expert strategy and implementation plan.
  • If you want an instructor-led, learn-at-your-own-pace experience, take our online course, The Visible Expert Course. Over 7 class units, Hinge partner and Visible Expert Liz Harr walks you through the entire program and offers a wealth of helpful tips and advice. The course also includes useful worksheets, which are available nowhere else.
  • For step-by-step instructions to learn the key strategies and skills you’ll need on your journey to Visible Expertise, join Hinge University.

How Hinge Can Help

Are you looking for a seasoned guide to lead you or your team through every step of the Visible Expert journey — with mentoring and implementation support along the way? Hinge’s Visible Expert Program is for you! Working with individuals or groups, we can tailor a program that suits your situation and budget. For more information, contact us today.

Aaron Taylor, Partner

Author: Aaron Taylor A partner and co-founder of Hinge, Aaron brings over 20 years of marketing strategy experience to every client engagement. In his career, he’s conceived and implemented engaging brand strategies for scores of professional services firms. In his role as Creative Director, Aaron oversees Hinge's award-winning creative team.

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