Subject matter experts, or SMEs, are people who know a subject inside and out. While the OG SMEs might be folks with advanced degrees or decades of experience in a certain niche, being able to write like a pro is a skill you can develop.
A useful skill that can help you advance your career in writing, marketing, and beyond, developing your expert voice goes beyond faking experience.
Understanding how to become a subject matter expert boils down to a few key things. You must learn how to do research, write in different voices, and learn to take complex material and spin it into something approachable.
Here, we’ll look at some of the ways you can sound like an expert even when you feel like a novice.
How to present yourself as an expert
Mastering the art of research
As an SME-in-training, you’ll need to graduate beyond citing Wikipedia and learn where to find high-quality information.
In this phase, there are a few things you can do to start talking like an expert.
Where does your audience hang out online?
The first step is learning as much as possible about your chosen niche. Immerse yourself in the conversation by hanging out in the same corners of the web as the actual experts.
You’ll also want to join relevant social media groups — Facebook groups, LinkedIn Groups, follow key experts on Instagram, Twitter, and other relevant platforms. In any case, this is your chance to see what people are talking about in real time, which is far more informative than attempting to Google information and hope that it’s relevant.
Another good place to look is Medium. Here, you’ll find a lot of articles — which span a wide range of quality — geared toward every niche you can think of.
While these sources don’t necessarily have the credibility that comes with say, a scientific journal or reputable newspapers like the New York Times, Washington Post, or the Wall Street Journal, they offer a quick way to pick up on industry lingo and trending topics. Spend a lot of time in these corners of the web and you’ll be writing insider blog posts in short order.
ID industry publications
Beyond the social sphere, industry publications are another great source of specific information. Subscribe to all the newsletters and trade magazines you can, and follow the associated social media accounts.
White papers, eBooks, webinars — these types of content take a deeper dive than your average blog post.
Who are you competing with?
Competitive analysis is another great starting point for grasping the language and trends in a new niche.
You can learn how “the pros” in the space talk to their audience, what topics matter to this audience, and where you can offer something different or better.
Take note of the following:
- What kinds of articles/blogs/digital resources exist?
- What do competing brands post on their social media feeds?
- Website copy.
- Articles/blog posts/marketing collateral — how do competitors address their audience?
Practice breaking down complex terms into simple language
Explaining complex information in a way that connects with a broad audience without talking down to them is a skill that will serve you well. As you start to familiarize yourself with the new subject matter, try rewriting what you’ve just read in your own words.
Benjamin Franklin famously used this trick to teach himself how to write. Franklin would rewrite articles from The Spectator until he mastered the style himself.
In the SEO world, the technique is known as “skyscrapering.” Essentially, this means you’ll identify a piece of “good” content online and create something similar, but better.
Considering voice and tone
Another thing to think about is finding the right voice for the niche in question. How formal is the norm, here?
Are you going for a friendly expert vibe? Informal? Youthful?
Refer back to those competitor publications and look closely at how they communicate with their readers.
While the goal isn’t to copy someone else’s voice, most industries have a set of “cultural norms” that apply to the communications within the space.
For example; if you’re writing about food, you might opt for something friendly, approachable — like how you’d talk to a friend you invited over for dinner. By contrast, if you’re writing about supply chain management, a no-frills, plain language style might be your best bet.
Additionally, you need to learn the lingo. Using an incorrect term can raise red flags for readers who already have an understanding of the industry you’re writing for.
As a writer, you must provide value to your audience. Blog posts, white papers, and eBooks should help readers learn more about a topic; selling should come second.
Fake it til you make it
As a burgeoning SME, confidence will be one of your biggest challenges. As you learn new concepts and start making connections, it’s a good idea to practice writing to your audience. Deconstruct concepts and explain them in your own words — as confidently as possible.
Start by using a tool like Hemingway, which will help you identify the wishy-washy language, passive voice, and other hallmarks of low confidence. As you learn more, you’ll feel more confident in your ability to communicate like a bona fide thought leader.
Interview the real experts
Interviewing experts adds an extra layer of credibility to your content. A direct source you can quote — it’s smart to set up phone calls with people who know their stuff.
Often these folks benefit from working with you because they’re too close to the subject matter. As an outsider, you can zoom out and explain concepts in a way that connects to people who lack in-depth experience.
For example — if you’re writing content for a machine learning startup — you’ll want to talk to the employees/founder about specific concepts. But they might be inclined to explain the ins and outs of the math used in their process, which could be alienating to readers.
Ask for clarification — for example, a plain language definition of natural language processing can help you connect with readers who are also learning about this topic.
Oh yeah, recording your calls can pay off. This way, you can focus on listening and asking the right questions, rather than frantically trying to take notes as they rattle off a bunch of new terms and topics.
Finally, if your experts are on board, you may want to ask them to review any content you’ve created to check for clarity and accuracy.
Who are you talking to?
“Buyer personas” are a marketing staple. The term refers to a fictional customer, usually a composite of the real people who might be interested in your product/service/ content. (For example, “Maria” might be the 30-40-year-old first-time mom you’re targeting. Or “Dave” might be the theoretical Patriots fan who loves craft beer and video games.)
When your goal is to sound like an expert within a particular niche, you need to understand the gamut of demographic information. Targeting a specific audiencecan make your writing sound more personal than if you’re just flinging it out there to the entire planet.
In the end, learning to communicate with authority is a skill worth developing. Research, competitive analysis, and the ability to take on different voices as needed may seem like the domain of marketers alone.
But, this is a transferable skill likely to have value now — and down the road when AI encroaches on our job prospects.
The above steps offer a roadmap for learning about new topics in short order, but “talking the SME talk” takes practice and dedication.