Friday Rant — False Prophecy, Credibility and The Voice of Experience

In the past six months or so on Spend Matters, there's been a number of comment exchanges that caught my attention not so much for the content, but the voices joining the discussion -- and the relative experience of each in the area they were commenting on. In a recent example, one of the commentators, an industry analyst whom I happen to know, was truly an expert on the subject he was joining. This individual has probably been involved in dozens -- maybe hundreds -- of projects involving the specific issue at hand. But he was taken on by someone -- in fact multiple persons -- who in at least one case, had far less experience advising on the topic, yet was able to piece together a cogent argument based on skills of persuasion, seemingly coming off as more expert than they in fact were, especially compared to the person they were attacking.

According to strict Old Testament, New Testament and Islamic interpretation, false prophets should be put to death (or at least meet an early demise). I'm not for that, not even metaphorically. But in the past few months, this experience and others have opened my eyes to how convincing some people can sound when preaching to those who need the advice most, even when their arguments are based on nothing other than practiced rhetoric and impressive sounding credentials. Upon further reflection, I view this as a dangerous trend -- and one that all readers of blogs should seriously think through. But how can you identify a credible source versus a non-credible one?

If you're reading a blog for entertainment value, that's one thing. But if you're reading it for pragmatic business guidance or even just to expand your mind a bit before further research, it's important to consider the experience behind the source of the information and position -- in the main text and comments alike. Is the individual or firm in question a true professional on the subject -- someone who has built a career on the topic who really knows what they're talking about? Or are they just good at positioning and arguing their way through a topic -- and putting forth credentials, academic or otherwise, that sound like the real thing but in fact show no pragmatic experience with the topic at hand. It's an important point of distinction. And it's one that should carry over outside of the blogosphere as well.

I believe that when we try to influence others -- colleagues, companies, clients, friends and even family -- the voice of experience should matter when choosing whom to trust (even trust founded simply on whose advice we should take into consideration from a blog or a blog comment). One of the dangers of any soapbox is that a well-spoken individual can seemingly come-off as an expert when in fact they have limited pragmatic or commercial experience practicing what they're preaching. I suppose the same thing could be said of just about any profession, but blogs and blog comments have lowered the barrier of entry to such a degree that so long as one is intelligent and can communicate well in writing, they can come off with far more credibility than is warranted based on what they actually know from experience -- versus what they've been able to glean from distilling other's arguments.

It's a great lesson in life if you can learn to tell when one really knows his or her stuff from someone just putting on a good show -- and it's one we can learn from in our own career mobility as well. I once worked for a former McKinsey partner -- who ironically ended up being something of a con artist himself, according to some -- who taught me an amazing lesson in building credibility with executive teams as a confidant and true adviser. In this, he was an expert teacher. His main lesson was the importance of learning to scale up and scale down a discussion or argument -- and never to put everything on paper, but to have all the details in the back of your mind to pull out if you needed to (without having to refer to a lower level team member or a third party for the details).

For example, if you are advising a client or someone from your team on commodity hedging or risk management strategy, it's one thing to put down a basic argument into a PPT -- or a blog post for that matter. But it's something else entirely to be able to show, when asked, that you've done the calculations behind the strategy and can pull them out and weave them into the argument without just referring to an appendix. It also helps to say that you've seen it work this way in certain situations versus another way with others -- coming at it from the true voice of experience versus the expert voice of a talking head that hides behind trumped-up vs. real-world credentials. Simply put, it comes down to the ability to read a situation and scale-up and scale-down, to climb into the clouds or quickly rush into the weeds based on what's called for at the time and based on what you've learned from the past (and can call out as examples). That's how credibility is -- or should be -- built.

So watch out for anyone who might claim expertise on one level but in reality has never "been there, done that". Look for commentary from those who can scale-up and scale-down based on being a true expert with experience from the field -- versus merely a core competence as a talking (or writing) head. What they spout could very well mislead you or take you down the wrong path. Just because one writes shorter posts or comments or does not refer to a free resource does not mean that they're less expert than someone who has a core competency in sounding more expert than they really are -- it just means that for one reason or another, they're choosing not to share everything they know (which was exactly the case in one recent analyst bashing experience).

At the end of the day -- and the end of this rant -- if you remember one thing, remember this: the voice of experience should matter most when giving credibility to an argument, even in a world where the barriers to entry and building a following are lower than they've ever been and anybody who can string together a good sentence can come off as expert. Don't get me wrong -- there's a place for experts of all types whether they're teachers, professors, practitioners, consultants, analysts, journalists or bloggers. But don't be misled into a particular course of action by a false prophet regardless of how convincing they may sound. Do your homework on the source. Or, as an older relative who is addicted to dating sites likes to do when something does not feel right, "close them out," if something does not seem right.

Jason Busch

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