The line between an expert and a condescending jerk

14052620_24686b484a_mIn today’s business world, one of the hottest commodities a company can have is to be identified as an expert in their field. Indeed, this categorization is in such high demand that some brands self-identify as experts (or ninjas, or jedis, or wizards, or magicians). Information, content, new perspectives, and deep insights are the new currency, especially in the world of social media.

Often times the desire to offer expertise to an industry or to your audience can result in content that is truly insightful. However, there is also a great risk inherent in working to establish a company’s thought leadership. That risk is that sometimes your content can come across as extremely condescending, so much so that perhaps your actual message is overshadowed by your tonality.

As exhibit A, consider this article from Fast Company, titled “Why B2B Marketers Still Don’t Get Social Media – and 7 Steps for Fixing That.” Fast Company has published a lot of content about social media over the last few years and have drafted a lot of social media practitioners to write for the publication. The magazine is clearly trying to build itself as a resource, or as a thought leader, in regards to social media and social media marketing. It’s hard to get far beyond the title before realizing that the article is framed in a way that could easily rub readers the wrong way – especially B2B Marketers who *do* “get” social media (like us, for example).

As you strive to build your company’s value as a thought leader, how can you make sure your content is informational without hedging into a style that could insult your audience? Here are some tips.

1. Write intelligently but simplistically

Albert Einstein is quoted as saying that if you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it well enough. As you work to pass on your knowledge and present your company as a thought leader, explain things so that people unfamiliar with your ideas can find them easily accessible while people with more knowledge will not feel insulted. This can be a fine line. A good idea is to find another company that produces content that you find appealing and try to emulate that style.

2. Avoid sweeping generalizations

One of the problems with the Fast Company article linked above is that there are a lot of broad sweeping statements. For example, the author writes, “A big part of the problem is that most B2B companies don’t understand that social media requires both a technology and a business approach.” On what is this statement based? It’s a fairly bold thing to say about a large swath of the business world. Make sure that if you are building a case, you do so with some support, or make sure your claims are well understood by the general audience you’re targeting.

3. Do not assume you are an expert

Even though you may be extremely confident in the content you are producing, it is best to assume that there are other perspectives or facts you are simply not aware of yet. Especially with blog posts, leave room for readers to add information to the dialogue. This does not diminish your status as an expert. Rather, it makes your company appear more accessible and receptive to outside ideas, very important factors in today’s business world, especially online.

4. Do not identify other groups as inferior

The biggest mistake the Fast Company author made, in our opinion, was designating B2B marketers as a group with less knowledge than the author. If people come to read your content, one can assume they are there to learn from you. Inviting people to learn from your experience is very different from saying, “You don’t know as much as me so I’m going to help you.” A good way to avoid this last problem is to picture one individual from your audience and pretend you are just talking to them. Hopefully you would not take a person aside and say, “Look, you’re really ignorant about this topic and I want to help you out.” Consider how you would work with that person on an individual basis and carry that kind of approach into your content.

A standing as an industry expert or thought leader is extremely important today, but just as important is how you are perceived on a personal level. If someone perceives of your brand as being condescending or even offensive, they may not care how good your advice is. Make sure you treat your audience with respect. That is one of the best ways to earn respect from your readers.

Image Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/gr8matt/14052620/ via Creative Commons


15 comments on “The line between an expert and a condescending jerk

  1. Can I add: don’t just preach to the choir.

    Do you (Ms. Fast Company Author) really think someone that cares about B2B social media and fixing its (claimed) perception problems needs to be told that your social media program needs to be driving towards a clear goal?

    Spot on, thanks for sharing a thoughtful a rant. 🙂

    • That was the other big problem with the article, but we figured this rant was already long enough. You raise an important point though, Eric. Not only was the title condescending, but then the “fixes” were so elementary as to be even more insulting. Bad move.

  2. “Avoid sweeping generalizations.” Isn’t that a bit of a sweeping generalization? 😉

    I like #3. Over the years, I have grimaced when (on a very rare occasion) somebody tries getting cute by calling me a guru, and even when people (more frequently) have called me an expert. I have much preferred the word “specialist”, even though I am a specialist at so many things that I think it makes me more of a generalist.

    • It might be a slight sweeping generalization. You caught me!

      I have always been a big fan of just acting in the way you feel is most appropriate. If you need to declare yourself an expert, or if you feel you need to really make clear to people that you should be considered an expert, you’re probably not really an expert.

  3. I don’t consider Fast mpany to be a quality publication anymore…

  4. Here in lies the problem. Too many people/publications claim to be experts but say very little of value. I totally agree with you on the sweeping generalizations part. Lumping everyone together does as much of a disservice to those working in the industry as the people who don’t really know what they’re doing.

  5. Hello Margie, I am a relatively new business owner and an inexperienced blogger, so I read your comments with great interest. Branding, thought leader, … all concepts which are extremely relevant. Naturally after reading your insights I was keen to read the offending article. Though I agree we need to approach our readers with respect and humility, recognising that there have to be people who know as much or more than we do about our field of business, still, the article struck me as a wake-up call and a call to action.–a little strident, yes–and low on practical suggestions–but provocative and worth reading. I suppose we all need to cultivate our “voice” as well as our brand and keep evaluating whether they still resonate with readers. I couldn’t find that particular article on the Fast Company website, nor the author’s name, which surprised me. Rebecca Blaevoet Co-Director, Valleys WordWorks Ltd Producers of Braille; and raised-print graphics Contact us to discuss your next project! 01443 828 815 http://www.valleys-wordworks.co.uk Registered Offices 39 Cardiff Road Llandaff, Cardiff CF5 2DP Like us on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Valleys-WordWorks/164604066918020 Follow us on Twitter: @valleyswordwork

    • Hi Amy,

      The provocativeness of the article can also be seen as a ploy, unfortunately. A lot of times people create content they know will rile people up because that gets people like me to write posts linking back, which is of course great for SEO. It’s unfortunate because sometimes you just happen to have an opinion that is unpopular, but you need to approach such subjects carefully so it doesn’t look like you’re just game-playing, if that makes sense.

  6. Ah, Margie, you’ve addressed (very well) a pet peeve of mine. The line between knowledgeable and condescending seems increasingly difficult to navigate for many. And all the ‘formulas’ for creating clickable headlines just seem to feed the problem. Good topic for a future #blogchat?

  7. I do not read or share much FastCompany articles. In some cases, aren’t the headlines merely meant to be provocative…daring you to click on them (perhaps in a huff) because you strongly agree/disagree with the statement?

    Most of my online tribe are pretty good at teaching without condescension. I might know 1-or-2 who push the boundaries of kinda stating – “don’t be an idiot” or “you are an idiot if you are doing “. However, it works for them…and if you do not like their communication style, then they are OK if you “move on” (and continue being an idiot ;)).

  8. […] the cost using social media than you can through television, billboards or even email.” The Fast Company article we cited last week does not make a single mention of the cost of social media […]

  9. Where oh where have all the quality editors gone? It seems these days the conversation goes, “what, you’ll write something for us for free/pennies?…oh, okay then, whatever you want to write will be fine.”

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