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Stephen Walker

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How do you spot a subject matter expert?


Stephen Walker looks at how you find a subject matter expert by examining what is different about their behaviour. Seven key characteristics provide a rule of thumb to measure an expert against.

The world is full of experts. We know that business coaches say that you don’t have to be THE expert: you just need to know more than the market you are serving. That is a fair statement; otherwise the world’s number one expert in cooking chips would be rather busy. Expertise is pertinent to a particular market - the issue is how accessible the expert is to the market. So how do you identify a subject matter expert? Let’s take a look at some characteristics of experts.


An expert will famously be passionate about the subject. Ask a simple question and a half hour later you wish you had kept quiet. They are clearly passionate about their subject and always ready to explain. My sister-in-law’s uncle was a German Master Baker. He was passionate about his craft and came to England to practice with the oven before baking wedding desserts and fancies. He wanted perfection and would go to extreme lengths to ensure it.

More than that, experts are eager to help. If you have a problem in their area of expertise they will be itching to help.

A good example is the extraordinary, sadly deceased, Sir Patrick Moore. His rapid delivery, his animated arms and breadth of knowledge marked him out as different. I don’t know of another TV show host that lasted 55 years in the job.


Besides his TV shows Sir Patrick Moore produced a wide range of books and astronomy-related materials. That is typical of a subject matter expert: they are prolific and produce lots of content. When you love something you can’t stop speaking and writing about it. They usually have some academic backbone to their passion, even if self taught. The passion to know drives these experts to find out whatever it takes.

Once the expert has produced the content, they want to talk about it so they share it. They want to host discussions on the subject: conferences, seminars, webinars, by any means possible.


That passion to know, to understand their subject leads them to undertake primary research. This can be in an academic setting or in the world at large. I had a conversation with an expert in fire detection who injected smoke into a box so he could see how it flowed around the model room. It sounds weird to you and me but he needed to know.

Experts will go to great lengths to know. The 'why' question is a constant spur that drives them to more and more experimentation. As a result, the expert’s research is ongoing. 'Knowing enough' is simply an oxymoron. They seek opportunities to learn more.

Stephen is a co-founder of Motivation Matters, set up in 2004 to develop organisation behaviour to drive greater performance. He has worked for notable organisations such as Corning, De La Rue and Buhler and has been hired to help Philips, Lloyds TSB and a raft of others.A published author of articles and Conference speaker, Stephen delivers workshops across the country. It is all about “making people more effective” he says.You can follow Stephen on LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube and Blog


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