How to call yourself and "expert" and feel ok about it

by Elizabeth Dubois, Ph. D.
Assistant Professor / Professeure adjointe 
Department of Communication / Département de communication
University of Ottawa  / Université d'Ottawa 

Calling yourself an “expert” can feel weird. For me it felt like I was making a promise to news media and other organizations which asked me to speak. It felt like I was promising to know all the details of any topic they could possibly ask me about. Something I knew I could not do. Accepting the label of “expert”, as a young woman, all too often feels like an act of rebellion. It still sometimes feels like I am making a statement just by showing up and speaking from a different perspective. And while that used to make me uncomfortable, I am learning to embrace it. Because, frankly, the status quo of mostly white dudes on television screens, as keynote speakers, on panels, etc. is insufficient for our democracy to thrive. We need a diversity of perspectives in order to make good policy or voting decisions and we need a diversity of voices in order to engage the diverse collection of people who make up our country. 

Here are some strategies for being more comfortable being an expert when news media comes calling:

  1. Feel fine saying “I don’t know.” No one knows everything there is to know and no one actually expects you to have all the answers. Other lines that work: “That is not something my research has covered,” “I am not sure on that point,” or “I don’t think I am the right person to answer that question.” 

    Bonus tip: When possible, I like to follow these lines up with “but here is someone who is an expert on that issue.” I try hard to suggest women, people of color, indigenous folks and others who are typically less visible in the media.
  2. Place value on what you can offer that others do not. Sometimes that is your original research or empirical data but sometimes it is also your perspective. I recognize that the words I choose typically resonate better with younger people than the words an older person might select. People often call on me to connect with younger audiences. 
  3. Ask what the topic of the interview or discussion will be and for a list of possible questions. Tell them clearly if there is something you are not comfortable answering. If this leads them to find a different person for the interview it means you were not a good fit from the start. I promise it is better for everyone this way. That said, most of the time the result is that the journalist slightly modifies their plans and you all have a much better experience.
  4. Pay attention to how much time you have to make your point. Ask how long the interview will be, if it will be edited, and how many questions they want to ask. When in doubt, err on the side of shorter with less details - they can always ask for me.
  5. Practice with a friend who does not know your subject matter. What seems basic to you probably is not to the wider public. There is great value in being able to concisely explain complex issues and concepts. 
  6. You don’t have to be groundbreaking in every statement you make. That is an awful lot of a lot of pressure. Sometimes all that journalist calling you needs is someone to say the thing everyone knows so they can add new voices to their story. You have to decide how much of that you want to do, of course. You are a busy person and you don’t have time to say yes to it all.
  7. Ask about compensation. I don’t ask for everything I do but for recurring panels, large events, or anything I need to travel for I always ask. Sometimes it still makes sense to do it, even when no compensation is available, but you never get paid unless you ask. You aren’t being a pain or needy, you are being a professional. They will respect that.
  8. Say no. If it is a bad fit, if you are too busy, if you just don’t feel like it for any reason at all: You can say no. Especially once you become a known name you will get more requests than you can possibly handle. This is how I say no: “Thank you for thinking of me for X, unfortunately I am unavailable/not suitable for this topic. You might consider person A, B, or C. Please do keep me in mind in the future.” Give the contact information for those suggestions if you can and try to think of people who are less likely to have been given a platform in the past.