Expertise vs. Humility – A Writer’s Battle Royale?

Expertise or humility?

You’re an expert on something.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons you started writing.

Unfortunately, experts tend to be a bit self-promoting and arrogant, and arrogance is a sure way to lose your readers.

The opposite approach won’t work either. Timid, non-confrontational storytelling doesn’t do justice to the value you can contribute to your readers.

So, what’s a writer to do?

This is precisely the question I asked myself at the outset of my blogging journey.

Starting On The Wrong Foot

Whatever I’ve learned was a result of doing things wrong at first. When I began blogging, I imagined a Battle Royale between writing with humility and demonstrating expertise.

I believed that inserting too much “me” into a post would reveal my lack of age and experience, and that everyone would just get bored.

I veered toward broad generalizations, making concise assertions that I believed were true based on what little experience I had.

The resulting posts were preachy and flimsy. I sounded like an egotistical computer. HAL, maybe.

Finally, I did something smart and started to study the pros, bloggers like Leo Babauta who write with a perfectly unassuming authority.

Eventually, I noticed that humility and expertise are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, they make for a powerful combination.

Humility & Expertise Go Hand In Hand

How can we achieve both humility and expertise in the same breath? Here are 7 lessons I’ve learned so far.

1. Remember that humility is endearing and demonstrates strength.

Humility creates a natural connection to your reader. Acknowledging failures makes you seem human to your readers. On top of that, your failure validates how you came into the knowledge that you’re presenting. Failures can even be a great source of humor.

Being authentic and vulnerable also shows confidence. You’re willing to lay it on the line, imperfections and all. This confidence – without arrogance – is exactly what will draw readers to you.

2. Stay present to your own learning journey.

In our excitement to share what we know, it’s easy to forget that whatever knowledge we now possess is the result of a learning process.

Recounting your experience allows your reader to relate to you. By identifying with your story, your readers can make inferences and convince themselves of the relevance of what you have to say.

By staying present to your own journey – where you started, how you transformed, where you are now – you give your knowledge necessary context.

3. Limit generalizations.

Generalizations have their time and place – they’re great for headers, topic sentences and summarizing points. I think of them as structure – the pathway, walls and doors that guide your reader to the place you want them to go.

Once you’ve used generalizations to create structure, you can dive right into the details, which bring your expertise to life.

4. Get your narrative voices straight (“I” vs. “you” vs. “we”).

“I” is the most powerful way to tell a story. Your stories are powerful credentials and hooks. They draw your reader in, letting them know who you are (a human, just like them!). Telling a story in the first person is also a kind of evidence-based approach to making an argument. Just as citing your sources lends you credibility, citing your experience does so as well.

“You” is the voice we use when speaking to a friend. This is the riskiest voice because it can easily become preachy, but it is also essential in order to connect with your reader. Every time you use this voice, try speaking the lines aloud as if to an imagined friend over a drink or dinner. If you don’t feel comfortable saying it to a friend, it won’t sound right to your reader either.

“We” is a great voice for making generalizations. Just because we know something and want to share it with our readers doesn’t mean we’re superior, right? “We” is a great way to humbly make assertions about the way things are because we show ourselves as equals to our readers.

5. Demonstrate humility and expertise in separate parts of the post.

A (brief) personal back-story gives necessary context, makes you seem more human, and validates your expertise. This is a good time to foreshadow your learning but you don’t need to make assertions yet.

Once you’ve established context and humility, you’re ready to share the lessons you’ve learned. Now you can switch to the second person or first person plural.

6. Stand for what you believe, while acknowledging it’s just your belief.

Just because you’re humble doesn’t mean you aren’t going to put a stake in the ground.

Equivocating – reporting information without adding your perspective – will bore your readers to death. After all, it’s your perspective that your readers are after.

We merely need to recognize that what we’re presenting is not a dogma handed down from on high. It is not a universal truth. It is a truth in our lives, at this moment.

Acknowledge the limits of your knowledge and you can largely preempt the challengers and naysayers.

7. Re-read and re-write your post aloud a few days later (or more).

Even using every trick in the book, we can’t always strike the proper tone. Putting our writing aside and revising it later may still be the best tool of all.

Hear yourself reacting to the tone and word choice, and re-write the post while you can still feel that reaction. Your instinct will easily recognize places where you’ve been too abstract or impersonal, too assertive or preachy, or just too verbose.

No need to be down on yourself for missing the mark on the first try – that’s what you and countless other great writers throughout history have had to do to get to the right end result.

Please share your own experience in the comments: How do you strike a balance between humility and expertise?


About The Author:

Taylor Jacobson is an adventurer, entrepreneur and blogger at 21 Switchbacks, a community of thoughtful people committed to creating remarkable lives. Join him and get instant access to 10 Resources To Change Your Mind & Life.

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About the author

Taylor Jacobson