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I'm working for a big company as part of a specialized team that helps other teams in the company accomplish certain goals. Those other teams can be seen as "customers" (they have no obligation to use our services and are billed for those).

Often when technical questions arise from one of the team we support, a colleague of mine always comes to me with the "customer" representative(s) and introduces me as: "This is Bob, he is our expert in X." (If this matters, almost all team members indeed agree in that I am the expert in X).

While it's flattering to be labelled an expert, I often don't know how to react to such statements. Obviously, several courses of action are possible, like:

  • "You are damn right I'm the expert!" - Cocky and clearly not the way to go.
  • "Well, I don't know about expert but let's see how I can be of help." - Might make me sound uncertain about my abilities.
  • I smile politely and say nothing. - What I usually do but I fear it makes me look asocial or shy.

I have no idea what to reply in these situations. Usually the meeting goes well in the end but I always have this feeling that people's first reaction is to discard my input. This especially happens when they are a lot of vocal people in the room which somehow take all the space: I usually shut down and find it hard to interrupt those. This is frustrating as I often understand what the real problem is and how to solve it but don't have the "charisma" (may not be the right word) to dare and speak up unless someone explicitly asks for my opinion.

So, what is a good, professional way of reacting to those introductions that will help me project confidence without sounding presumptuous?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S Jun 10 '16 at 12:34

12 Answers 12

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You've been introduced and with a short explanatory note, which isn't false. It's just the same as they'd said "here's ereOn, he's our X developer". Since you are an expert on X, there's nothing special about this statement and there's nothing you need to be seen to be "reacting" to.

Say hello or something, shake someone's hand maybe, and don't overthink things.

The area you need to work on is speaking up when you have something relevant and valuable to add. This has nothing to do with your introduction. The question How can I gracefully interrupt others and take the opportunity to talk? has some useful guidance here, and helps with the general problem of dealing with 'timidness' in meetings.

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    Given my tendency to overthink things, I guess your advice is spot on. The simplest solution is indeed to not react in any particular fashion. That makes a lot of sense. Thanks a lot ! – ereOn Jun 8 '16 at 14:13
  • @ereOn. Cool, you're welcome. But you should still follow the links about the anxiety you feel towards contibuting in meetings. – Nathan Cooper Jun 8 '16 at 15:03
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    @ereOn Nathan is right - your biggest issue seems to be your inability to assert yourself during meetings. As one of those "vocal" people, I need others to speak up and interrupt me. I (and most like me) won't take any offense to an interruption - it's just "how it works". – SnakeDoc Jun 8 '16 at 15:59
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    This is spot on. "Hi! Nice to meet you. How can I help you?" (You mentioned that you are talking to what are, to all intents and purposes, customers of yours. So just take a cue from anyone that you have ever approached as a customer. Then proceed to leave your customers with an awesome experience.) (FWIW, my actual job title is "Research Expert". Go figure.) – Stephan Kolassa Jun 8 '16 at 20:00
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    Agreed, don't "react" to things unless you want people to think it's news to you. Advice for football players: "when you get in the end zone, act like you've been there before", attributed to Vince Lombardi and other coaches. – Steve Jessop Jun 9 '16 at 8:36
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Nothing wrong with just smiling politely (maybe a simple "hi" or "hello") - it's what I do - modesty is too easily interpreted as false modesty, and the other option is easily seen as an ego trip.

You then go on to prove you're an expert by simply being awesome.

As Anthony has pointed out in the comments - the appropriate response is situation-based. I'd assumed one particular scenario - from your question, I'd imagined a larger and formal group meeting, where you don't want to slow down introductions around the table.

If this is a smaller group, though - for example, someone bringing a client to your desk, you can be a little more elaborate without heading into an ego trip. In this case, I'd respond with something like "Hi, yeah, I've been working on this technology for x years, and done some really cool things with it. What is it you're looking to do with ?"

  • In a job where we frequently worked with unfamiliar territory, one team person could be the "expert" simply for working with a product once (and hating it), or admitting to having heard about it. Expertise can vary significantly. If you are, indeed, an expert, you can show appreciation (smile) and even elect to thank the compliment. Then point out that you're hear to share your expertise (also known as "knowledge", whether you learned it as "head knowledge" or "experience") so others can gain some expertise and become experts themselves. In other words, HorusKol's second sentence. +1 – TOOGAM Jun 8 '16 at 20:14
  • There's quite a lot wrong with just smiling politely depending on the situation and your culture. If you're being introduced as part of a presentation then maybe you can get away with it. If, however, you're being introduced to somebody - or a small group of people - directly, just standing there and smiling politely is going to make you look like a weirdo; I'd expect you to at least acknowledge the introduction, even if you didn't acknowledge the "compliment" of being referred to as an expert. – Anthony Grist Jun 8 '16 at 22:19
  • @AnthonyGrist - you're right, it entirely depends on context – HorusKol Jun 8 '16 at 23:24
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I doubt they care if you're an expert or not, as long as you solve their problem, so:

Hi, how do you do?

Let them decide. You know more about it than they do, so from their point of view, you are the expert.

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    The practical definition of an expert is someone who can solve my problem. – emory Jun 8 '16 at 22:21
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    @emory ...without causing additional problems ;) – HorusKol Jun 9 '16 at 2:53
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When introduced as an expert, affirm the introduction with a simple nod, smile, and "Hi", as you describe in your third bullet. Instantaneously reflect on and take pride in the hard work you've put in to achieve expert status, mix it with appreciation to work with people who recognize your talents and are grounded enough to give you due credit, and project it with the grace and humility of a professional who is at your customers' service.

If your meeting is planned, you can anticipate the introduction, and ramp up your confidence ahead of time. Just don't think too hard about it.

Your confidence will transcend yourself throughout the meeting. Also, you may even give the hint up front that you aren't the chatty type, so if you DO speak up during the meeting, people should listen. You might have a little "capital" with speaking time, and your ability to interrupt could work to your advantage.

You likely have technical answers that could provide clarity and help steer the discussion. I suggest that when you have something to say:

  • keep eye contact with the speakers;
  • as the conversation continues; wait for someone to take a breath;
  • immediately, give your hand a partial-raise, and say something like

    "Point of information..."

and usually you will then have everyone's attention. Just remember to tap into your confidence that you brought to the meeting and projected during your introduction.

Terms like "point of information" or "point of inquiry" come from Parliamentary Procedure like Robert's Rules of Order. You don't want to come across as too formal, so maybe borrow one or two phrases that work for you.

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I think the core of your question is this:

I've been introduced as the expert, but people don't listen to my ideas.

I think you and your boss need to have a better understanding about your expected role in meetings. Let's say you're the Sharepoint technical expert. When you are meeting with customers (or "customers") about whether or not to use Sharepoint, the customers can't/won't care about what the Sharepoint expert has to say until after they've actually agreed that using Sharepoint is the correct course of action.

Why are you going to these meetings?

  • To be part of the team that actively convinces the customer of their need to switch?
  • To address specific customer concerns about the feasibility of an approach?
  • To listen quietly so that you hear customer requirements firsthand?
  • So the customers know your face for future, more detail-focused interactions?
  • None of the above, in which case maybe the meetings are a waste of your time?

If you're introduced as the "expert," there's probably an expectation that you're the "details" guy, and the meeting probably isn't about details. Not everyone in a meeting needs to talk in order to be productive, and if you're team is giving a "sales pitch," it may be actually be more productive to limit the number of people from your side who speak.

I often understand what the real problem is and how to solve it

I understand how incredibly frustrating this can feel, but if a customer doesn't believe that your technology is the answer, your specific technical expertise is irrelevant. If early on your team is pigeonholing you as the expert (deliberately or accidently), this could be undercutting your persuasiveness.

Bottom line: You should talk to your boss and team about meeting expectations.

  • This may have come off the wrong way from the question's phrasing but the meetings usually aren't a problem at all. People often end-up following my advices. The question is more about enhancing my introductions to new people and how to project the appropriate confidence regarding their expectations. – ereOn Jun 9 '16 at 18:43
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My view in a nutshell: Charisma is not something that can be learned.

There might be ways to develop or improve charisma and related skills like the voice (see the links), but I don't think that personality can really change. I've been in very similar situations, and I have quite similar feelings, but I have finally come to the conclusion that it is just hopeless. Tell me if I'm wrong.

Meetings will always be dominated by the more vocal and outgoing people, unless some CEO or head of department will invent an alternative style for meetings and will explicitly enforce it.

I can't find the reference now, maybe it is made up, but I once read, that 70% of 'getting a message across' amounts to personality/charisma, 20% to presentation, and only 10% to actual content. This is quite frustrating for us, since even if we polish our presentations, we are still missing the most important part...

You made the right observation, the issue already starts with the introduction. First impression. But it is not just what you say. Nonverbal communication is even more important. Even if you made up something fancy at this point, it would not change you as a person(ality).

A way to improve the actual situation might be the following: As your colleague seems to take a moderator-like role, you need to make an arrangement with him. He could, for example, explicitly ask for your opinion after the problem has been discussed for a while. If your relationship is good, he could even do this after you gave him a particular sign or hint, exactly when you have come up with something important to say.

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You say "I often understand what the real problem is and how to solve it". That is enough for your coworkers and clients to see you as an expert. There is nothing presumptuous about being an expert.

There is something called Dunning–Kruger effect, that means that relatively unskilled people in a given area tend to overestimate their capacity, and respectively skilled people tend to underestimate their own.

I your case, as you have acquired an expertise on X, you know that X is a complex subject where you still have much to learn. The simple fact you know what you don't know is very helpfull for your team and your clients.

  • Dunning–Kruger effect - link missing – Peter M. Jun 9 '16 at 11:58
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If you are, objectively, not particularly knowledgeable about X, you should say so one way or another, so as to not deceptively create a false impression.

But if you are knowledgeable enough to help (even if you don't consider yourself an "expert"), and this is just a matter of politeness, then it is best to simply not say anything special.

Your second option could work, but it can also easily backfire. By saying you're not an expert, you're highlighting the topic of you being an expert, and next thing you know the person who introduced you affirms that you are an expert and sends more praise your way. Before you know it the whole conversation is about you and your expertise. This is the opposite of modesty.

I need to follow my own advice - I'm naturally cocky, so I work very hard to correct that and try to act modestly. This often includes objecting to superlatives sent my way, but I feel I'm doing that wrong and that I just draw more attention to myself by arguing. (On the other hand, some people have said I'm modest, so maybe it's working. Sometimes I explain that actually I'm not modest at all. It's turtles all the way down.)

That said I have a personal story to share. I once joined the board of advisors of a certain small startup company. I'm a mathematician specializing in statistical algorithms and machine learning. For some reason the CEO had the impression that I have expertise on cryptography, where in fact I know no more about it than the average enthusiastic mathematician.

One time we had a Skype call with all of the company's newly established team. At some point the CEO said something like, "We have a cryptography expert on our team". I was thinking, "cool, we have a cryptography expert!". The CEO went on to say "Meni, would you like to introduce yourself?". Then I was like, "oh ****, I'm the cryptography expert?". It was important that I let it be known that under no stretch of the imagination could I be considered a cryptography expert, but I didn't want egg all over the CEO's (and my) face. So after the initial shock I said something to the effect of "I'm happy to help, I should point out though that my field of expertise is actually in machine learning."

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What I find really interesting about this question is that it seems that everyone is ready to accept you as the expert except for you. I think that's where your discomfort with handling this situation comes from.

If you felt very comfortable in being the expert on something, I don't think you'd really be asking this question - we are all experts on something and most of us have no problem being acknowledged as such.

And I think feeling unsure about this is totally reasonable, there are a number of situations where we may be uncomfortable with being introduced as an expert, but from reading your question the reason seems to be your own confidence, not others confidence. i.e.:

I always have this feeling that people's first reaction is to discard my input

I can tell you from experience that if you approach discussion from this assumption, that people will often follow your lead and discard your input. Why should they believe your input if you have trouble believing you are the expert?

My guess is that you actually are the expert as they say, especially considering that they are ready to claim that even though you are not. You are probably quite talented in whatever this discussion is about, and you also are probably not fully willing to hold that confidence in yourself or to recognize that you deserve it, even though others do.

There is a place of confidence that is not merely cocky or arrogant. I see that this can be a place of discomfort for you, but is probably worth investigating. You are good at something (probably many things, as all of us are), but you are the last to accept it. That makes it really easy to shut down in meetings when many people are talking. To feel like you don't have the charisma to lead the way or to get people to follow your answers.

I sympathize with what you are going through. But your colleagues can see that you are the expert. From how you've worded your question, I can see that you are the expert. Perhaps you should be less concerned with how you "answer" that introduction (as if it needs some correct answer) and more concerned with what is happening inside yourself to even raise the question in the first place.

Good luck!

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In such situations, I go with something like

"Well, expert is too strong a word for what I do, but let's see if I encountered a problem like yours in the past"

Here, by deflecting the word "expert" in the opening, you are going to be perceived as a modest person, while emphasizing your past experience in the topic, to give them confidence. After all an expert do not necessarily mean you have seen all there is about the subject matter. You must have seen a lot and a lot more than an average person, but expecting you to know absolutely everything about a subject matter is unrealistic.

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    I would agree with the "not an expert" wording put forth by OP as it can be seen as somewhat playful and opens up a dialogue. This wording, however, downplays his expertise in a negative manner, introducing doubt and leaves the customer questioning whether this is the right fellow for the job. – feelinferrety Jun 8 '16 at 17:50
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    I don't agree with this at all. No need to say anything, modest or otherwise. Their actions should reflect their ability, and to downplay oneself in a capacity like this is unprofessional, imo. I never self-depreciate in front of a client. – user5621 Jun 8 '16 at 18:54
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    This also puts you in the position of contradicting your colleague in front of the customer, which doesn't seem like good politics. – Nate Eldredge Jun 8 '16 at 21:50
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    A joke that downplays your own skill level, like "Well, I know enough to be dangerous!" communicates that you are modest without outright denying that you are an expert. If you want to be modest, I suggest something like that--but it is certainly not necessary. And it may not be advisable in a situation where your input is already being ignored. – user45590 Jun 9 '16 at 10:09
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Keep in mind that even if you don't think of yourself as an expert in X, your colleague either thinks or wants to present you as such - don't falter on his statement, just roll with it. It's entirely possible you know enough about X that he does consider you an expert.

If you have any concerns about whether or not this is accurate or appropriate to tell clients in-person, address them after meeting with them, in private, with the colleague in question, so he can explain why he calls you an 'expert on x'. It could very well be he has a good reason for doing so, up to and including you actually being more knowledgeable than you realize.

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I disagree with most of the comments/answers to the OP. Aside from the obvious (already pointed out) that someone coming to you isn't the same situation as you in a meeting with some (unspecified) number of people, and the just as obvious comment that each situation is unique, being modest is useless. I've got 2 pat replies to someone calling me an expert: "An expert is someone who knows more than anyone else in the room on the subject" and "An expert is someone who you can call that is at least 500 miles away from you and who charges at least $500/hr." It's also obvious that no one can know everything about anything, so perhaps "specialist" or "student" are both as accurate as "expert", I'd hope. Probably my largest failure as a technical expert is my weak ability to ask the right questions. I am pretty good at listening, but not so good at cutting through the fog to the kernel. You need to understand the question in order to answer it effectively. You're not clear about whether your issue is with getting button-holed for ad-hoc, off the cuff solutions to complex problems, or it's having meetings fail to get to a conclusion. Big difference. So, another key thing you must identify is what exactly your goals should be. As you seem to realize, providing "the" answer is a very long way from having the correct solution implemented. It doesn't much help to say that the seals will likely fail at launch temperatures, if the decision makers are either not in the room, or aren't willing to listen. Buy-in is essential. To get that, you can't be part of the background. The best solutions I have created are ones that are arrived at without me. I want them to own it, not me. It's a life-long (or at least career-long) process of learning all of the various ways to foster change. And a solution is a change. Identification of decision makers, stake holders, competitive interests, side-effects (intentional and unintentional), are all complex social skills. They say "follow the money" but in reality, the economics is just one facet of it. There's also power/influence as well as appearances. It isn't form or function, it is form and function. So, I guess there are three or four different scenarios. 1. Button-holed with simple question - solution is simple answer ("1+1 = 2")(note that repeating the question back (as YOU understand it) prior to answering it should be second nature. 2. Button-holed with complex question - solution is to tell them that it's too complex and without more information and time, there's a good likelihood that you'll be giving bad advice. Offer them alternatives (schedule additional time, set up a meeting, etc.) Note that advice you give will effect your and your groups reputation, so be careful. Sometimes people just want a "common" solution, so again asking the right questions (about motives, scope) is important. 3. Small meeting, decision makers present. 4. Large meeting, general audience. The goals of each of those ought to be different, so the way you act is also going to be different. One KEY thing you didn't mention is whether or not you are chairing the meeting. I assume you aren't. But there's plenty that's been written on how to chair an effective meeting that everyone who goes to more than a few meetings a year ought to know. (Like for instance how to effectively shut down (quell) someone who is hogging the conversation, and how to make sure everyone in the meeting has a chance to be heard). Did you hear about the time a GE electric turbine broke down in Oregon? They called GE in NY and an expert flew out (charging $1000/hr INCLUDING travel time!) came into the power station, walked up to the turbine, pulled a hammer out of his bag and whacked the turbine once. The Head Engineer turned bright red and said:"We're paying you $30,000 to hit the f^%^ing thing with a hammer??" To which the expert replied:"No, you're paying me $30,000 because I know where to hit it."

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    Probably my largest failure as a technical expert is my weak ability to ask the right questions. I am pretty good at listening, but not so good at cutting through the fog to the kernel I might also suggest looking at your writing style. The previous is an extremely long paragraph with dozens of different ideas and lists and comments. It read as a somewhat incoherent rant. I mean no offence by that (seriously!) - I'm just letting you know how it comes across to someone else. – Michael Durrant Jun 9 '16 at 2:49
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    Of course it might just be that you are not familiar with markup and thing like double returns and list elements. If you are making such posts you would benefit from learning how to format them correctly. – Michael Durrant Jun 9 '16 at 2:50

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