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Lessons for Experts From DACA

On September 5, 2017, President Donald Trump rescinded DACA (the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program which granted deportation reprieves to young immigrants. As soon as the change was announced, immigration attorneys, social scientists, psychologists, and others were consulted for expert explanation. In an instant, the DACA experts were mobilized.

Television and Internet news sources followed a predictable formula. Their coverage included a DACA “expert” who shed light on the complicated and controversial immigration laws. Often these experts, like the pundits around them, responded to political or legal questions but ignored the true underlying fears of Dreamers.

While the news cycles spin and turmoil brews, it is easy to see how Dreamers, the people directly impacted by DACA, are fearful. When Barrack Obama signed DACA, the Dreamers thought they were safe from deportation. With Trump’s change, however, they are justified in fearing that safety has left them. And worse yet, some now fret that by applying for DACA status five years ago they made themselves visible targets for deportation. The Dreamers undoubtedly have many questions and concerns and very few of those concerns are being answered in the swirling controversy on television, news sites, and social media.

There are, of course, noteworthy exceptions where experts directly address the Dreamers, but those examples are few. One such example can be found in the LA Times, on September 7, 2017. The article, “Educators’ big response to the DACA decision” included a quote from Maria Blanco, the head of the UC Immigrant Legal Services Center. In the article, Blanco was given 42 words to explain the DACA ruling. Under the circumstances, Blanco did very well and was quoted as saying, “We have a very good shot at legislation in Congress and making that happen right away. Students shouldn’t do anything like quit school or their jobs. If you have DACA rights now, you still have them today. That’s the most important thing.” With brevity and clarity Blanco provided reassurance and direction to fearful Dreamers. It would be difficult to thread more information into a shorter quote.

In contrast to Blanco’s quote, the same article quoted seven university chancellors. The LA Times attributed nearly 500 words to the distinguished educators saying things like:

  • “This is indeed a sad day for our nation,” Gene Block, UCLA.
  • “We are heartbroken for our undocumented immigrant communities,” Carol Christ, UC Berkeley.
  • “I am profoundly disappointed,” Howard Gillman, UC Irvine.

Unlike Blanco, none of the chancellors explained the law, the recent change, or the specific actions Dreamers should take. Instead, they took nearly 500 words to only appeal to the emotions of the Dreamers.

All experts should take note of two important lessons from this article. First, experts must be succinct. Blanco was able to effectively convey an important message in only 42 words. In contrast, the Chancelors had nearly 500. When things get contentious or volatile, political or polarized, experts get less time, not more, to express their point of view. When emotions run high, the expert must cut through the noise and say the most important things with clarity and objectivity. With all the DACA bluster, Blanco successfully emphasized her most important message and delivered it concisely.

Second, emotion often matters more than facts. Undoubtedly, Blanco could have talked at length about the history, changes and status of DACA, but the LA Times was not interested in history or legal details. Editors at the LA Times know that readers are emotional about DACA, and so the newspaper rightfully crafted their article to the beat of the emotional drum. Passion routinely eclipses data, especially when emotions are high.

No matter the industry or discipline, expert opinions will get a tenth of the time that is allocated to the emotional opinions. Experts should expect no more. When emotions are high, experts must be able to tailor their messages to the emotional realities of the day. Your audience will not hear any of your facts unless they are emotionally prepared to hear them.

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Who’s the Expert Now?

What all experts can learn from the children of US Presidents.

After Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016, Barron and Melania remained in New York City until Barron finished his academic year and moved into the White House in June 2017. On the day of the move, Barron wore a shirt which caught the attention of many news makers and comedians. In large blue letters, the J. Crew t-shirt boldly said, “The Expert.” Most media sources ignored the 11-year-old’s attire, but some could not resist the opportunity to poke fun at the President and his family. Regardless of your political persuasion or your feelings about Donald Trump or his family, there is something instructive in Barron’s t-shirt from that day.

In 2009, when Barrack Obama took office as the President of the United States, his daughter Malia was 10 years old. When she graduated from high school, her father was still the President. The Obama’s second daughter, Sasha, was seven when the family entered the White House. When President Obama left office, eight years later, Sasha had spent more than half her life living in the White House.

For the rest of their lives, Malia and Sasha Obama will be experts. Few people know as much as they do about being an adolescent in the White House. As such, for decades, they will be sought for their point of view and commentary. Yet, they almost certainly did not ask for this expertise, nor could they have attained it on their own. Rather, their expertise was bestowed upon them through life circumstances, through fate.

Anne Frank became an expert of the Holocaust through fate. Elizabeth Smart is an expert in child abduction and slavery through fate. Roy Sullivan, who survived seven different lightning strikes in his life, was an expert on being struck by lightning, through fate. These people, and thousands of others, are experts as a result of chance events. They attained their expertise because of circumstances beyond their control. No amount of study or practice could replicate the things they learned through experience.

Herein is an important lesson for highly effective experts. They understand, acknowledge, and embrace the path that brought them to their expert status. Even experts who have dedicated decades studying a subject or practicing a skill, are most influential when they recognize and embrace the otherwise random circumstance that also influenced their destiny. The best experts embrace the path that brought them to their expertise, the symmetry of the universe, or the finger of the divine.

Contrary to what some experts believe, your lucky breaks can be just as influential at persuading people, and sometimes more so, than all your study and hard work combined. Anyone can study the effects of being struck by lightning, but Roy Sullivan lived it. Anyone can work diligently to eliminate child abduction, but Elizabeth Smart lived it. Anyone can dream about childhood life in the White House, but Sasha and Malia Obama experienced it, and Barron Trump is now experiencing it as well. Events outside their control have differentiated them. Similarly, events outside your control have differentiated you.

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Getting Started as an SME

Decades ago, while employed at Ford Motor Company, I was asked to attend a high level executive briefing at the company’s headquarters. For several months I had been involved in a strategic project which was growing in importance. We were moving all supplier facing technology to the web. Consequently, corporate leadership wanted to discuss the project and its implications.

At that time in my career, executive level visibility was unusual. I was young, new to the company, and inexperienced. Nevertheless, I was intimately involved in this project and my divisional director, Teri Takai, wanted me to attend the meeting to ensure all possible questions could be answered.

My project was allocated 5 minutes in a busy meeting agenda and Teri asked me to present the project. “But be prepared to be cut short,” she warned, “or be skipped altogether if the meeting takes an unexpected turn.”

In spite of my junior status, I felt prepared. I was confident because I knew the facts of the project. I knew how the project would be delivered. I knew the budgets, the team, the technology, the schedule, and the risks. I knew ten different ROI justifications. I knew what issues had been resolved and what barriers still lay ahead. I was confident and I thought I could answer any question. But, I quickly learned otherwise.

At the beginning of my presentation the executives were patient. When they realized my focus was too narrow, however, they started asking questions. Questions that I could not answer. “How long will it take to replicate the technology and processes in Japan?” they asked. “This project will impact all our key suppliers, which ones are most likely to resist?” “We have a patent infringement battle developing in Germany, how will this project complicate that case?” And on, and on.

The five minute presentation stretched past 30 minutes. Fortunately, Teri rescued me. She helped answer many of the questions, calmed executive concerns, gracefully deflected irrelevant issues. She focused the executives on the matters most urgent, avoided the rat holes, and left the people in the room excited and optimistic.

When the meeting concluded, it was clear to me that Teri was the expert, not me. I was blindsided, and flustered. Yet, how could that be? I knew more about this project than anyone else in the company, including Teri, yet she came across as credible, prepared, and trustworthy. What was I missing? How had I failed?

After that experience, and others like it, I began studying the subject and taking notes on expert performances. What do great experts do? Why do people heed some experts but not others? What can I learn from the experts around me? After decades of observation and hundreds of interviews I have assembled the essentials of what I wish all experts knew and did. I wish I’d known these things sooner. I wish someone had shared more insights with me years ago. It might have set me in a better direction, answered some of my questions, and spared my colleagues hundreds of hours of frustration. On this site I share my observations and summaries of the art of being expert.