The making of a subject-matter expert

When asked what makes an editor successful in the world of thought leadership in a Q&A last year, Leff Senior Adviser Allan Gold said, “Subject-matter expertise is a big advantage, but lacking that you need to be a quick study.” (Top-notch writing and editing skills are a given.)

While the breadth of the industries we write about often necessitates getting up to speed quickly on new topics and ideas, each editor at Leff has committed to deeply understanding a few subjects. How do we go about building subject-matter expertise? Aside from actually doing the work—consistently writing and editing pieces on a topic—it comes down to reading and research. This commitment helps us write knowledgably and accurately and avoid asking questions that waste authors’ time. It also happens to make us experts in what good thought leadership looks like and what topics firms are covering—and, critically, what they’re not.

In my time at Leff, I’ve found a few practices that are particularly effective on the path to becoming a subject-matter expert.

Organize your reading. Make a commitment to dedicate 30 minutes to one hour a day to reading. If you have several industries or topics you want to understand deeply (for instance, insurance, cybersecurity, and infrastructure), maybe focus on one per day—though you’ll notice that many industries and topics intersect. Over time, your knowledge will compound.

You can also sign up for newsletters from publications or companies, subscribe to RSS feeds, or curate your news via a news aggregator, such as Feedly. Doing so will help organize your reading and make it easier to dip in and out as time permits.

Note sources, publications, and experts referenced often. When you begin your reading and researching journey, you might start with well-known general business publications such as the Financial Times or The Economist. Over time, you’ll notice some companies and thought leaders are frequently mentioned in articles or consistently have featured articles and columns in these publications. This is usually a sign that they are reputable and a good source for industry knowledge—or that they pay for coverage. Regardless, it’s good to know who the major players are and what they have to say.

LinkedIn is another great place to discover who the experts are in an industry. Find companies or organizations that regularly publish on a topic of interest and notice who leadership follows. This is usually a good indicator of who’s worth paying attention to.

Identify industry debates and conversations. After you’ve spent some time reading and researching an industry, you’ll likely notice recurring themes, problems, and debates. This is the good stuff: they indicate what people care about and what problems still need to be solved. In the tech industry, for example, the discussion about bias in artificial intelligence is ongoing. Professional firms have published a fair amount about why it exists in AI technology and how to address it at the root. Knowing about this kind of conversation helps us, as editors and thought partners, identify ideas or arguments that are stale. We can work with clients to ensure any content that discusses AI and bias, for instance, furthers the conversation by providing new insights and solutions.  

Engage with people smarter than you. Asking the pros for help is a great way to develop or deepen expertise. Allan Gold is the person most of us Leff editors turn to when we want to ensure we’re not missing any important context or check that a piece is adding value on a topic, both because he’s worked in the field for decades and because he reads more than anyone we know.

Rinse and repeat. The process of learning about industries and topics (and how to write about them) is ongoing. It’s important to make a habit of reading and researching and stick to it over the long term. These practices will allow you to act as a true thought partner to clients, helping them see how to make their content better, where the opportunities are for exploring new angles, and how to build a content strategy that contributes something fresh to the conversation.

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