Expertise is Like Cocaine

What kind of information are you giving people in a business setting, and how are you delivering it? I have a reputation for complete candor (deserved), deep and thought-provoking content (deserved), and a less-than-engaging conversation style of delivery (deserved). I speak 30-35x/year, and if the event happens to give audience members feedback forms to complete, on a scale of 1 to 5, I typically get a 4.9 on content and somewhere around 4.0 on delivery.

I only use PowerPoint or Keynote when the audience is too large logistically to provide handouts (200?). I much prefer handouts, because I hate last minute technical problems, I'd rather look people in the eyes the entire time, I want them to write, and I want them to take something home. For larger audience (200-3,000 typically), I just include a URL on the last slide so that a PDF can be downloaded for their later use. I tell them that in advance so that they can relax, listen, and not bother with too many notes.

I'm an intense introvert. I'm so far off the scale in that direction that I jokingly call it "unabomber land." That just means I like to be by myself to recharge. I can be with crowds, large and small, in little doses and no one would know I'm "acting the part." Oddly enough, speaking totally invigorates me, too, which may not fit in your mind with the idea of a deep introvert.

Do you know when I began to love speaking? Yeah, I've had the speaker training and lots of experience, but it wasn't that. The flip occurred when I knew what the hell I was talking about. Stated differently, the antidote to your fear of public speaking is simply deep expertise in whatever the subject.

I mean, that, too. Have you tasted expertise in a particular area of your life? Of course. And it feels amazing. So amazing that you never want to step out of the circle again.

But many of you keep stepping outside that circle by spreading your time across all sorts of industries or horizontal categories. I'm old enough to be giving most of you advice, so here it is: eliminate many of your goals, and deepen the ones you have left.

I've never tried cocaine, though now I wish I had when I was in Peru last year, but knowing what you are talking about in front of a crowd is a high that I can't imagine cocaine would match. You have real people, with real issues, and you are giving them real solutions that will change their lives. Not all of them, but maybe a dozen. I don't care. It's good work.

I had the privilege of addressing a graduating MBA class at Harvard a couple of months ago. Without me asking, an attendee sent me this feedback by email afterwards:

  • It was instructive for students to get an informed perspective/have a conversation that focused on management as opposed to leadership---talks about leadership abound in our academic context but we don't talk about management as often.
  • Your candor and experiences pulled people out of the "Harvard bubble" and you reminded us that the world we'll encounter outside of Harvard will be quite different.
  • You made people think differently about the value of their work and the costs of over-delivery.
  • The choice you made to frame the conversation as "don'ts" rather than "dos" was pedagogically rare for observation more than assessment. I think that's because we focus on what we are going to "do" once we leave, but we don't spend much time thinking about how we will recognize traps on our imagined paths to success. Again, this changed people's way of thinking.
  • Folks have found the book digestible, insightful, and enjoyable to read.
  • You gave folks an opportunity to compare the field of education with the for-profit marketplace and to draw distinctions and similarities. This sort of cross-pollination is helpful for people who never intend to leave education and those who hope to slide in and out of different industries and careers.

How do you think I felt after getting that email? Start speaking.

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Jeff Dolan

Excellent article! Very inspiring. Thank you. And I'm glad you did not randomly try cocaine "for the experience" but rather get your high off helping others - a much better reason.


David C. Baker

Thanks, Jeff. I've been told by my interactive gurus at Newfangled that I need to write simpler, shorter emails and do it more often...and with one clear call to action (I forgot that part!). I had this idea in my head, and it just poured out in 15 mins and I hit send. No editing, even--just two typos. I'm beginning to feel more and more freedom to just be myself instead of what I think my clients want me to be. It's a hard transition, but this post was one of those from the heart, without any filtering.

I didn't come to live to the US until I was 18 or so. So I missed the beginning of a lot of the drug culture. Believe it or not, I've never had ANY illegal drug, including cocaine. I'm not proud of that in the sense that I'm some saint--it just didn't happen in my circles. In fact, I wish they'd legalize marijuana.

I have seen the OTHER side fo the drug culture, though, and it's too ugly for me to verbalize without breaking down. I just took a week-long photojournalism trip through NW Mexico (the area the Sinaloa Cartel holds). I interviewed lots of local policemen and Federales. They are always nervous when I approach, but as soon as I start speaking in Spanish, they relax and are surprisingly candid. I was working with a client in Mexico and just took advantage of the extra time there.

When I owned my own firm for six years, it was poorly positioned and as a result it was always a struggle, like many of you face. I didn't realize at the time WHY I was struggling, but it's so clear in hindsight. So when I began consulting 19 years ago, I went all over the country talking about specialization, which no one was talking about back then. People thought I was nuts, ignorant, and simplistic. Now the better firms have followed the advice and it's made a lot of people happier and richer. And more comfortable speaking.

By the way, there are some other great consultants (competitors of mine) that feel exactly the way I do: Blair Enns, Tim Williams, Ilise Benun, etc.

It's still hard for me to fathom that at least 60% of firms are not, though, for lack of courage or knowledge. They are the ones that will be shoved to the bottom into a transactional, price-driven environment when the middle class of marketing firms disappears completely (in 4-5 years).


Drew Patrick

When I read the title I figured you were talking about expertise being like cocaine from the client's perspective. Addictive and expensive! If you give them true expertise they're going to do whatever they can to pay for it and they're going to crave more. I was surprised to read that you were talking about it from the expert's perspective. Who would have thought the cocaine analogy was so versatile.


Craig Lindberg

Hi Dave, I thoroughly agree and I enjoyed the article. I've had those occasions you speak of when it all clicks; it's like the sweet spot btw ball and bat when you connect, so gratifying. I'm working toward putting myself in more of those situations, life's too short doing otherwise.

Best regards,


Doug McLean

Great post as always David. As an intense introvert as well, I too love public speaking and find it to be one of the best ways for me to feel like I'm really making an impact and supporting people. Your point about focus and expertise is interesting - we've spent a lot of time working at improving focus at a business level but we're now starting to do it at a personal level and recognizing how both can coexist. It's been an interesting process to work on both and I'm excited to see where it takes us.


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