What makes an expert?
Experienced UK financial planner Phil Melville kindly sent me the article: Jancis Robinson on wine experts versus amateurs by ‘wine expert’ (read on to see why I put that in ‘quote marks’) Jancis Robinson (one of his clients). I’ve included a link to her full article at the end of this piece as it’s a fascinating read.
Jancis makes the point that she (a genuine expert, I think we’d all agree) has to shout louder and louder to be heard in a world inundated with a 24-hour news cycle and endless social media. There are an ever-growing number of so-called experts out there promoting gimmicky ways of doing the things many people with genuine expertise are trying to help their clients do.
Here’s an excellent example from her Financial Times piece. Apparently human beings can only identify two or three flavours in a single liquid:
“Back in 1989, the Australian taste scientist David Laing, from the University of New South Wales, conducted an experiment in which he demonstrated that humans have great difficulty in identifying more than four different flavours in a single liquid. And when in 1996 he tried a similar experiment on experts who smell and taste for a living, they were better than amateur tasters at identifying mixtures of two and three components but did no better when it came to four.”
Despite this evidence, there are wine-tasting notes available to consumers that list up to 10 flavours ‘supposedly’ identified by the experts writing the pieces. Jancis is educated and cultured so she doesn’t quite put it like I’m about to, but let’s call these notes complete bullshit. They are aimed at helping wine manufacturers sell more wine rather than genuinely trying to help consumers.
Sadly, there is just as much noise for consumers in our space, especially when it comes to investing.
Expertise and gimmickry
I was in a gym recently and the CNBC show Mad Money, hosted by Jim Cramer, was on the TV right in front of my exercise bike. Now personally, I have to declare that I’m in the camp that says fund managers won’t outperform their benchmarks after fees most of the time and that predicting the ones that can (and will continue to do so for 25-30 years) is totally impossible.
But let’s be honest, this is the worst marketing story in the world.
As I pedalled furiously on my stationary cycle and watched Jim Cramer, I thought this is first-rate entertainment. It was brilliant and really helped me pass half an hour.
However, as an industry insider I also had to laugh. There was a four-person panel of white men in ties and stripy shirts. Two of the ‘experts’ expected one particular stock they were discussing to go up, while two others thought it would go down. Who should viewers believe? But it’s great entertainment right, so who cares about what actually happens to the stock and they sell a shedload of investment-based advertising off the back of it.
I was reminded of the story told by Paul Zane Pilzer, the economist, about what all stockbrokers learn on graduation. I’m paraphrasing his words:
Buy a list of 10,000 names. Write to 5000 people on the list and tell them Apple stock will go up in the next month. Write to the other 5000 and tell them Apple stock will fall in the next month. At the end of the month, you’ll be right with 5000 people from your list.
Then do the same again for BP next month (2500 people get told the stock will rise, 2500 that the stock will fall). After 6 months you have a list of 156 people who think you are a genius; correctly calling the price movement of half a dozen stocks in succession. There’s your client list for getting started as a stockbroker.
What are the lessons for us?
If you just want to be rich and don’t give a shit about clients, make up a great marketing story or gimmick and entertain people. Better still, if you genuinely believe in your gimmick you’ll sell a lot more (although you won’t do any more social good, just more damage).
If you give a damn about clients and outcomes then don’t stop learning. Jancis addresses this issue of expertise:
“Only once in my life did I ever think I knew everything there was to be known about wine. It was in 1978, after finishing two years’ worth of courses run by the Wine & Spirit Education Trust. By dint of luck, and a dose of grammar school diligence, I was the top student of my year, and reckoned that with a WSET diploma under my belt, I was now a fully fledged wine expert. The succeeding years have taught me just how much there still is to learn. But, as someone celebrating her 40th year writing about wine, I have to concede I am considered by many as a wine expert.”
I think we’ve all been there at one stage or another of our careers. It’s humbling (not to mention embarrassing and sometimes costly) to discover we were wrong on an issue.
I would hope it goes without saying that you need to be trustworthy, but you also need to be trusted. If you tell the truth for long enough, people find out. However, it’s a tough ask for consumers to discern the truth from the fluff. We can also learn from the slick marketers and try to tell stories that are easy to read and entertaining for people, without telling lies, or worse still believing our own bullshit. There’s more than enough entertaining and informative stuff that’s true.
A huge thanks to Phil Melville for the inspiration on this one.
Where have you struggled to get your truthful message across in the face of some gimmicky communications from a less than scrupulous competitor or industry player? I’d love to hear about it. Maybe it’ll become a future blog.
You can read Jancis Robinson’s full article on Wine Experts versus Amateurs over at the Financial Times.
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