When Meredith attended the Defense Language Institute, there would be times she would eat at the DFAC – a cafeteria for the military.  Seating at a table there would frequently be the newbie soldier sprouting off about snipers, Special Ops, Airborne or whatever because they had an uncle or a friend that told them all about it.  Once there was also a soldier with a maroon beret (which designates qualified Airborne) quietly eating his lunch at the other end of the table.  And someone turns to him and says, “Hey, you’re Airborne!  Is it really like that?”  The Airborne soldier quietly looked up, said in a soft voice, “Not in my experience.”  And returned to eating his lunch.

Now that Airborne soldier had stories – he just didn’t talk about them when it wasn’t necessary – but you can be sure that he told them when they conveyed important information to people who really needed the lesson.
And that’s the difference between the newbie and the real expert – the newbie is trying to convince you that they know more than they really do – the expert can tell you a story that includes the challenge faced, the actions that were taken and the results that were achieved.  We call this CARS – Challenge – Action – Results Story.  This is the cornerstone of the Me2 Solutions resume system described in our book, 7 Days to a Winning Resume.  It works for people seeking a job and it works for entrepreneurs establishing their credibility.  It provides the almost independent verification that you have the “cred” that establishes you have what it takes to do the work because it would be easy to check your story.
Unfortunately, too many people ask questions like, “What do you know about XXXXXXXX?” which allows the salesperson (that’s what they are) to talk about generalities or vision and plans for the future rather than proving credibility by what they have done and how their experience applies to the present situation.  It’s the difference between learning all about celestial mechanics from an infograph and learning from university courses in physics and astronomy.  You might get the basics but not the details that allow you to really do something with the information.
The expert will also tell you the limits of what they know and what it would take to go beyond those limits.  They’re honest.  This protects them because they are not promising more than they can deliver.  It also protects their customers from potential disasters – which is one of those responsibilities that real professionals take seriously.
Now there are few of us that ever eat in the DFAC – but a lot of us will attend networking events.  The room will be crowded, loud and noisy, and everyone trying to make connections.  When you are talking with the person that insists they know all about executive coaching, or big data or whatever the latest buzzword – remember to ask for a situation they dealt with – the challenge, their actions, and the results.  It will help you separate the newbie from the expert.
*Photo: BG Joseph Votel, then ACG, 82nd Division, official portrait

A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.