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  • Writer's pictureBarbara J. Mayfield, MS, RDN, LD, FAND

Are you an expert or an authority? Which one has greater influence?

the word authority on a small chalkboard with the words credibility, influence, and reach below it

Are you an expert or an authority?

Wait! Aren’t they synonyms?

Their meanings are related but are not quite the same.

What are the definitions of expert and authority?

According to Merriam-Webster, an expert = one with the special skill or knowledge representing mastery of a particular subject, and authority = the power to influence or command thought, opinion, or behavior.

I would like to suggest that a reputable authority is also an expert, but an expert is not always an authority. Knowing something does not always translate into the ability to persuade or influence.

There are plenty of authorities without expertise. Think of all the influencers who promote fad diets and nutrition misinformation on social media. They have the power to influence thought, opinion, or behavior but lack the knowledge of nutrition.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics uses the term food and nutrition expert to describe RDNs.

screenshot from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website highlighting the phrase food and nutition expert

I contend that as nutrition professionals our goal is to be considered nutrition experts and nutrition authorities. To have the expertise and the power to influence thought, opinion, and behavior.

If we want our knowledge to make a difference in people’s lives, we need to be perceived as nutrition authorities.

What is needed to make an expert an authority?

I believe the necessary skill that makes an expert an authority is communication. Knowledge plus the ability to communicate that knowledge is what creates authority.

Notice the words in the illustration above. Having authority includes credibility, influence, and reach. Credibility is closely related to our knowledge, but it goes beyond our credentials to include how we demonstrate what we know by how well we can translate it for our audiences.

When we are able to communicate what we know effectively, we are not only believed as trusted sources, but our messages have greater reach and can influence the thoughts, opinions, and behaviors of others. We become nutrition authorities.

According to the book Nutrition Authority by Susan Calvert Finn, PhD, RDN, FAND,

“Authority is deeply bound to trust, belief, and credibility – all of which underpin nutrition authority. These connections must be built over time by each of us as individuals and by the profession as a whole.

Being an authority in food and nutrition means being firmly grounded in science… We have the responsibility and unprecedented opportunity to break through the noise and elevate registered dietitian nutritionists (RDNs) as scientific, rational, trustworthy authorities.

Now more than ever, we need to ramp up our outreach in all areas of dietetics practice and take the lead in analyzing evidence, recognizing bias, reporting conclusions honestly, and suggesting where findings might lead.

It is impossible to be an authority unless you are willing to look at the future and embrace change – or even create it.

Science – a process of discovery and change – underpins our profession. Keeping current, knowing what to communicate and how, is important to all RDNs, regardless of area of practice. The voice of the RDN must be heard.”

Become the nutrition authority who makes a difference.

Go beyond being the nutrition expert. Add communication expertise to your nutrition expertise so that your knowledge can be heard, understood, and have the impact you desire. Attain the power to influence thought, opinion, and behavior.

For more on building communication expertise, see “What do experts need most?

In next week’s post, we will explore the ethics of being a nutrition authority.

“Authority without wisdom is like a heavy ax without an edge, fitter to bruise than polish.” ~ Anne Bradstreet

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