Wednesday, May 29, 2013


Would you trust billionaire Warren Buffett to give you financial advice? Would you trust Bernie Madoff's suggestions for investing your life savings? How about trusting Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to teach you about the origins of Facebook? Would you trust Lindsay Lohan to lay out the plan for the United States' response to North Korea's testing of nuclear weapons? How about Robert Deniro's advice on acting?

Your answers to these questions are driven largely by the speaker's credibility--or lack thereof.

Credibility is trust. It involves trust in your competence (you know what you are talking about) and your character (you wouldn't lie to me about this and are basically a good, trustworthy person).

Credibility can be difficult to establish and easy to lose. It is an essential prerequisite to persuasion of any kind. This is true in speeches and interpersonal dealings of all kinds. As such, it deserves our full attention as speakers and people in general as we strive to exert influence on others.

Your credibility depends on the listener's perception of you. That word perception is really important here. Your credibility is a perception individuals have of you, it is not necessarily true or accurate. But for the listener his or her perception is reality. So if an audience member believes (perceives) that you don't know what you are talking about, you don't--to them anyway. If they think you are lying, you are lying (in their eyes). So it is essential that we mange perception to enhance others' views of us.

First let's talk about competence. Again, the goal is to convince the members of the audience that you are a trustworthy source of information because you know your topic and know it well. How do we do this? You might mention your credentials in the subject area, such as your job title, degrees in the subject, or specialized training you have. You might mention your years of successfully working in this field or research you have done in the area--maybe even citing some specific fact(s) from that research. However you do it, you want your audience to perceive you as being well-informed on the topic at hand.

And while it does not necessarily directly relate to your knowledge in the field, it is important that your delivery be as confident and polished as possible. You can have all the knowledge in the world, but if you fumble and bumble your way through the presentation some audience members may (wrongly) infer that you don't know what you are talking about simply because you don't deliver it well. So a poor delivery can hurt your credibility and a strong delivery can help it.

Establishing your competence in the subject matter is actually pretty straightforward and relatively simple to establish for most audience members. The trickier challenge is to establish that you are a person of good character, someone I can trust to not steer me wrong or manipulate me for your personal gain.

This raises the question, "Whom do we trust?".

We tend to trust people who share our values, beliefs, and attitudes. Why is this true? Because we are right. Everybody is right in their own mind...about everything. What do you think of the job the president is doing? It doesn't matter, you are right. If you think he is doing a great job, you are right and you know it. If you think he is doing a lousy job, you are right and you know it. It doesn't matter what you believe, you are right--in your own mind anyway.  What is your opinion of rap music? it doesn't matter. Whatever your opinion, you know you are right, right? Everyone believes they are right about everything. We simply don't hold beliefs we think are wrong. Sometimes we find out we were wrong and change our beliefs, but guess what? then we are right again!

And because WE are right, who else is right? People who agree with us, namely people who share our values, attitudes and beliefs.

Thus, if I want you to trust me I need to establish that you and I are kind of alike. I mean obviously we are different. We are all unique and have traveled a unique path bringing us to this moment. But to the degree that I can establish commonality, I can get you to identify with me.  And maybe, just maybe, I can get you to see me as being like you, and therefore worthy of your trust.

But how do we do this? We need to establish commonality. One way to think about it is to consider the past, present, and future (I use these categories because together they account for everything and anything because you can literally use anything and everything in the world to potentially establish commonality).

So for instance if I can recount some experience from childhood that audience members can relate to I can establish a common past. And in that moment, consciously or unconsciously, you say "wow, he's a little like me...I had that experience too...we have similar childhood experiences" and I become a little bit more trustworthy in that moment.

Or maybe it's a common present. When I say something like "I'll try to make this as brief as possible, I know we all have a desk full of work waiting for us" I establish that we are all in the same (overworked) boat and our time is limited and valuable. I "get it", and in doing so demonstrate that I share your plight. Then-President Clinton made great use of the phrase "I feel your pain" to establish commonality with one of his audience members (the same man would eventually destroy his credibility in the eyes of many with his unscrupulous behavior).

Or maybe it's a common future. When I talk about our desires for a happy and successful future, my audience can relate to me because we all want a happy and successful future.

This is why it is so important to put some of yourself into every presentation. If we can see a little of ourselves in you we are more likely to trust you. This can be quite subtle at times but still effective as we can relate to people on many levels. It is also why audience analysis is so important. Think about your audience and build into your speech bits that they should be able to relate to.

Ultimately though, your credibility will be tied to your reputation. So if you want to be perceived as competent, be competent. If you want to be perceived as a good person, be a good person. There is a risk in everything I've written today that we can say all the right things, manipulating the perception of our audience members with empty rhetoric. Walk the walk, don't just talk the talk. If you live your life the right way, it can never come back to bite you on the bottom. A fact former President Clinton learned the hard way.

That's all for today folks. Be well, speak well, and as always, thanks for reading.

For more information about Dan Leyes' consulting work see the Semiosphere Consulting webpage