Have you ever delivered an important message, only to be met with skeptical looks and comments that scream, “Who are you to tell me that?”
When an audience questions a speaker’s chops, it’s likely because the speaker didn’t do enough work upfront to build his credibility with the other folks in the room. He hasn’t given them reason to believe he knows what he’s talking about.
Of course, speakers don’t always need to start by building credibility. For rock stars like Elon Musk, who have worldwide reputations as innovators, credibility isn’t an issue. The same goes for managers whose teams already trust them and consider them to be innovative leaders. In both cases, the audience already knows who the speaker is and why he or she is qualified to comment on the topic at hand.
But if you and your audience are new to each other—if you’re new to your field or this particular group hasn’t heard of you yet—then it’s important to spend a minute outlining your bona fides before you dive in. The same goes for unfamiliar concepts or initiatives. Even if your audience knows you already, when you’re asking them to get on board with a new project or to trust you in a new role or capacity, building a little credibility will go a long way.
So how do you do that?
We all understand, generally, what it means to build credibility. But at Quantified Communications, we set out to identify the specific language speakers can use to convince audiences to pay attention. Building on 20-plus years of existing academic research, communication expert analysis, and audience testing, we developed an algorithm that measures exactly how credible an audience is likely to think a speaker is, based on the language he or she uses. Without giving away the secret sauce, what it comes down to is personal discussion of previous work and achievements.
What does it look like?
In an article we wrote for The Muse, we explained that brands build their credibility by citing awards and publishing rave reviews from top clients. And on a smaller scale, employees can use similar tactics to show the boss they’re up for a challenge:
I’m excited about our plans to host a conference later this year, and I want to discuss spearheading the effort. As you know, event planning was a regular facet of my last job, and I planned something similar there. In addition, our local clients enjoyed the networking dinner I organized last quarter. I’d love to offer that kind of value on a much bigger scale.
By highlighting successes and citing others who believe in your work, you foster that “gut feeling” that makes your audience believe you’re worth listening to.
Now, be careful. If you know you need to establish a little credibility with your audience, it can be tempting to get up on stage and recite your resume. But that won’t help you much. Instead, try to weave your experiences, accolades, and qualifications into your message. Take, for example, the commencement address that President Obama’s speechwriter, Cody Keenan, delivered at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service in 2015. Keenan starts by showing his audience—a group of 20-somethings headed to the real world—that he’s been where they are:
There’s a solid chance that I’m the first commencement speaker in history to be three months removed from living in a group house. And I have no idea what I’ll be doing a year and a half from now, when my boss has to hand over the keys to the White House. All I have on most of you is a head start. So all I can offer you is the cheat codes—how I got here, and what I’ve learned by giving the prime of my life to public service.
When I moved to Washington right out of college, I knew one person. So when it came to finding a job, I was on my own. I figured I went to a good school, and I’d seen every episode of The West Wing. How hard could it be?
This may not sound like much of a qualification, but by showing his audience that he truly understands where they are right now, he builds up just enough credibility to get them to tune in. But he doesn’t stop once he’s got their ear. Commencement addresses are known for being chock full of clichés and platitudes, but Keenan weaves his own experience into his advice, showing the graduates that he isn’t just talking the talk—he’s walked the walk.
But that’s the thing — fear of failure is a powerful motivator. I’d been in the White House for two years before I was asked to write a speech that would earn national attention. And I pretty much stayed up for sixty hours straight to make sure it was good. Fear of failure keeps you sharp, even if it keeps you sleepless. It’s why, for weeks before something like the State of the Union Address, my car is the last one in the parking lot at night. I’m afraid all the time. I’m afraid to let my colleagues see that I’m not as smart as they are. I’m afraid to let the President down. I was afraid to do this commencement, for fear of being exposed as a lousy speechwriter.
As a result, Keenan’s address was 24% more credible than the average commencement speech.
When we hear speakers—whether they’re politicians, corporate giants, or our own bosses—tell us to think, believe, or behave a certain way, it’s easy to write them off. But when those speakers back up their advice with their own experience, we realize they know what they’re talking about, and we’re more likely to listen.
So next time you’re preparing to deliver an important message, take a moment to consider your relationship to your audience. Do they already know and trust you? Will they be familiar with what you’re telling them? If so, dive on in. But if your audience doesn’t know you well or if you’re getting ready to throw them a curve ball, you may need to build up your credibility. Think about how you can weave in some of your prior experiences, victories, and supporters to fast-track their faith in you.