Jo wasn’t a bad person, in fact he thought of himself as a fairly decent human being…he was kind to animals, set aside money for charity and was environmentally conscious, heck he even gave his brand new Sears suit to Goodwill last winter. He now sat at the shock generator and the white coat guy told him to test the man in the other room on his ability to memorize a list of words, and to administer an “electric shock” when the learner made a mistake, increasing the intensity with each mistake. As the learner kept making mistakes, Jo kept increasing the intensity of the shocks…. his heart pounding, his conscience screaming at him to stop the insanity…it’s harsh, it’s cruel, it’s not OK but the lab coat guy told him to keep going and he did…he did…he pressed the switch again and again and again….he kept doing it till the man in the other room fainted.
The Rule of Authority and the Asshole Expert
The above was a dramatic narrative of the Milgram experiment which tested the propensity of human beings to obey authority, even when it conflicts with their conscience. The experiment concluded that when people are ordered to do something by someone they view in authority; most will obey even when doing so is against their ethics, values and beliefs.
Fast forward gazillion internet years and we see an epidemic of such authorities in the internet (and real) world. People donning white coats, boasting 25 years of experience and holding 12 fucking PhDs….in 20 different disciplines. Which diet will help you get into your skinny jeans? Well, here's an internationally acclaimed weight-loss authority who has all the answers. She has been featured in nation-wide publications and has five New York Times bestsellers. She HAS to know what she is talking about, right?
Well, things seem to have changed quite a bit since the Milgram experiment. With so many “experts” out there and the general distrust for authority, people are not fooled by white coats and framed diplomas anymore, instead they are looking for markers of trust and credibility. So yes, the testimonials and the credentials still have their place but because the bullshit detectors are working in overdrive now, you need to establish believability and trustworthiness rather than just authority.
And how do you do that?
That’s what I am talking about today, How to Establish Yourself as a (Credible) Authority…. both Online and In-Person
1. Solve a Real Problem and Show a Clear Value Proposition
Accept that because you have a talent to share with the world, you have great power and when you use this power for the wrong, karma strikes and we all know karma is the biggest, badass, crazy pmsing bitch with a shotgun.
Don’t use your talent to sell shoddy products and lame service that no one should be paying for or even taking free.
Also, your website, resume or sales presentation should spell out exactly what value you offer, it should be to-the point and right up front. This tells your audience that you can be trusted because you are not playing by the ear or that you do just about everything under the big blue sky.
See great examples at Bellroy. See how they identify a real problem (any one who has had to sit with a fat wallet in the backpocket knows how irritatingly that is ) and show a clear, almost tempting solution:
and at Smart Passive Income, where Pat is basically addressing the painful issue of not knowing what works in online businesses. This is like a slap in the face of make-money-while-you-sleep scams and it works woderfully well.
2. Use (un)Natural Selection:
If you want to be seen as a credible entity, define your target up-front. This not only weeds out people who aren’t your ideal buyers but also makes it more ethical for you to sell openly to people who really need your solution, so you don’t end up selling weight loss pills to people at or below their ideal weight or selling “quit your day job today” to a single mother of four who has to work full time in order to put food on the table.
Freshbooks does it very smartly, it doesn't promise to be the end-all solution for all accounting problems for all human kind. instead it spells out clearly who it is for so that accountants like me (yep, me in my past life…2 accounting qualification baby, not one but TWO) can just bugger off.
and so does The Glass Hammer, very specific niche and very explicitly defined. They don't want to appeal to every one and they simply don't!
3. Harness The Herd Effect- Smartly:
So we all know that social proof works, right? Well it works even better when you make it relevant, contextual and relatable. See how Basecamp does it, they don’t show any testimonials or client quotes… just a simple statement and an illustration, but the sheer absurdity of the numbers and the illustration is enough to make us want to trust them.
4. Show your Credentials with Evidence
It isn’t a bad idea to display your know-how and experience, the problem is when these credentials are not supported by any evidence. No, I am not claiming you have a picture of your degree on every slide of your presentation or plastered on your home page, what I am suggesting is to show a proof of why you have those credentials.
Ramit Sethi does a great job of this by supporting his credentials (NYTimes bestselling author) with three excellent free resources as evidence. He is allowing people to discover his expertise indirectly and not as part of a sales pitch. He is making a statement about his credentials and then providing evidence through his work.
(Note: In a previous version of his website, he actually spelled it out explicitly saying something like “Want proof of why I am a NYTimes bestselling author? Get these free resources and find out for yourself)
5. Show them You are just like them:
Show that your beliefs, your history and your struggles are alike. Showing similarities that are relevant to your target not only builds rapport and establishes instant credibility but also puts you both on the same pedestal. This is an acknowledgment that even though you have conquered a certain area and as a result know more, you are essentially human and therefore reliable. See a great example at Nerd Fitness.
6. Stop Pretending to be Demigod:
You are a human being (or so I hope) and human beings are fallible and guess what, behavioral psychology* tells us that people relate better to people who in fact appear less than perfect. Groove uses it beautifully on their blog and you can’t help but admire them for their straightforwardness and honesty…which in turn establishes trust in their brand.
*This is called the Pratfall Effect and works best when the person or entity is already perceived as competent. So don’t go admitting your blunders and “oh-shit” moments, until you have created a perception of competence.
The above are some of the techniques smart businesses are using to establish their authority and credibility and are equally applicable to online and offline interactions. Needless to say, all the other must-haves of honest interactions still apply; standing by your word, not over-promising and just taking a non-asshole approach to all interactions.
Edited to add: In a strange twist of events, Jenny Shih posted on the same topic today. Here is the post with some great actionable advice.
Good luck and hit me up if you found these useful (or not). Looking for more honest, non-manipulative persuasion techniques? get your copy of the Non-Icky Persuasion Toolkit below.