We begin with credentials because they are the one element of credibility that precedes you into a presentation or persuasive conversation. They’re the minimum ticket price to personal credibility, because without some credentials you probably won’t get an audience. Your credentials tell the listener why you are better qualified to speak about the topic than anyone else in the room. They are something you have already earned that contributes to credibility, but the audience still decides how to perceive them and how much weight to place on them to grant belief.
Your actual and perceived credentials make it easier for listeners to buy into your ideas because they give you an elevated status relative to that particular instance or situation. That’s important because people won’t easily surrender their opinions to someone they consider equal or below them; that’s too much of a personal threat to their status and ego. They will only open their minds to someone who has a superior claim—not just education, experience or title, but any credentials that are directly relevant to the discussion. I may think my brother in law is an idiot, but if he has been to Burundi and I haven’t, I’m willing to listen to his views on their political system. (If one of my BIL’s is reading this, I didn’t mean you—I meant the other one.)
What constitutes a valid credential?
You can think of your credentials as your personal value proposition for why they should listen to you. What special advantage do you have that makes you the person most qualified to be speaking about that particular topic to that audience at that time? There are a number of ways to differentiate yourself:
Delivering your credentials
First, they want to know what your credentials are, but it’s not always a simple matter to just tell them. In some cultures, for example, it’s considered bad form to talk about yourself too much, and listeners may look for an excuse to knock you down. Sometimes you come across as trying too hard. In my early days of sales training I used to take pains to explain my experience to “earn the right” to teach experienced salespeople, until one day I heard another instructor doing the same thing and got a sense for how bad it sounded.
On the other hand, introverts tend to shy away from tooting their own horn, and that can cause them to leave some credibility on the table.
So, how do you find the right balance and approach?
If it’s a formal presentation, it’s a good idea to have your sponsor introduce you to the group and tell them your credentials. That way it doesn’t come across as bragging. But if you do this, make sure you have gone over with them how they should introduce you. I’ve had someone introduce me to a class at one of my clients by citing my education which they gleaned from my web site; since every student in that particular class had a PhD and I don’t, and because my formal education has almost nothing to do with the topics I train, they found it amusing and I found it embarrassing. But it was my fault because I hadn’t taken my own advice.
Weave them in. The most subtle way is to use stories, examples and questions that demonstrate to the audience that you have “been there and done that.”
Don’t overreach. The quickest way to shatter your credibility is to overpromise and underdeliver, which you can prevent by being clear—first of all to yourself—about what you can and can’t do. When I first began sales training for an established company, I was terrified to face an audience of seasoned sales professionals because, as I told my boss, they had much more sales experience than I did. He said, “That’s true, but you’re teaching them a process they have never seen; you know it cold. So just go out there and teach the process.” If I had tried to represent myself as having more experience than I did, I would have been skinned alive.
Frame your credentials. I don’t specialize in a specific industry so when people ask me how much expertise I have in their industry, I usually have to tell them it’s roughly none. But then I tell them that allows me to bring a fresh approach and ask the stupid questions that may not sometimes turn out to be so stupid after all.
Other articles in this series