Clear thinking - Persuasive communication

Max Cred Factor #2: Lighthouse Content

lighthouseThere’s an old joke about a battleship cruising through the fog at night when the bridge sees lights approaching. The ship signals: “Move to the right.”

Morse code from the light signals back, “You need to move to the right.”

The Captain signals again: “I have the right of way. MOVE TO THE RIGHT!”

The mysterious light replies: “I suggest you move.”

As the lights begin to converge on a collision course, the Captain signals: “I am a 50,000 ton United States Navy battleship! MOVE TO THE RIGHT!!!”

The light replies: I am a lighthouse. I suggest you move immediately.”

If you want to achieve max cred, your aim should be to make sure that your presentations and your conversations are like the lighthouse in that story: so rock-solid that they have the right of way in any question. As John Adams said,

“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

I put credentials first in this series because they get you in the door, but content is the most important factor in keeping you there; it’s what delivers on the promise of your credentials. Ultimately, your personal credibility will rest upon the quality of your ideas. Therefore, the first and most important factor in personal credibility is the truth, logic and relevance of what you say.

Content is hugely important for practical and ethical reasons. It’s supremely practical because it’s based on reality, and reality can be tested and verified. As long as you say things that make logical sense, and are backed up by verifiable facts, your credibility can not be undermined. It will stand on its own.

You also have to keep in mind that people may not act or decide immediately on hearing you, so even if you can get them fired up, the excitement might wear off but the facts on the ground won’t change.

Of course, content is also ethical. Unfortunately, the world has too often fallen victim to people who managed to appear credible even though the content of their messages was false and or harmful. These manipulators know how to pull the levers of credibility for their own immoral ends; I hope you are not one of them, and that’s all I’ll say about that.

Of course, we all know that content is important, so how can we actually use this to improve our credibility?

Be sure of your facts

The power of internet search engines gives us more information at our immediate disposal than anyone in history could have ever dreamed possible, but at the risk of filtering out the BS from the truth. Make sure your information is from a trusted source, or cross-check it against other sources whenever possible.

Know them cold

Of course, you don’t always have to have knowledge at the tip of your tongue. It might be enough to know where to get the relevant knowledge to bring to the table, but far more impressive and credible to others is the person who has a firm grasp of the relevant material and can discuss it fluently and at length from memory.

Get your own

Even more credible is knowledge gained through personal observation; it’s difficult for anyone else to challenge, because you may have had unique access to it. The key here is to make sure you have a personal acquaintance with the facts, by getting to the scene and observing first-hand as much as possible.

Anticipate depth, breadth and height of questioning

Superficial knowledge of your material may be just enough to get you into trouble. You don’t want your presentation to be like a movie set of a western town with all front and no back. Any favorable initial impression can be quickly lost if you can’t answer the deeper questions others might have. And, you can be sure that if your audience consists of higher-level executives, they will drill down to help themselves understand what you’re saying, or to test your mastery of the subject.

Pressure-test your ideas

Research and analysis are not enough—you’ve got to test your position against challenges for maximum confidence. Ideas are like organisms: survival depends on adapting effectively to competition. Carefully consider the position of the listener, think of their counterarguments and then write down effective responses. Expose weaknesses and shore them up, and then enlist others to try to pick holes in your position.

Don’t get out in front of your facts

The surest way to avoid credibility loss is to thoroughly master your material, or to speak only about that which you are expert in. That is not always possible, of course, so the next best thing is to make sure that you don’t overstate your expertise or claim more than your facts allow. Be honest about your limitations if asked, or even before you deliver the material. (There is a fine line, here, of course, because admitting your limitations up front can damage your credibility.)

Keep facts and opinions separate

There is nothing wrong with using personal opinion to support your arguments. In fact, in most persuasive efforts you will not have an airtight case that can be proven with mathematical rigor. Some of the information you might need is simply unavailable, unknowable, or untested.

If you do use opinion, make sure you are transparent about it. Be honest about the difference between fact and opinion with others. More importantly, perhaps, be honest with yourself about the difference.

If you follow these rules carefully, you will have lighthouse content and you’ll be able to defend your credibility against any battleship bully in the room.

Other Articles in this Series

Max Cred: How to Build and Preserve Personal Credibility

Max Cred Factor #1: Credentials

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September 6, 2011

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