Charismatic Communication – Ten Tips for Building and Maintaining Credibility

Some people imagine they carry credibility somewhere on their person. If that were the case you’d have most of the politicians and half of the CEO’s around the world lining up for credibility implants!

Credibility isn’t something you have. It’s an honorific title bestowed on you by others. It is the end result of people placing their trust in you, and this is an important point to acknowledge and embrace. Credibility is earned when you adequately satisfy criteria for expertise and engender trust through building meaningful relationships with those you seek to persuade.

Credibility management essentially describes the relationship you establish and maintain with your audience. It is the result of the minute-to-minute management of your audience’s credulity meter or the day-to-day management of honourable workplace or professional relationships. Charismatic communicators tend to engage in continuous monitoring to ensure that the credulity of their listeners is not tested either by what they say or how they say it.

When credibility is absent, when credulity has been stretched to breaking point, your message will have about as much impact as a self-confessed serial burglar trying to convince a group of right-wingers that the three strikes law is unconscionable. At best you may evoke mute indifference, at worst, open scorn, astonishment, and you’d better believe it, organised hostility.

The following actions and behaviours enhance credibility and receptivity, both in the workplace and in public forums:

1) Begin your persuasion strategy with a passionate search for answers. Identify an issue, problem, or effect, and invite your listeners to help you solve it. Instead of announcing your perfect solution and reading your map on to your listeners’ territory, invite your audience to join in you creating a joint map of the available solutions.

”Competition in our industry is overwhelming. Everyone is competing on price. But, is a price war the answer to maintaining our market share, or can we up the ante and compete on other terms? Can we explore those other terms? Can we discover opportunities that, if exploited, would give us an edge over our competition, above and beyond that of price?”

2) Demonstrate that you are putting your audience’s interests first. No plan, idea, or proposal is perfect. Your outcomes can be better, in terms of trust and credibility, if you point out the negatives and deficiencies in your proposal, rather than have your audience discover them for itself.

“This new system will deliver fantastic efficiencies in the medium to long term, but it would be remiss, indeed deceitful of me, not to alert you to the short term risks.

3) Make your audience your primary focus. A trap in which many leaders and speakers fall is that of their “I’s” being too close together. Even if credibility is high, a sure way to lose it is to come across as self-obsessed and seemingly unmindful of the audience’s presence.

Often leaders are so driven by their own ideas that they fail to acknowledge or validate the concerns and questions of those they’re seeking to persuade. They dismiss or ignore ‘What if?’” and supplementary questions with what is often interpreted as extraordinary rudeness. Little do they realise that rail-roading is one of the most prevalent triggers of resistance in audiences.

If you want people to embrace your ideas or proposals it is better that your attention is directed almost exclusively on your audience, constantly drawing your audience into a space where you can work on and negotiate shared perceptions and meaning. Effective persuasion involves a coalition of both the persuaders and listener’s views formed into one outcome.

Questions and interruptions should be treated as opportunities for dialogue. Questioners can be framed as valuable contributors to the process and not fobbed off:

“I really appreciate you sharing your observations and doubts. Sceptics are a valuable commodity and I would encourage you all to become sceptical about what I say, because, as everyone knows, sceptics actually try things out to discover for themselves if an idea can work for them. In trying this idea on for size you can help make it better.”

4) Talk on the level of your listeners. You may experience warm fuzzies when you let our ego out for exercise and adopt a superior position to that of your listeners, but they won’t.
You may know more than your listeners, but your job as a communicator isn’t to intimidate them with your self-importance, isn’t to tell them how much you know and how little they know. If you want to be a peacock go live in a zoo. You role as an agent of influence is primarily to encourage your listeners to think much the same as you do on a particular issue, subject, or proposal.
Use the language of inclusion. Speak on the level of your listeners and build the framework for your ideas around the goals, expectations, rewards, values, and feelings of those you wish to persuade.

“Well, at first I was as confused as anyone. When I came across gap analysis, I thought it was something a proctologist did. Then I discovered as you can that it’s an important tool that you can use to better plan the kind of work you want your people to do.

Be candid. How often have you witnessed political figures die lingering public deaths because of the insane political convention that demands defence of the indefensible? How often over the last decade and a half have public figures been sent to Coventry not for their original offence but for covering it up and lying about it? Wriggling out of situations with attempts at distortion and deception blows your credibility out of the water. The one great exception to this in recent times is Bill Clinton and there are significant reasons why he survived that will be explored in later articles.
Public figures frequently cultivate images that incorporate God-like qualities of self-possession and uncompromising virtue. This is often the first major snare they set for themselves. If you promote yourself as a reincarnation of St. Peter, do expect to have some difficulty in admitting your cock-ups. In engineering your public identity, it’s worth your consideration to present as an individual with a strong commitment to making life better for your constituents or colleagues than a candidate for canonisation, if for no other reason than you have a shorter distance to fall.

6) Be sincere and say only what you believe. Decades of lies in advertising, poetic political ‘truths’, corporate mendacity, and high levels of distrust towards the mass media, have made your average punter a fairly wary individual.

According to recent social research, people are a fairly cynical lot. They have suffered much as consumers, as members of the polity and at the hands of those who toil in the fields of deceit and human exploitation.

The excesses of the past have made the job of ethical persuaders and speakers a difficult one, and perhaps that is as it should be. As novel as it may sound, real sincerity can now be classed, to use the parlance of professional salespeople, as a unique selling position, or USP. One of the easiest ways to reinforce your credibility at work or in the public arena is to build a reputation of sincerity.

If, for example, someone challenges you on the basis of inconsistency with previous statement, be sincere in your response. Admit the inconsistency and turn it your advantage.

“You’re right I did say that because it was what I believed was true. I now have a different view since having learned some things along the way. So (chuckle) thank for reminding me that I’m wiser today than I was then.”

Make the claim fit the idea or product. Your credibility is not only based on expertise and personal status but is also tied up with the quality of your ideas and believability of your statements. Claims need to be supported, inferences and conclusions should be crafted carefully, and your evidence backed up by credible research and back-grounding.

People can and do confuse fact with opinion, opinion with well-reasoned argument, and inference with truth. You may it extremely useful to have a clear understanding of the distinctions between facts, opinions, and reasoned argument, because it may temper any tendency you may have to present opinions as evidence or make unsupportable claims.

Many speakers fail in the persuasion process because they confuse the above categories. Remember that just because you believe something is true doesn’t necessarily make it so. To support a point, idea, or hypothesis you have to do much more than articulate what you think is true. You have to build your argument on solid foundations of fact, reason, and emotion.

The claims you make should never stretch the credulity of your audience. A useful rule of thumb is to match your claims with what you know your listeners will believe. You may well be of the opinion that your idea is the best thing since the silicon chip, but if you don’t have the evidence to support the assertion, you would be well advised to consider tempering your claims to what you know will be accepted by those listening.

There are two ways in which to present opinions that increase the probability of them being accepted by your listeners:

1. If you have occasion to state an opinion, use non-declarative language such as “It’s my belief”, “I have found”, “It seems to me”, “I feel” etc. For example, “I feel the movie had too much unnecessary violence in it.” This signals that you are offering an opinion as an opinion and not stating it as a fact. However, there is still a risk that people will oppose what you say and derail your argument or discount your credibility.

2. The following technique substantially increases the likelihood of your opinion being accepted by your audience.

Break the active language rule and strategically use passive language that displaces you from the ownership of the opinion. For example, “Some people would argue that the movie contained too much violence.”

To add power to your opinion draw your listener into shared space. Continue the statement with something like the following:

“And when you think about it you may find yourself agreeing that they are right. Take the beach scene. Was all the graphic footage necessary to make the point? You may think it wasn’t.”

8) Maintain your integrity at all costs. If someone says to you, “I shouldn’t be telling you this, but did you know that…” what message are they sending you? Sure, they may be sending you a signal that they trust you, but are they not also sending you a signal that they can’t be trusted, that they can’t keep a secret?

The same logic applies when you tell other people that you bend the truth to suit some occasions. One of the easiest ways to create distrust and suspicion in an audience is to suggest that lying to a third party or parties is an acceptable practice. Of course you wouldn’t lie to the audience! But, the punters out there, that’s a different story!

The fact is that if you encourage people to act dishonestly or suggest there are times when embroidery of the truth is an acceptable practice, your audience will begin to seriously discount your credibility.

9) Keep your promises and commitments. A major credibility annihilator is that of welching on a promise or overlooking a commitment you have made to colleagues, clients, or groups. Charismatic leaders recognise that people often build their hopes around promises, and if a promise is broken, hopes are dashed: the next promise that’s made won’t be believed.

Promises often raise high expectations, particularly when made about career, livelihood, performance of products, and results and outcomes. If you don’t come through on a major promise or commitment, the damage to your credibility will remain as long as there are people around to remember it.

10) Earn the right to be heard. Expertise is a significant variable in the credibility equation. If anyone questions your right to speak on a subject, take careful notice. Do not dismiss it with an indignant humph or an acidic comeback line.

Open questioning of your credibility is a valuable form of feedback and gives you an opportunity to turn resistance into acceptance. Note how the following speaker seizes the opportunity to improve his credibility quotient when it’s questioned:

“You’re absolutely right in suggesting that I have to earn the right to be taken notice of. I strongly believe that it’s important to question the credentials of people as you do, because it enables us to give proper weight to what people say, doesn’t it? The proposal before you today is based on a highly successful model designed by experts at Chicago and tested by GMH for three years.”

There are numerous ways to enhance your expertise in public life and in the workplace. Gaining qualifications, writing articles, papers, and books, nominating for awards, garnering the support of luminaries in your chosen field and achieving media exposure for particular endeavours are but a few means of building on your expertise-based credibility.

Developing a history of sound judgement in your area of endeavour, proving yourself to be knowledgeable and well informed on your subject matter, demonstrating a thorough understanding of your material, and building a solid track record of success can also enhance perceptions of expertise.

© Desmond Guilfoyle 1998-2006


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