8 Ways to Establish Credibility

Would you like it to be the case that, when you speak, people both listen carefully and believe what you say? — That people see value and truth in your words? I know I would! That’s why recently I’ve been pondering on the topic of credibility…

What is credibility?

Noun: “Reputation impacting one’s ability to be believed. Believability, personal capital”

Whether we like it or not, each of us has a certain amount of credibility in the eyes of those around us. When we speak, those around us take in our information and process it, and one important factor to consider is how much they believe what we say.

So here are some ideas to establish greater credibility: these are not “8 tricks to get people to believe your lies”, but rather some methods that are aimed at increasing the validity and value of the words we speak.

1: Understand the nature of your own knowledge. The “ARE” model

Here’s something cool called the “ARE” model for analysing your knowledge. In a broad sense, anything we “know” could be thought of as fitting into one of three categories:

A — An assumption. Let’s face it, we think we”know” something, but actually we’re just assuming it.

R — Research. We are talking about something that we have researched in the past, and our knowledge comes from other credible sources. For many cases “R” is the highest level that we can attain. (For example, it’s doubtful that any of us will have the chance to evaluate the composition of the moon directly, but there are plenty of credible sources with this information) Even this needs to be tempered with appropriate scepticism.

E — Experience. This is the highest level of knowledge. You know something due to firsthand experience or experiment. But, like Research, this has to be tempered by accurately construing and qualifying your knowledge (more on that later). Notwithstanding it being the highest, it still has innate flaws.

When I first heard of this model, I started to analyse my knowledge. In many cases I found things that I thought I “knew” were actually in the “A” category. I assumed they were true, or had heard that they were true based on the comments of other people. But are those people credible?

Here are some example facts:

  1. “Daddy long leg spiders are the most poisonous spider in the world, but their fangs are too small to penetrate human skin” — this is a solid “A”. I have heard this before in my home country from several sources, but it’s important to realise it’s just an “A”, none of those people referenced any credible sources nor did they have the equipment to measure this fact. Actually it turns out that this is not a fact, but an urban legend [1] (Well, if you believe the urban legend website! Probably more credible than the random aunties of my youth)
  2. “It takes sunlight an average of 8 minutes and 20 seconds to travel from the Sun to the Earth” — This is in the “R” category. I don’t have the resources or expertise to measure this number myself, but I have researched it and found the same or close answers from several sources.
  3. “When you touch a stove that is hot, it hurts your hand” — this is in the “E” category, and most of us have this piece of knowledge from the “E” category.

So the first steps in establishing credibility are actually internal:

  1. Recognise the level of your knowledge
  2. Strive to progress up the levels (move something from A to R to E where possible)

Or in short: question your assumptions!

2: Be qualified in how you speak

Here’s an excerp from a book called “concepts of modern mathematics”:

An astronomer, a physicist and a mathematician are on a train in Scotland. The astronomer looks out of the window, sees a black sheep standing in a field, and remarks, “How odd. All the sheep in Scotland are black!” “No, no, no!” says the physicist. “Only some Scottish sheep are black.” The mathematician rolls his eyes at his companions’ muddled thinking and says, “In Scotland, there is at least one sheep, at least one side of which appears to be black from here some of the time.”  [4]

Which one do you feel is the most credible? Which statement is very well tempered?

Qualified as an adjective means “Limited or restricted; not absolute”. Speaking in a qualified manner includes using words such as “may, might, shall, should, will, would, likely, possibly, appears, think, approximately” and others that restrict the scope of what you are saying appropriately.

Qualification also includes the concepts in ARE. If you are assuming a premise, then list your assumption before proceeding into your argument. If it is researched, then list your references. If it is experience, then refer to the documentation of the experiment. For instance: “HIV has a high correlation with premature death” — this is just saying things as they are. Not “HIV will kill you for sure before you’ve had it for five years” — and this leads to the next point:

3: Avoid absolute statements and exaggeration

Here’s an ironic statement:

All absolute statements are incorrect

But seriously, how many absolute statements are actually true? Let’s think of a simple absolute statement:

“Humans are divided into male and female”

— This is a logical statement right? But it may not be entirely correct. What about people who are confused about their gender identity? What about people who undergo surgery to remove their genitals and become a eunuch? Do they fit neatly into the boxes of “male and female”?

It may turn out that when people make absolute statements, they are generally not true; not because they don’t contain an element of truth, but because they are not properly qualified (or “restricted”) within their bounds so that they can be more accurate.

4: Refuse to speak about things you know nothing about

One of my favourite authors, Jim Collins, was once in an interview. In this interview he is quoted saying something momentously important when it comes to credibility.

When I was 18 years old, my Philosophy professor called me into his office, and he sat me down. He said, “Mr. Collins, a word to the wise. One ought not to speak about what one does not know.” And I’ve always adhered to that. I don’t speak of what I don’t know. There are lots of people who are willing to give you an opinion. I’m not one of them.”

Shortly thereafter he is asked the question:

“These are turbulent times. At the same time the United States and the world has a new leader in Barack Obama. Does he bring the qualities to the tables that are necessary to get over the crisis?”

To which he answers, quite simply:

“You’re asking me something I can’t possibly know.” [2]

Think about that for a minute. This man spends his life researching great people and great leaders, when asked about one of the most public examples of a contemporary leader, upon which so much controversy and literature lies, he says “You’re asking me something I can’t possibly know.” Will I believe the other things this guy says?? Hell yes!! Because I know that when he speaks, his words are lined with facts and data. Credibility!

If we went into America today and asked a random sampling of people this question “Does Barack Obama bring qualities to the table that are necessary to get over these turbulent times?” I highly doubt we’d find a single person willing to admit that they actually don’t have the data necessary to give an informed, qualified answer. I’m quite sure we’d get a load of emotionally charged opinions.

5: Are you speculating? Are you making assumptions? Just say it

It’s OK to speculate and make assumptions. Actually the making of assumptions is a natural part of our every day life. For example: When you walk into a room you’ve never been in before and you use the light switch, you assume the switch works! It’d be pointless to walk into the room, realise that you don’t know if the switch works, and start a quest looking for someone who does and ask them “hey, does the light switch in that room work?” — in fact assumption is an important step on the way to experience. If we never made any assumptions well — one wonders how we’d survive. Every day we assume something we’ve done before will work again. (Like eating will work).

But when it comes to discussions and arguments — then it is important to flag speculation and assumption. Again this relates to being qualified. Are you merely speculating? That’s OK, just say so. Are you making assumptions? That’s OK, just say so.

6: Don’t believe everything you hear or read

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” — Aristotle

Let’s face it. It’s quite likely that a lot of what you see and hear on an everyday basis is either:

  1. Simply NOT true
  2. Partially true. True to some degree

Probably a majority of what we encounter fits into category 2. So now what? Block your ears and never listen to anything anyone says anymore?

The important skill is to be able to “take in” data, information, facts, etc. and list them in your mind as something within the “credibility” framework. Thus your mind contains a functional, practical model of human reality, and built within it is a catering system for bias, incomplete data, exaggeration, cultural perspectives and imperfections, etc.

I once heard a highly respected friend and mentor say “The first time I hear anything, I don’t believe it, but I flag that thing in my mind for later review. If I hear it twice, or three times, then I may prepare to investigate” — Therein lies an understanding of the “sifting” or “winnowing” process that truly educated minds go through, sifting through error toward truth. Don’t believe everything you read online. Don’t believe everything your friends tell you. Even if you trusted a friend with your life and know they have your best interest at heart, that does not mean this friend’s words are absolutely correct. Yes, this includes parents, spouses and family.

7: Attempt to perceive unknowns

Another crucial piece of the puzzle is a deep understanding of what you don’t know. When discussing things, when presenting arguments, list the unknown variables and their potential impact along with your speculation and assumption. Clearly define the scope and veracity of your argument. Understand what you do know, and understand what you don’t know.

8: Just don’t talk too much.

If you went to your boss every day and told him what he should do, do you think he would be happy with you?

But what if, once in a while, you give razer sharp, highly specific and well thought out feedback? Say once every several months? Do you think your feedback will be more valued then?

The story of the boy who cried wolf is intrinsically a story about credibility. It was by the successive, inaccurate and exaggerated accounts of wolves coming that the boy lost credibility. Eventually when the real wolf came he had lost all credibility and no one listened. Such happens when we speak too much and share our opinions too much. Personally: I love talking a lot and know that this point is something to be remembered!

Conclusion and motivation

Why would you want people to believe what you say more? What’s your motivation?

This article is written with the aforementioned motivation: To increase the value and validity of what you say so that people will see more value in it and believe in it more. It’s important to use this knowledge for “good” — this shouldn’t be used to create an even more convoluted framework for manipulation.


[1] http://spiders.ucr.edu/daddylonglegs.html
[2] http://www.hossli.com/articles/2009/03/02/steve-jobs-is-an-industrial-beethoven/
[4] http://books.google.com/books?id=PcqiXD_BxA4C&pg=PA286 (concepts of modern mathematics)

Props to Matthew Forzan for the ARE model — this guy is FTW

Afterthought / MicroFunFunnyRant
Really —  we should stop saying “scientists say” or “research says” — followed by whatever we read in some random article on Joe Soap’s blog (or cnet or or or…). Which scientists? Which research? What methodology did they use? These things matter! People will judge our credibility based on who and what we choose to quote and associate with.

AfterAfterThought: If you work in the internet marketing industry, and you see a website that says “Here are three secrets that will drive TEN times more customers through your website – GUARANTEED!” just run for the hills man. Where on earth does the number “TEN times more customers” come from? Why is it not 9.972 times more customers? Guaranteed? Way too exaggerated.

Rant over 🙂

You may also like...

1 Response

  1. Robert says:

    Hey there!
    I will reply in reverse order 🙂

    Point number 8 made me think of the following: Have you ever seen the movie Gone in Sixty Seconds? In it loads of people talk, a lot. But the character played by the football player Vinnie Jones says nothing. In fact, the others seem to think he does not speak, or cannot speak, and as part of the audience I also thought he either did not want to or could not speak. In the last scene, or one of the last, he says to a comment about ‘poor Toby’ who had died: “If his premature demise has, in some way, enlightened the rest of you as to the grim finish below the glossy veneer of criminal life, and inspired you to change your ways, then his death carries with it an inherent nobility. And a supreme glory. We should all be so fortunate. You can say ‘Poor Toby.” I say: “Poor us..” I remember being taken aback by the wisdom, especially of someone who I did not think could speak.

    Point 7: I love the idea of unknowns! I think it is so helpful to have as a concept in our mind to keep us human and humble. Recently I have been thinking about how even logic as we know it is based on our experience…if we had different experience, which we could if we for example could experience infrared light or sense gamma rays or whatever else (especially things we do not now know exist), we would probably have very different logical arguments and very different conclusions.

    Point 6: I love how the internet enables so many people not only to write, but also to publish to a potentially huge audience! It is important to raise voices and perspectives which otherwise probably would not be heard to the extent they can now. However, with all these claims and counter-claims it is necessary for us to consider the grounds people have for saying what they say. I couldn’t agree more with what you say 🙂

    Point 2: I really like how you explained the importance of being qualified and how to do so.

    Point 1: I agree with what you say in all of this article! However the thing that sticks out to me also is that this article is about knowledge, it is about epistemology (theory of knowledge). Another very interesting topic is ontology (theory of what is). It is interesting to take an ontological approach to the topic of knowledge. An interesting ontological question about knowledge may for example be: what must the world be like for human knowledge to be possible? This approach will likely give different answers and then also new perspectives.

    I apologise for writing this as if it was some sort of academic book review…so boring, sorry!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *