Conveying authority and stacking heuristics

Suppose you wanted to represent yourself in the best possible truthful light?

How would you set yourself up so you could appear as credible as possible?

More than mere puffery, this task is eminently practical. If you’re applying for a job, representing yourself strongly but truthfully is essential. If you’re building up your public speaking career, conference organizers need to know why you deserve to be on the stage. If you’re responsible for marketing or selling anything, your name will be Googled by the purchaser for any large purchase as part of due diligence.

How do you build a representation that’s accurate but impactful? The answer lies in what are called heuristics. Heuristics are our mental shortcuts, our quick decisions that help us get through life without being bogged down by analyzing everything. We learn heuristics very quickly as part of life. A baby learns that certain colored foods taste better than others, and kids routinely reject foods that are green.

As adults, we have heuristics operating all the time, algorithms that help us to make sense of the world. When I go to an event with my Nikon D90 and speed flash, people more often than not assume I work for the event in some official capacity. A large camera with extra camera gear triggers that heuristic in their heads.

Beijing Security Guard

If you were to go to an Army surplus store and buy some dark blue fatigues, black boots, and sunglasses, you could stand in the middle of the street and credibly direct traffic. Drivers would assume based solely on your dress that you were somehow an official representative of the police. I advise not doing this, as impersonating a police officer in some places (most of the United States) is illegal.

Uniforms and equipment can create snap judgements in real life. What can you do to create snap judgements in your favor digitally? The answer is also to stack heuristics. How can you layer on credentials and indicators that showcase your actual skills and capabilities?

For example, I have a blog. That in itself is almost meaningless, except to say that I can write a fair bit. I have a Twitter account. Again, that seems largely meaningless by itself, though with 83,000 followers, that says at least some people find something of value. Combine the two and I’m a very small niche publisher. I’ve written 16 books, of which 3 are my own (not work for hire). I speak at roughly a dozen events a year, of which two or three are usually keynotes.

Do you see how the heuristics are starting to stack up to convince you that I have some level of authority? Each data point by itself is relatively unimportant, but combined, they paint a broader picture. A set of blue fatigues by itself might or might not imply authority. Add some black boots and you’re closer. Add some mirrored sunglasses and you’re closer still. Add a black nylon webbing belt with a black flashlight and perhaps a black mobile phone case to it and you look astonishingly official.

Look at your own history. What can you create that conveys authority? If you don’t have much, what things can you get? For example, having a social media presence by itself is relatively unimportant. What if you added to it a blog with a lot of daily readership? Suppose you then added on Google Analytics certification? What about adding in some white papers and webinars? How about a weekly email newsletter? Those are all things you can do for very low cost or no cost at all, and in aggregate would demonstrate that you have a broad perspective on your area of expertise.

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Reading the Room: 5 Zones of Audience Attention

More travels, conferences, etc.

When you’re speaking, be it on stage, in a boardroom, or even with your colleagues at the water cooler, you’re likely to notice different levels of attention and engagement. I’ve noticed roughly 5 zones of attention and indicators about where people are:

  • I don’t care: The audience simply doesn’t care. They don’t want to be there.
  • I’ve already got it: The audience is bored by hearing something they’ve heard before.
  • I get it: The audience is excited and engaged by what you’re saying.
  • I think I get it: The audience is excited but confused.
  • I don’t even understand what’s being said: The audience is frustrated.

When you’re reading the room (see this previous post for the basics), pay attention to these key, visible indicators in combination:

  • Note taking: Note the pace at which people are taking notes. How fast are they typing or writing? How much are they writing?
  • Side conversations: Note the number of side conversations people have, and whether the interactions are quick check-ins (“what did he say”) vs. full conversations.
  • Posture: Disengaged audiences tend to slouch or recline. Engaged audiences lean forward or sit straight up, depending on how they’re taking notes. Frustrated audiences hunch forward but aren’t taking notes.

The 5 general zones and their corresponding indicators map out like this:

State I don’t care I’ve already got it I get it I think I get it I don’t even understand what’s being said
Note taking Low Low High Medium Low
Side convos High High Low Medium High
Posture Disengaged Disengaged Positive engaged Positive engaged Frustrated

Your task as a speaker, as a marketer, is to keep people squarely in “I get it”. Most everyone in a meeting or talk starts out there. Watch for indicators that people have strayed too far to “I’ve already got it” or “I think I get it”, as those are warning signs you’re not aligned with what they can handle.

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You are one company

Signs of the recession

A brief reminder for those folks whose companies have more than one office/group/division/franchise/department:

To the outside world, you are one company.

Your social media team represents the same company as your call center. If your service is stellar in one and lackluster in the other, then your company will have the reputation of the weakest link in the chain.

Your high end product bears the same logo as your low end product. Your customers will remember most what they liked least, so if you cut corners on the low end product, chances are they’ll believe you cut corners on the high end one, too.

Your remote franchise at the ends of the earth has the same sign on the front door as your franchise in the biggest city on Earth. People will expect the same experience behind the sign, no matter where they are. If you disappoint in one location, you automatically tarnish all locations.

Your marketing team has to live up to what your PR department promises.

Your sales team has to live up to what your marketing department promises.

Your fulfillment team has to live up to what your sales department promises.

One broken promise makes every previous promise a lie.

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