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Sticky Ideas Workshop (Part 4): Credible

Sticky Ideas Workshop (Part 4): Credible
Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die

    ”I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.” Back in the early ‘80s, Vick’s Formula 44 cough syrup ran commercials that opened with that line, featuring Peter Bergman, who indeed played a doctor on The Young and the Restless All My Children. Vick’s could, of course, have chosen an actual doctor to tell us how good Vick’s product was, but instead chose a TV star – someone much better known at the time than any doctor would have been.

    Bergman’s appearance in this commercial was a bid by Vick’s for credibility – their hope was that by securing the endorsement of someone that TV viewers trusted, people would be more inclined to see Vick’s cough syrup as a product they could trust. I have no idea how well the campaign worked as far as selling cough syrup, but it’s well over 20 years later and people are still quoting the commercial!

    Where Does Credibility Come From?

    In Made to Stick, the Heath brothers outline two kinds of credibility. The Vick’s commercial above, and other celebrity endorsements, are examples of external credibility, credibility lent a product, theory, or thought by its association with someone we find trust-worthy, for whatever reason. Often this kind of credibility comes from a person’s authority; Einstein talking about physics or the surgeon general talking about smoking are likely to be listened to and believed because we know they are experts in their fields.

    Another kind of external credibility can come from figures the Heath’s call anti-authorities — the actor who played the Marlboro Man doing an anti-smoking commercial as he fights cancer, for instance, or a recovering drug addict talking to a group of teenagers about the dangers of drugs. These people are credible not because of their expertise but because of their experiences, their authentic connection with the ideas they are expressing.

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    It’s In the Details

    Lacking a prominent actor, government figure, or anti-authority to push your ideas, though, most of us must rely on internal credibility. Internal credibility is the ability of our ideas themselves to convince through an appeal to our audience’s sense of how the world works and how they see it. For instance, I’ve already mentioned the importance of concrete details in establishing credibility. We assume that a high level of detail can only be gained through authentic experience – people who are lying about something wouldn’t know the level of fine detail that someone who actually experienced it would.

    Of course, too much detail can undermine credibility, for the same reason: we know there’s only so much a person can remember about a scene or event, so we believe they’re making stuff up when they start overwhelming us with detail. (Plus, we get bored – a very important thing to keep in mind!) In On Writing, Stephen King, whose been known to create a sticky idea or two in his time, puts it like this:

    Thin description leaves the reader feeling bewildered and nearsighted. Overdescription buries him or her in details and images. The trick is to find a happy medium. It’s also important to know what to describe and what can be left alone while you get on with your main job, which is telling a story.

    Too much detail distracts from the point, which is getting your audience to believe something.

    4 Out of 5 Dentists Prefer Statistics

    Statistics are another source of internal credibility – when used well. As I said above, boring your audience is a sure way not to see your ideas stick, and nothing bores an audience more than reams of statistics. Statistics suffer, too, from being too abstract: is a 42% correlation between income level and test scores a lot? What does it mean? (By the way, I totally made up that statistic!)

    The trick, then, is to draw from the data a simple, concrete statement (even better if it’s unexpected, too!). I love the example they give in the book: Shark attacks are very rare but every summer the news is filled with reports of shark attacks, shark attack victims file through the round of talk shows, and little kids gain new reasons to fear the ocean. If you wanted to show how ridiculous our annual national panic over sharks is, you could tell everyone that only .4 people per year die in shark attacks. Or, once they’ve woken up, you could explain how they were some 25 times more likely to die by drowning than by shark attack – that’ll get the kids to the beach! Or you could tell them of the dangers of marauding Bambis, the deadly deer that roam our backwoods and kill 300 times more people every year than sharks. Automotive collisions with deer are much more common than shark attacks, and usually have deadlier consequences – but we don’t huddle in our homes terrified of death by deer!

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    ”Don’t Take My Word for It…”

    Statistics are a source of credibility, but only when used well. Although they can be quite compelling, people have also learned to be somewhat suspicious of statistics, which we believe can be twisted to tell any story they want to. Another source of credibility, then, is found in your audience’s own experiences, whether past or future. This is the promise of the money-back guarantee: a company that promises to pay you back if you don’t like something is much more credible than one with an “as-is” policy.

    The Heaths call this a testable credential, meaning that the credibility comes directly from your audience, who uses your product or follows your advice and agrees that, indeed, it does work. This kind of credibility is hard-won, though, and erased by dishonesty. As with statistics, the misuse of testable credentials can undermine your credibility, even faster than they build it up.

    And Now: Sinatra!

    Finally, credibility can be earned through what the Heaths call “The Sinatra Test”, inspired by the chorus of “New York, New York”: “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere”. The basic principle here is to demonstrate competency in dealing with the extremes: if you can make it in crazy, hectic, punishing New York City, then Ames, Iowa isn’t going to present much of a challenge. If your product is used successfully by NASA in its space missions, it can probably hold up to everyday office use. If your life-coaching can make a serial killer into a good neighbor, it can probably help ease the tensions in the typical workplace.

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    If unexpectedness gets an audience listening, and concreteness gets their attention, credibility helps them believe you. It is the reward that says their attention isn’t being wasted, that you indeed have something useful to say. I expect there’s other ways of establishing credibility, though, that the Heaths don’t cover. What do you do to show that you’re worth listening to?

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    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    No!

    It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

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    But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

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    What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

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    But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

    1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
    2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
    3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
    4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
    5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
    6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
    7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
    8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
    9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
    10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

    Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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