NOTE: This post is Part 10 in my month-long deep dive into exploring "expertise and authority." Get the whole series (as it progresses) here.
I was busy with something else when the alert popped up. Twitter was letting me know that someone had tagged me in a post.
This happens. Not as much as I might like, but frequently enough that I no longer get excited enough that there's any wet-the-pants danger. I have grown as a human.
Still, I like getting Twitter love, so I switched over to see who had said what. What I saw was this message:
Not unusual. I get people sending me links like these all the time. The references to This American Life, Radiolab, and the Daily Show were interesting, but ... meh. Anyone can say anything online. Personally, since I own a rare zebra unicorn with the power to travel through time, I take everything with a grain of salt.
But then Brett Gajda—the purveyor of this tweet as well as the writer and host of the Where There's Smoke podcast—posted this:
And that got my attention.
For non-pants-related reasons.
Credibility Takes the Win
The first tweet might have gotten caught in my "mental spam filter," never to be paid attention to and never to be acted upon. But the second tweet did something completely unexpected—it connected with me on a personal level.
Because Brett hadn't just flung some self promotion my way, hoping it would stick and have an impact. He actually took some time—30 seconds, maybe—to look at my profile and find something to actually connect to. He found my little quip about pantslessness—the mightiest of -neses—and took the time to acknowledge it. He got through my mental spam filter by establishing some personal credibility with me.
Credibility is a crucial component of authority and expertise. It's "the quality of being trusted or believed in. The quality of being convincing or believable." Without credibility, an expert can't establish attributed authority.
They might have autonomous authority—intrinsic expertise that doesn't require any outside validation. But good luck convincing anyone that you know what you're talking about if your credibility has gone through a food processor. Just ask Sir Roy Meadow.
In the case of Brett Gajda, he and his partner Nick Jaworksi have worked hard and used their expertise to create a podcast that is absolutely fantastic. I know, because I've listened to every single episode. I gave it that 10-minute shot that Brett asked for because he demonstrated his willingness to give me a shot, too—he spent at least a small bit of time finding some tiny, personal bit of information about me. Essentially, he established himself as an authority by being authentic and actually taking some initiative.
I was so impressed and so thrilled I had Brett and Nick on my podcast a week later.
How to Build Authority in 3 Easy Steps
We've talked a lot about what authority is, but we haven't said much about how to build it. But my tweeting and podcasting love fest with Brett Gajda provides the first clue.
Authority builds off of expertise, but it's credibility that stands as the difference between autonomous and attributed authority. If you want someone other than your university to think of you as knowledgable on a topic, you're going to need someone to give you the nod.
Building authority has three primary steps—
ESTABLISH YOUR EXPERTISE
To be considered an authority in a given field, you need to establish your expertise in that field. That seems simple enough, right?
It is, actually. Because becoming an expert on any subject is a task of focus. You determine something that you're interested in enough that you want to know everything about it. And in the pursuit of that everything, you eventually surpass common knowledge, which puts you firmly in "expert" territory. You know more about a subject relative to others. You have a deeper knowledge than the average person. That's the very definition of "expert."
Spend time digging in deep in your field of expertise. Take courses, read books, talk to other experts and ask lots of questions. Remember, you don't have to know everything about a subject to be an expert—you only have to know more than your audience.
But expertise is a spectrum, and you want to continuously move along that spectrum. Your goal, as a growing expert, is to continuously expand your expertise. Commit to a regimen of continued education and learning, even if it's self-guided. Investigate, research, and study everything you can about your subject, so that you have lots of insight and information to share with your audience.
BUILD YOUR CREDIBILITY
Credibility is a funny thing. It's absolutely essential to establishing authority with an audience. But it may not take much effort to build.
Remember those Vick's commercials from the 80s?
Peter Bergman played Dr. Cliff Warner on "All My Children." He was a good looking guy who wore a white lab coat every day, and had a stethoscope around his neck most of the time. He was not a doctor. He was an actor. But to millions of Americans, he had enough credibility to convince them to buy Vick's Adult Formula cough medicine when they had a cold.
Bergman even announced up front—within the first five seconds of the commercial—that he was not a doctor. And yet, everything he said from that point forward was considered sage advice by the audience. If anything, being upfront about the fact that he wasn't a doctor—just an actor who played one on TV—actually gave him more credibility with his audience. Who, in turn, granted him more authority on the topic.
In this case, Bergman's "expertise" could have been considered questionable. He was not an expert on colds or cough medication. But he was an expert on playing a doctor on TV, and that was all it took.
Build your credibility starts with being honest with people.
You could easily build credibility around a series of lies. It happens all the time. But one slip—one inadvertent admission or one discovered truth—and your credibility goes away forever. So does your authority. So building the sort of relationship with your audience that leads to increased authority starts with establishing a proper baseline. Build your credibility early by admitting what you don't know, or what credentials you don't have, as much as promoting the knowledge and expertise you do possess.
In other words, establish an honest and open relationship with your audience. Relationships are the key to success.
ADD VALUE TO SOMEONE'S LIFE
The thing about being an authority is that it doesn't happen in a vacuum. Without recognition and trust from others, you can be the foremost expert in a field, but your impact is severely limited.
Your aim, as an authority, should always be to add value to someone's life. The work you do needs to have a purpose in order to keep it moving, and there's no better purpose than helping others to succeed and grow and be healthy, happy, and wise.
Authorities stay authorities by adding value in the form of producing something.
Carpenters build furniture. Authors write books. Filmmakers make films. Coaches create programs that help their clients. Without the audience, authority is non-existent. Without adding value, the authority isn't actually an authority. So keep producing.
My favorite means of producing authority is writing (obviously). I coach clients to be better writers—to develop a daily writing habit, to blog more, to write a book. Writing is the most powerful tool we have for establishing and nurturing authority because it is tangible proof of our expertise. It can be parsed and analyzed and shared. Writing stands as evidence that we know what we're talking about.
My recommendation to anyone attempting to establish authority in their given expertise is to develop a daily writing habit. If you're having trouble with that, or feeling anxiety over it, I'd be happy to help. I even offer a free 15-minute discovery session, during which we can figure out whether I can help you, or if you'd be better off trying something else. Set up a time to chat with me, and we'll run from there.
The Authority Formula: A = E + C
Authority (A) is the result we're after, and it's built from Expertise (E) and—possibly more important—Credibility (C). That's a formula that's simple enough for anyone to follow.
Don't make the mistake of thinking that the only way to be an authority is to have a PhD on a topic, or to have the recognition of millions. Authority is bestowed by the audience, and they do so as a result of your credibility. Focus on establishing relationships and providing as much value as possible, and the mechanism of authority will be self-correcting. Your expertise will grow as you realize that "providing value" has "increasing expertise" as its cost. Your credibility will increase as you deliver that value to your audience.