Rise Above the Crowd

Principle 2.  People trust a perceived expert or authority. You need to rise above the crowd.

In a world where we need to make quick judgments, the ability to check someone’s credentials is limited. We need to make snap judgments. If we need an emergency room doctor in a hurry, we don’t interview potential candidates and asked them where they went to school, how many operations they have performed, how long they have been working, or anything of the sort. We assume that the hospital we visit employs competent physicians. Our default pattern is to defer to and believe in perceived experts and authorities. We trust that they know what they are doing. There simply isn’t enough time for thorough due diligence unless the stakes are high or time is plentiful.

Note that I did not say “actual” experts and authorities, I said “perceived.” For many of us, perception is reality. We view a person a certain way, and we don’t have the time to dig deeper and engage in a background check that would confirm or disprove our viewpoint. We are willing to give someone the benefit of the doubt. Do you remember the movie Catch Me If You Can?  Leonard DiCaprio played a real person named Frank Abagnale who was pursued by an FBI Agent played by Tom Hanks. In actual life, Abagnale was a check forger, thief, impostor, and counterfeiter. He was a liar and a cheat of world-class proportions. Abagnale posed as a doctor, lawyer, and airline pilot. He was able to command authority and respect, almost on call. He made people believe in him partly by dressing in the required attire and by speaking the language of the profession. He fooled a lot of people a lot of the time. (Abagnale was eventually caught, and he now works as a security consultant.)

I mention this movie because Abagnale was a master at the use of authority. Although in his case the authority was entirely fake, he knew that we respect certain professions almost automatically out of habit. We give credence to what someone says because of their uniform, their language, or their position. As consumers, we are taught to defer to experts who appear on television, radio, and in the news. If someone looks the part, we tend to believe them.

Medical doctors on television are often portrayed as sources of wisdom, and we tend to trust the doctors in our midst. Dr. Phil may not be the world’s most qualified psychologist, but he is on TV and commands a huge audience. If you are just one among the hordes of ordinary people, it is much harder to command respect and be seen as having premium value. As a result, you need to stand out as well as stand above the crowd. You need to be perceived as not just different but also having a higher stature. And you need to be different in a way that matters to your target market.

Robert Cialdini, author of Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion, discusses six principles of influence, two of which are Authority and Social Proof. There isn’t time here to go through all six principles in detail, but being seen as an authority is a sure way to influence other people. Social Proof has to do with external validation such as testimonials, endorsements, and media recognition. The intent is to be perceived as an expert, someone who commands respect.

One thing about expert status is that no one is going to anoint you as an expert, or at least it’s not very likely. Some of us may make a major finding that has the media flocking to you, but the rest of us are going to have to declare expert status for ourselves. Of course this may feel uncomfortable, especially if we are taught not to promote ourselves. Remember, you need to stand out in a “sea of sameness,” and gaining expert status through publishing, media appearances, and the like will help you rise above the others in your field. I am not recommending that you buy yourself onto the best seller lists or run an ad on a well-known website and then say “As Seen On” in your communications, as some advocate, but you have to stand out. You can have all the credibility in the world, but if no one knows about you, it won’t matter. I remember something Scott Simon once said on National Public Radio in the US that is applicable here: “if you’re talking but no one is listening, why bother?”

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