“You believe me, don’t you?”
Homework: done. Boxes: checked. Facts: double-checked. All lined up in a relentlessly logical argument. Yet you still can't shake the feeling that the audience isn't buying your message. They don't trust what you're saying.
If you want to lead or persuade, trust is essential. ¹
Trust is the currency of life. But nearly two-thirds of Americans believe trust is shrinking.² You can’t leave “trust” to chance; that’s a strategy for failure. If you’re asking a group of people to buy your story and take action, then they need to trust the messenger, not shoot them.
How can you build a trust strategy to connect your message to the audience?
Humans are social, and society is a social machine.³ Trust, then, is the lubricant that keeps the wheels turning.
Trust needs to be built, and once built, maintained. If not, it erodes quickly. The good news is, when you first work with someone, there’s a presumption of trust.⁴ Without that initial springboard, our social society would seize up.
Think of this as trust, not earned, but credited to your account. It’s trust backed by a leap of human faith. That temporary loan only goes so far.
Before people buy your story, they require trust. And trust requires two things — relationship and evidence.
Relationships and evidence rest on three foundations — credibility, clarity, and consistency.
Each element can be built and strengthened. In one form or another, they’ve been with us since the ancient Greeks first codified ethos, pathos, and logos.
In our data-rich, noisy, and complex world, they are essential.
Despite the old wisdom that facts “speak for themselves,” they’re only one part of the story.
Credibility is more than having your facts right.⁵⁶⁷ Facts have to be framed to make sense. Without the structure of story, they lack the context and emotion that drives action. As a presenter, you’re a storyteller. Character is crucial — you, the storyteller, must be believed.
How can you craft your story credibly?
We‘re predisposed to favor others when we detect similarity. This has an obvious name — ‘Similarity Bias.’⁶⁷ If I believe that you and I are similar in one way, then I will assume we might be similar in others. I become more open to your perspectives and the business story you’re bringing. Finding commonality encourages trust. ⁷
Skilled negotiators build trust through exploring shared beliefs.
Consider areas in which you and your audience share interests, experiences, and worldviews. Build credibility by putting your message into the context of your audience.
Professional speakers for example, will vary choices of phrasing to reflect different audiences. One audience might get language reflecting specific religious phrasing. Another might hear language relevant to their professional group. A third might receive a story in which certain cultural cues have been included.
Framing, using the worldview and language of the audience helps speakers build similarity, and therefore trust.
“Be known by the company you keep.”
Meet ‘Social Proof.’ ⁸⁹
Celebrity influencers are a prime example; if celebrity X uses product Y, then it “must be good.” But consider the audience. Your proof must come from an authority the audience respects to earn credibility.
Even better, show your idea winning in testing circumstances.
In a past career at Dell, we used social proof to validate our claim, “we have the toughest commercial laptop on the market.” Our evidence? B.P. Commercial Exploration equipped its fleet with our product. When cooked by the sun in the windscreen of a jeep, or coated in desert dust, or bounced through a trek to remote oil fields, the laptops survived.
This delivered all the credibility we needed to convince other customers to trust the toughness of the product.
“If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.”⁹
W.C. Fields' advice sounds good, but would be a mistake. Knowledge needs to be demonstrable, not hyperbolic. Unsupported slides full of diagrams so complex you need a PhD to read them are quick ways to break credibility. They destroy similarity. They make the audience feel stupid. Humanity’s natural defense when baffled is to blame the baffler.
Content needs to be practical and applicable. Ask yourself “What does this audience want to gain from my story?”
This leads straight to the next ingredient in the trust formula — clarity.
If you can’t see the bottom of the barrel, something nasty might be lurking.
Obfuscation hints at something hidden. David Horsager, author of The Trust Edge states: “People trust the clear, and mistrust the ambiguous.”¹⁰ Humans are hardwired to avoid ambiguity. When things are vague, we veer away. Faced with a lack of clarity, we make suboptimal decisions to favor clear and distinct over vague and unsure.
This aversion is so marked that researcher Daniel Ellsberg named it the “Ambiguity Effect.’¹¹ The U.S. Army War College even includes ambiguity in their ‘VUCA’¹² list of battlefield nasties that leaders must be ready to confront.¹³
To have clarity, we need to keep things simple. The storyteller must make life easy for the audience.
“I apologize for such a long letter, I didn’t have time to write a shorter one.”
Mark Twain understood the power of brevity. If there’s a hard way and an easy way, most of us prefer the latter. Humans are lazy.¹⁴ Striving for clarity may be more work, but makes life simpler for the audience. The audience rewards that work by sharing their trust. Use a clear structure so the audience has a route map to follow, and within that structure, edit, edit, edit.
Beware the ‘Curse of Knowledge’— you know too much and you are way too passionate. ¹⁵
Does the audience really need quite that level of depth? (writers of TV Remote Control instruction manuals, please take note!) We might be enthusiastic to share as much valuable information as possible, but overload obscures clarity. Professional storytellers confirm that editing is the toughest part of the job. Writer William Faulkner instructed we need to be ready to “...kill our darlings” if our words are to be clear.
Apply the same logic of taking pity on the audience with your data. Work to make your numbers clear. Numbers may not lie, but they will obscure and confuse when badly formatted.
Know the point you want your numbers to make, and edit ruthlessly. Add a clear headline, chuck the chart-junk, and tame your color palette to boost clarity.
“Incomprehensible jargon is the hallmark of a profession.”¹⁶
Normally, we condemn jargon. But Brewster’s point has merit. It is a shorthand between professionals. When used carefully, it brings clarity at speed.¹⁷ Access that shorthand authentically, and you bring both credibility and clarity.
But beware — to folks outside the circle, jargon is a confusion-causing barrier.
The rule must be that unless you’re very sure of your audience’s knowledge level, keep language simple.
Inconsistencies and contradictions within your story undermine clarity and credibility.
For the audience to trust you, and the story you’re selling — your argument must be free of contradictions. All the interlocking pieces of a story must fit together. Nothing anomalous can lurk in the shadows.
You must talk the talk, and walk the walk.
“The eight laws of learning are explanation, demonstration, imitation, repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition.”
John Wooden’s advice is message discipline in a nutshell. Simplicity helps build trust and helps explain the message. Social proof adds credibility, and demonstrates the idea in use. But in the end, it’s all about repetition.
In school, we’re taught the value of getting our facts right.
It isn’t surprising then that when we leave school, and enter the business world, those facts dominate the presentations we build and the stories we deliver.
You — the storyteller, are the source.
Here’s the fact though — it’s not all about the facts. For trust to build, your audience needs to trust YOU. Your credibility, your clarity, and your consistency.
You believe me… don’t you?
¹ Baldoni, John. “How Trustworthy Are You?” Harvard Business Review, 15 May 2008.
² Pew Research Center July 22, 2019. “Americans’ Trust in Government, Each Other, Leaders.” Pew Research Center - U.S. Politics & Policy, 22 July 2019.
³ Aerni, Philipp. “The Cooperative Human.” Nature Human Behaviour, 9 July 2018.
⁴ Kramer, Roderick. “Rethinking Trust.” Harvard Business Review, 1 June 2009.
⁵ Ovadya, Aviv. “What Is Credibility Made Of?” Columbia Journalism Review, 6 Jan. 2021.
⁶ “The 5 Biggest Biases That Affect Decision-Making.” NeuroLeadership Institute, 9 Apr. 2019.
⁷ Aune RK, Kikuchi T. “Effects of Language Intensity Similarity on Perceptions of Credibility Relational Attributions, and Persuasion.” Journal of Language and Social Psychology. 1993
⁸ Cialdini, Robert. Influence. Harper Collins, 2009.
⁹ W.C. Fields — American comedian. 1880 - 1946
¹⁰ Forum, Forbes. “You Can’t Be A Great Leader Without Trust -- Here’s How You Build It.” Forbes, 24 Oct. 2012.
¹¹ Ambiguity Effect - Biases & Heuristics | The Decision Lab.” The Decision Lab, 1 May 2021.
¹³ “Who First Originated the Term VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity)? - USAHEC Ask Us a Question.” FAQ Actions, 7 May 2019
¹⁴ Ratner, Paul. “How Evolution Made Our Brains Lazy.” Big Think, 26 Sept. 2018
¹⁵ Heath, Chip. “The Curse of Knowledge.” Harvard Business Review, 1 Dec. 2006.
¹⁶ Kingman Brewster, Jr., U. S. Ambassador to England, President, Yale University, Speech, British Institute of Management, December 13, 1977
¹⁷ Poynter, Ray. “Business Jargon Is Often Useful/Necessary.” LinkedIn 25 June 2014