In our series of articles on the six principles of influence, today we discuss the principle of authority. We look at how much we are influenced by experts, how easy it became to be called an expert and how crucial it is for everyone in business to be regarded as an authority in his or her field.
If you’d like to improve your golf swing, would you call a cricket coach, your best friend who has just started playing golf or the former five-time national golf champion who is now working as a golf pro and offering coaching sessions?
If you are a runner, like me, and you suffer an injury would you go to a GP, a sports medicine specialist or the perhaps the national trail running champion who also happens to be a physiotherapist?
You would in all likelihood opt for the person with the highest credibility for your specific need.
The authority in the area concerned, called ‘The Expert’.
How does one become an ‘expert’?
The question now becomes how does one become credible?
If you are looking for support while you have no idea where to turn to and no recommendations from anyone, then how would you know if someone is a bonafide authority?
Related: 6 Principles to make you more persuasive
Things have changed over the years when it comes to credibility and legitimacy. In the past you had to be a professor, practicing and studying a topic for 20 years, writing numerous research papers and speaking at conferences.
Today, you can become regarded as a much bigger expert in a specific topic, if you know how to get media attention and a growing number of people following your statements and posts. A professor with no (social) media exposure can easily be overtaken by a 26-year-old who has read five books and knows how to position himself as the current go-to authority.
Two sides of a coin
This is an opportunity. And this is a massive threat.
What does being knowledgeable really mean? It’s quite tricky. Anyone can claim that he or she has more knowledge. How can you actually determine how much he or she knows, if you know only very little about the topic?
You can’t, at least not without running a test about the expertise, which of course needs to be designed by other highly regarded experts and then judged by them as well.
The message is thus, to ascertain whether someone is an expert or not is hard to do. In turn you might rely on what others say about someone, and that’s where social proof comes into play - one of the other 5 principles of influence.
How the principle of authority impacts you?
My expert advice, (said very much tongue in cheek) is easy:
- If you want to influence others, make sure they regard you as an expert in the area they are looking for support, a product or advice. When you communicate with others, find the perfect balance of speaking in a way that you make complicated things sound easy, but never forget to add a grain of complexity to avoid the others thinking ‘oh, that’s much easier than I thought - I don’t need this expert’.
- If someone gives you advice and tells you, he’s an expert on a topic, you better think twice and do not solely rely on his statement. If it sounds strange, you should ask for a second opinion. If something smells like a pig, looks like a pig and sounds like a pig, it’s most likely a pig. No matter what the expert is trying to tell you.
Related: 3 Reasons why passion might be more important than a business background
Media and experts
If I look at media, be it traditional, online, or social, it is clear that we have tons of experts in this world.
There is, arguably, an excess. I would hazard a guess that 90% of them are anything but an expert. However, who is a media outlet likely to ask for a comment? An expert of course and so the circle starts.
If all of a sudden a real expert comes on stage, he’s most often seen as wired, strange, stubborn, old fashioned - because when he speaks, it might sound more complicated than what the pseudo-experts have to say.
The behaviour to trust in experts without questioning them is so common, that behavioural psychology even has a name for it, it’s called ‘expert fallacy’.
The National Geographic Channel made a video about this topic, which you can click here to watch.