The theory of credibility

10 Nov

credible adj. 1 (of a person or statement) believable or worthy of belief. 2 (of a threat etc.) convincing.

Marshall McLuhan, always neat in his suits, collars, and ties - you may not have understood him, but you probably believed him.

credibility n. 1 the condition of being credible or believable. 2 reputation, status.

Oxford Modern English Dictionary

Credibility is something all professionals strive for; it is the sense of being established in one’s work and an expert in one’s field. Credibility can be reached through various methods like publishing one’s work, gaining professional recognition or media attention, winning awards, working with established peers, having a weighty client list, or other impressive experience. This is the hard proof, that which can’t be denied, but there is another side of credible, a rather intangible one, something not often recognized or spoken about but something that deeply affects  people’s opinions of us: our image. Our image influences other’s perception of us and can have direct bearing on our credibility.

For those of you who understand the image concept, the idea that everything about us – how we look, our actions, our demeanor, how we treat people, etc., sends messages out to the world that will be judged accordingly, you’ll understand that things like bad hygiene, ill-fitting clothes, or a bad attitude will often trump anything we do have going for us,  lowering our worth as a professional and diminishing our credibility that we’ve worked so hard for.

I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I suggest that as a culture, we don’t put a lot of stock in people who are foul-smelling and unkempt in their dated clothes. We could probably think of several adjectives to describe people such as this, and I’m willing to bet that “credible” is not going to be among them. If we think about the concept “credible” and imagine what it would look like, I expect that most of us would have a neat, clean, well-groomed, and properly fitted vision.

Intellectual image

I was fortunate enough to attend an informal academic panel discussion on Canada’s most famous media theorist in a lovely historic arts club in downtown Toronto recently. I came in with an open mind to listen and learn from the members of the panel, each an expert in his field. I was struck with how visually different each of these men were and I tried to notice how I reacted to them based on their wardrobe and general look and not what they discussed – as in, it’s not what they say, it’s how they say it and from what guise it is heard from.

A woman who understood what I do as a men’s image consultant sat with me at the event and asked what I made of the way the panelists were dressed.

“The academic wardrobe is not usually impressive,” I said, “many of them don’t have an awareness of what they look like because they’re always thinking and in their own heads.”

Heady intellectual types often don’t realize that they’ve been wearing the same suit for 25 years because they haven’t looked up from their research, writing, or their intellectual goals. Being engrossed in one’s work is wonderful but it doesn’t have to make us unaware of ourselves. A position of unawareness can be a bit dangerous because whether we like it or not, humans make judgments of others based visual perceptions, and our wardrobe, hair style, grooming, and body language speaks for us first, and this can have direct bearing on our credibility.

The panel

Each of the panelists looked surprisingly different from the rest, and of course, my opinion of them as people and as experts was influenced by what I saw. In my description of the panelists, I’ve tried to be as objective as possible so I won’t colour your opinions because this time, we’re going to do something a little different: instead of reading about my take on the gents on the academic panel, readers, let’s have you do a reading of the panelists in an effort for you to become more aware of others and of yourself.

On your own, try thinking of an adjective or two for each panelist to describe how they come across to you, then using a simple rating system where 1 is the lowest and 5 is the highest, rate their credibility level. Remember that you’ll only be going on visual descriptions and you will not know what they presented, their position, nor their field of expertise.

Panelist 1. Full beard, wild eyebrows, thin, combed grey hair, white shirt, club tie, too-large suit. Expressive face.

Panelist 2. Small, red-faced man with a conservative hair style and a good-fitting white shirt, tie, dark slim suit.

Panelist 3. Pony tail. Jacket too large, too large earth-toned shirt, white t-shirt visible under too-large collar. Dated tie.

Panelist 4. Clean, modern eye glasses, short haircut, neat dark denim, shirt, tie, and v-neck sweater. Compact.

Panelist 5. Hair casual. Short-sleeved black rayon shirt with the word RENEGADE emblazoned in large red letters across the front.

Panelist 6. Plain pale blue sport shirt with 2 buttons open at neck, trousers. Short hair, balding. The tallest panelist.

What impression did the panelists make on you based on what they looked like? Did you take any of them seriously? Who would you trust?

How did they do on your rating scale? What makes each expert seem more or less credible than the other panelists? Most importantly, can you objectively apply this scale to yourself so that you can craft a more convincing and authentic professional image?

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One Response to “The theory of credibility”

  1. Leah Morrigan November 14, 2011 at 2:41 pm #

    Hi readers, BBC News ran a story on the same topic a few days after I posted this: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-15673359

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