Credibility is everything. Newspapers that get the facts wrong are torn to shreds and politicians lacking experience don’t get elected, while people in lab coats command our respect immediately. Communication scholars James C. McCroskey and Jason J. Teven defined credibility (aka “ethos”) back in ‘99 as being the perception of one’s competence, trustworthiness, and goodwill. But as you probably know, perceptions can be hacked. If needed, we can appear more credible by changing our nonverbal communication. Many of these hacks also help with awareness for those who do not realize their current nonverbal displays are killing their chances at being the most credible person in a room. Considering nonverbal communication, based on who you ask, makes up to 60-90% of what you’re saying, it doesn’t matter what your credentials are if your nonverbals are deficient. Someone could have all the experience in the world, but if they’re subconsciously displaying any behavior countering the following hacks, they are letting a more well-versed and less experienced person take their place on the totem pole of credibility.
1. Speak in a Deep Voice
“Talk Low, talk slow, and don’t talk too much.” – John Wayne
Why did Walter Cronkite have so many nightly viewers and Barack Obama rally so many voters? One of the answers lies in their deep baritone voices. You can spend endless hours wondering what you should have said, but what Walter Cronkite and Barack Obama have also mastered is how they say it. Numerous studies have been done on the vocal cues (aka “paralanguage”) to see how loudness, rate, articulation, and other factors affect nonverbal communication. One thing is clear: lower pitch improves credibility.
In fact, politicians have known for years that deep voices can win votes. Margaret Thatcher is a perfect example of this. She is also a great example of why this hack is also valuable for women. Take a look at this first video of Margaret Thatcher early on in her political career and note the pitch of her voice.
Now listen to her voice later in her career after some political coaching.
Much lower in the second clip, right? That’s because Thatcher and her team of political brains realized this hack back in the 80s. They found that by lowering the pitch of her voice she could win voters over and increase her credibility. It’s not a difficult technique. Anyone can do it. Try speaking in a deeper voice next time you’re in a meeting or giving a presentation. See if listeners are more interested in what you have to say.
2. Watch the Accent
In 2010, a study found that people with accents are perceived as less credible. While the study focused on people with accents from foreign countries, it makes sense that smaller effects could also result from say a police officer with a Texas accent giving a speech on New York crime. While the officer may have worked his entire career in New York and was only raised in Texas, audience members may deem him as less knowledgeable of crime in their city from the get go based on his accent. If you reduce or alter your accent or dialect to fit your listeners, your message may will become more effective.
Politicians, the sneaky scoundrels that they are, are on this too. On the campaign trail in 2007, Hillary Clinton adopted this tactic by embracing a southern drawl for her Selma, Alabama audience:
She was reamed in the media for it later. But if we polled her audience immediately following the speech, she probably would have received positive feedback.
Stephen Colbert is another example of someone implementing this hack. Being born in South Carolina, Stephen Colbert grew up with a thick southern accent. But when he decided he wanted to go into television, he worked hard to eliminate his drawl and adopt an anonymous “newsman” sound.
“At a very young age,” Colbert said in an interview, “I decided I was not going to have a southern accent. [On] TV, if you wanted to use a shorthand that someone was stupid, you gave the character a southern accent. And that’s not true. Southern people are not stupid. But I didn’t want to seem stupid. I wanted to seem smart. And so I thought, ‘Well, you can’t tell where newsmen are from.’”
Exception: If you’re British, don’t change a thing. People seem to find British accents as signs of intelligence, regardless of the topic.
3. Stand Taller
Sad to say, but shorter people are given less credibility in our world. Just think of all the terms associated with lower height: “looked down upon,” “fall short,” “lowlife.” Now think about the terms that contrast these: “your highness,” “rise to the occasion,” “high and mighty.”
How many times have you heard someone say something along the lines of, “Tom Cruise was a lot shorter than I imagined him being,” after meeting him. That’s because we subconsciously perceive people with high status and power to be taller than they actually are. And people with power even perceive themselves as taller. There was even a study in Robert Cialdini’s book on persuasion, called Influence, which found that when a person was introduced to a classroom as a professor instead of a student they were perceived as 2.5 inches taller.
So how can we use this to our advantage?
Pharmacists seem to have figured out one way. Why do you think they stand behind a counter with a raised floor? It gives them the authority and credibility they need or feel they deserve for handling and consulting on important medications.
However, if you’re not a pharmacist there are other methods you can use. For starters, you can wear taller shoes. Women have more access to height-increasing shoes like heels, but it gets a little trickier for men. Men, next time you’re buying shoes, take a look at some boots or dress shoes with a thick heel. Inserts are also an option. Sometimes, simply better posture can even add an inch or two — try it, stand in the mirror and stand up tall and see the difference from you normal casual posture. Give these a shot. It may even get you that raise you’ve been working towards.
If varying your height with shoes are not an option, you can play with levels. Ever notice how detectives on TV sometimes stand or sit on top of a table looking down at a seated suspect? It’s a power play. You can figure out hacks like this too in your everyday life.
For example, having tall people sit while you give a standing presentation is one option. Or maybe your boss has you seated in his office while he stands and talks. In this case, you could get up and look at some of his photos while talking with him. Suddenly, you’re on his level.