Credibility: 5 Ways to Make People Believe You

By Roger Dawson

The absolute cornerstone of your ability to persuade – what it all rests upon – is the level of credibility you have with the other person. When you speak, do they believe you? Unless they do, there is no possibility that you can get them to do what you want them to do.

People will listen to you, but they won’t act – until they believe you. Let me stress that one more time. People won’t act unless they believe you. So, if you’re a salesperson trying to get an order, you should always be thinking, “Do they believe me?” Because if you haven’t built enough credibility they won’t place the order.

If you’re a manager and you’re trying to get your people to accept a new program, you should always be thinking, “Do they believe me?” Because if you haven’t built enough credibility, they’ll give lip service to your program, but they won’t enthusiastically support it.

If you’re a parent, does your son believe you when you say, “Don’t do it son. I tried it once and lived to regret it.” Or does he feel you’re trying to manipulate him and are being less than truthful?

Fortunately, you can build credibility with a few simple techniques. In my book, Secrets of Power Persuasion, I teach 15 tips to raise your level of credibility with other people. Here are the first five tips:

CREDIBILITY TIP 1: Never assume they believe you.

Power Persuaders have three “never assumes” that are always uppermost in their thoughts:

  1. Never assume poverty – that they can’t afford what you’re selling.
  2. Never assume they understand you.
  3. Never assume they believe you.

The last “never assume” is the most important one. Never assume they believe you.

Let’s face it. We get downright offended if someone questions our credibility. We hate it when a bartender cards us or when a bank teller asks us for identification. So, when we’re persuading people, we don’t like to admit that the other person is sitting there thinking “prove it to me.”

If you’re a salesperson, you can present a glorious list of benefits that will descend upon the buyer when they have the common sense to make an investment. But it doesn’t mean a thing until you’ve built the credibility needed to make them believe it.

You may be a manager whose persuasion challenge is to talk a key employee out of quitting. You can talk until you’re blue in the face about the wonderful future that awaits them just around the corner if they stay with your company. But it won’t mean a thing until you’ve convinced them you’re sincere and that you really do have the power to make it happen.

Don’t be offended by people’s natural unwillingness to believe you. Remember that we live in a world where a thousand advertising messages are screaming at us every day. We can’t possibly believe everything we hear. To take everything at face value in today’s world would be a shortcut to disaster. So, Power Persuaders learn instinctively to build credibility into their presentations. Never assume they believe you.

CREDIBILITY TIP 2: Only tell them as much as they’ll believe.

I was visiting my son John when he was a student at Menlo College in Atherton, Calif. He’d just completed a final, and another student asked him how he did on it. “I think I may have aced it,” John told him.

“All right!” the other boy said, and gave him a high five.

A few moments later, another boy came by and asked John how he did on the test. “It was tough,” John said, “But I hope to get a B.”

“What’s going on here,” I asked John. “You told the first boy that you got an A and the second that you got a B.”

“The first guy was the best student on campus, he’d believe I got an A. The second guy would never believe it. Haven’t you learned that you should never tell anyone more than you think they’ll believe?”

Now that’s smart! I don’t think a thousand psychologists with an unlimited research budget could come up with a greater truth than that. Even if you’re telling the truth, if the other person begins to doubt it, your chance of persuading them is falling like a rock.

Many years ago, I was the merchandise manager for a large department store. We were heavily promotional, which means that our business went up dramatically when we advertised a sale, and business died when we didn’t. So, we’d run a big Sunday-Monday-Tuesday sale, and then come back with a Thursday-Friday-Saturday sale.

The problem was how could we run the biggest sale of the year twice a week, year round. Soon, we’d lost all credibility with our customers. The salespeople would try to close a sale by saying, “Get it now while it’s on sale” only to have the customer respond, “Yes, but you’ll have another sale next week.” You’ll recall that Sears ran into the same problem, and eventually made the switch to year-round low pricing.

There’s a law of diminishing returns that’s directly tied to diminishing credibility. Of course, you have to be excited and enthusiastic in making your case, but the moment your claims pass the point of credibility, your chance of persuading them drops off abruptly.

The principle of never tell them more than you think they’ll believe may sound folksy and cute. But it’s supported by a great deal of sound research.

For example, for decades, psychologists have conducted studies to determine the effectiveness of fear as a persuasion tool. To their surprise, early studies indicated that people were just as persuaded by mild threats as they were by powerful threats. Curious, they continued to conduct studies that nearly always produced the same conclusion. Finally, they realized that fear is a powerful persuader only up to the point where people feel genuinely threatened by it. The moment they begin to doubt that the threat is as great as it is being made out to be, the power of fear as a persuader diminishes.

So, a fundamental rule for building credibility is never tell them more than you think they’ll believe. You may genuinely have a product or service that will far exceed their expectations. However, if you can’t make them believe it, you’re better off to temper your claims.

CREDIBILITY TIP 3: Tell the truth, even if it hurts.

Some brilliant advertising people have taken advantage of this. Remember the old Volkswagen sedan, the round top one that didn’t change design for 20 years or so? It was one of the ugliest cars ever made. Nor did it have any extra features about which an advertising person could brag. Only in later years did it even have a gas gauge. You could get so many miles per gallon of gas that you simply drove it until it ran out. Then you switched to a small reserve tank, which was more than enough to get you to the next gas station.

When the Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB) advertising agency won this account, they must have groaned. What could you say about the car? It only had two features. It was cheap to run and it was reliable – but everybody already knew that. What more could they say about it? Then they hit upon a brilliant flash of inspiration. They decided to tell the truth!

I can imagine every advertising person in America coming off their chairs and saying, “You’re going to what!!??”

They ran a whole series of ads that said, “This car is ugly, it looks like a bug – a beetle. This car is slow – you’ll be lucky if you ever get a ticket.” The results were phenomenal. People loved the campaign, and sales shot up.

The truth, simple pristine truth, is an astounding force. DDB went on to use the same principle with Avis Rent a Car. In a world where everyone was scrambling for some excuse to say they were the biggest and the best, the new Avis campaign proudly shouted, “We’re number two!” And followed it up with the sub-line, “So we try harder.”

It had an interesting effect on the employees of Avis and the number one company, Hertz. A survey showed that the Avis employees really were trying harder, but the Hertz people were taking it easy on Avis. Even they were sympathetic to Avis’s underdog positioning.

These two campaigns revolutionized American advertising. They were startling in their impact. Everybody was running around Madison Avenue saying, “Why don’t we try a DDB ad?” Meaning, “Why don’t we try telling the truth?” Nobody had ever pointed out the disadvantages of the product before. Nobody had ever paid millions to let the public know that the competition was more successful.

Telling the truth, even when it hurts, is an astounding force.

CREDIBILITY TIP 4: Point out the disadvantages.

Many years ago, Benson & Hedges came out with a campaign for their new, long cigarettes that bluntly stated, “Oh, the disadvantages!” Mary Wells at the ad agency showed scenes of people smoking in elevators, getting their cigarette caught in the door and other tongue-in-cheek situations where a long cigarette would be a disadvantage.

These advertising people had touched on a very important key to persuasion. If you point out the disadvantages, it makes everything else you say much more believable. Research has shown that there are four sound reasons for also presenting the other side of the argument:

  1. It makes the other side believe that you are objective.
  2. It flatters the listener that you believe them intelligent enough to be aware of the disadvantages and still be persuaded in favor of your proposal.
  3. It forces you to anticipate objections and rehearse counter arguments.
  4. It gives credibility to everything else you say.

Remember the retail chain that had structured its line of appliances so the salesperson could sell down off the most expensive one? They’d really structured the profit margins so they made more profit on the middle of the line than they did on the high end. Not only were they making more money that way, they were building a powerful plus. The salespeople gained so much credibility doing it that when they recommended the service contract – one of their most profitable items – they met with very little resistance.

CREDIBILITY TIP 5: Use Precise Numbers.

People believe precise numbers more than they believe rounded numbers. The Ivory Soap people figured this out decades ago when they started claiming “Ivory Soap is 99.44 percent pure.” Obviously, we wouldn’t challenge them if they told us that Ivory Soap was 100 percent pure, but the precise figure is subliminally more believable.

We assume that somebody had gone to a lot of work to figure out that the soap wasn’t 99.43 percent pure, or 99.45 percent pure. Why bother to say that Taster’s Choice decaffeinated coffee is 99.7 percent caffeine free? They could probably get away with simply saying caffeine free. The reason is that we believe specific numbers far more than we believe rounded numbers.

We can use the believability of the odd figure syndrome as a persuasion technique. Let’s say you’re buying a piece of property. They’re asking $220,000. If you offer $200,000, it doesn’t sound as firm a figure as if you say this: “We’ve done a thorough research on the property, and after running all the numbers, we feel that a fair price would be $198,700.”

Studies have shown that when you take that approach, the seller will respond with a counter offer that is, on average, $4,722 less than if you start at $200,000. No, I have no idea what the real number is, but it sure sounds more believable, doesn’t it?

I once bought 100 acres of land in the State of Washington. They were asking $185,000 for the land, and I asked the real estate agent to make an offer at $115,050. She said, “Roger, what’s this $50? Where did that come from?”

“Marge,” I told her. “I’ve just been buying land for so long now that I have a formula that I use. I punched in the numbers, and that’s what came out.” In fact, I knew that I was less likely to get a counter offer from a specific number like that. Marge did a terrific job of presenting the offer, and the seller accepted it.

So, to build credibility, use precise numbers. Strangely enough, you’re better off to claim that your new word processing machine will increase the productivity of their secretary by 87 percent than to claim it will double his or her productivity.

About the Author

Roger Dawson, CSP, CPAE is one of North America’s top negotiating experts and a leading sales and management speaker. He is the author of Secrets of Power Negotiating, which is one of the biggest selling audiocassette programs ever published. His latest book, Secrets of Power Persuasion for Salespeople, is now in bookstores.

Copyright© 2002, Roger Dawson. All rights reserved. For information, contact FrogPond at [email protected].