Authority and Authenticity


In this last month, a variety of intriguing and really quite wonderful challenges led me to consider “what's the best way to establish credibility with a fresh circle of people?”

Let me set the stage.


As a performer I have to convince an audience that they can trust me with their attention. As a doctor I have to convince patients that I know what I'm doing, and that I care about them. And when I'm doing a speaking engagement or acting as an external consultant, I have to convince people that I'm worth listening to.

When doing these things, I steer away from suggesting that I'm an “authority”, a word which hints of paternalism. I prefer to say that together we will attack a problem or engage in something creative where my expertise will (hopefully) come in handy.

A sophisticated audience appreciates this collaborative approach. But with a traditional audience or in a traditional setting, people will often expect you to be authoritarian as well as authoritative. After all, they’re sitting there and you’re talking wisdom at them.

If you’re a tall older man with a deep voice, and that cheerful-but-aggressive manner I've come to associate with sports coaches, then people do tend to take you more seriously. (It’s awful, isn't it?) If you don’t fit this stereotype, then it can take a little more effort. In the long-run, first impressions are sand in the wind though… the important thing is that people will trust you because you’re genuinely competent and committed.

Look and act the part

How you look and how you move does affect what people believe about you. One of the foundations of improv is “status work” – how we human creatures like to be dominant (or submissive) in our interactions with each other. How we like to fit into groups, or defy them. It’s all very interesting, and great when you’re playing a character! I've taught status many times, and what I've learnt is that audiences can read your underlying intentions like a book. So don’t try to fool them when they need you to be genuine. Domatch your appearance to how you want to be perceived. If you’re a creative thinker who’s there to shake things up a bit, feel free to look the part.

Position the audience correctly

"Positioning" refers to the audience’s expectations and their readiness. Hopefully you will be introduced accurately, and the audience will be inspired with excitement as to your very presence. Even better if the excellence of your reputation precedes you! But it might not (yet).

So have a self-introduction prepared which conveys both your expertise and your passion.

Learn what the audience’s values are, and what topic is important right now

Organisations often have a list of core values, they may even be chosen so that their initials spell out a word like SUPER. These values don’t get updated, so they could bear only a passing resemblance to the genuine, day-to-day core values of the organisation, which are more agile. If you can work out what the real values are, you won’t accidentally step on them, and find that an entire room of people has frozen in the act of eating canapés, and is looking at you in perplexed horror.

Use the right language

There will be key words or phrases that make people sit up and listen. Use the right language and you start to be seen as “one of us” rather than “one of those people who comes in and don’t really know what’s going on”.  For example in healthcare, people respect the ideas of “patient safety”, or “quality”. *

* which are usually (and weirdly** ) taken to be the same thing.

** I say “weirdly” because while they are both important and desirable, they are not at all the same thing, in the same way that “edible” and “delicious” are not the same thing.

Learn who the key people are

The key people are the ones who are listened to, respected, or have authority. Sometimes they are seen as leaders, other times they might be gatekeepers… permission granters. It will ease people’s minds if you are seen to have their approval. Just be careful not to be seen as “belonging” to any of them as it will diminish your mystery and your dashing air of uniqueness. (Also, it may pigeonhole you into a faction which you never intended to join, or curb your ability to make radical remarks.) Even if you don’t meet with them, you should know who they are, because they are fixtures in the mental landscape of the organisation.

The crucial message is: Don't strive to get people to trust you. Instead, be trustworthy. Don't try to get people to look up to you by using dominating body language or tone of voice or other tricks. Instead, be confident in yourself and respectful of them. The aim is never to fool people into thinking you're credible. The aim is to be credible, and show it effectively.