expert authority

How to Become a Trusted Authority

In the nascent stages of my first business, I attended a business conference here in Denver, led by a woman who would eventually become my de facto business coach (I say that because, while I’ve never participated in her high-end mastermind program, I go to all her conferences, and have used several of her infoproducts).

One of the keynote speakers was her accountability partner, a beautiful woman with a Southern drawl who spoke a bit like a revival preacher—probably because she is a business coach to spiritual leaders; in other words, she teaches pastors how to run their churches more like a business.  She was truly inspirational, but the key moment for me was when she talked about what kind of credentials you need to be successful.

Namely: none.

I was still plugging away at my food blog and had wondered if I should study and get some kind of degree or credential in nutrition or go to culinary school so that people would take me more seriously.  But as I sat there, practically in tears, feeling like she was talking directly to me, I realized I was enough.

The same was true when I started this business.  I don’t have a journalism degree or a creative writing degree or even an English degree.  (I have a BA in the very artsy-fartsy sounding field of Moving Image Arts, if you were wondering.)

Yet people hire me. People read my blog. People interview me. I have become (and I’m still working on becoming) a trusted authority in this space.

But how?

That piece of paper on your wall doesn’t mean much to anyone but you.

My coach mentioned that while she has two coaching certifications (not to mention multiple degrees), no one has ever asked her about them. She’s a high-level coach, charging thousands of dollars for her coaching programs and no one has ever asked to see her credentials. Why?

Because the nature of authority has changed.

It used to be, back when we lived in little mud huts and small villages, that we listened to our elders because they were, well, elder.

Then, maybe, the authorities in charge were the people who had money.

I don’t know about you, but how old or how rich somebody is has very little baring to me on whether or not I trust them!

Then, things got democratized a little bit, and we started conferring more authority in some circumstances on people who were more educated. (Let’s not get into the problems surrounding the cost of education… That’s somebody else’s blog!)

But nowadays, in the digital age, anyone can be an authority on anything: age, race, sex, education level, income level be damned.

In this new age of authority, you listen to me because you want to—not because somebody else told you to.

Think about your favorite bloggers, gurus, TV personalities—do you know the credentials of any of them? Do you know where they went to school or anything else? Probably not.  Because no one else, no governing body or review board, has told you to listen to them. You chose to listen to them yourself.

New authority still has rules.

So, the rules of what makes someone an authority have changed.  But there are still rules. I still have to prove a level of credibility before you’re going to trust me and my advice.  But it’s easier to achieve than you might think if you can infuse your writing with the following characteristics:

  • Vulnerability has become something of a buzzword since the wonderful Bréne Brown took the national stage, and for good reason. Opening up and showing your vulnerability makes you a real person.  You’re no longer just words on a screen, but a person at the other end of the internets. I can think of several examples where this has worked to my advantage in a very tangible way, but especially this post I wrote about some big mistakes I made.
  • Emotion follows closely on vulnerability’s heels. You can talk all day about the most vulnerable moment in your life, but if you write it like a DVD player manual, you’re not going to get much response. Check out this recent post from my friend Shae Baxter for an example that combines both emotion and vulnerability.
  • Empathy cuts both ways: you must demonstrate empathy for your readers, but you really want them to feel empathy for you, too.  The more your reader feels like you’re just like them, the more likely they are to trust you. This is where understanding who your readers are and what their problems are comes in super handy. Readers want to see themselves, their problems, and their worldview, in what you’re putting out.
  • Proof is perhaps the most important and the most difficult characteristic for a new authority to get, but not impossible for anyone. For someone to buy from you, they almost certainly want to see proof that your solution works. This could be a video demonstrating a product, or a glowing testimonial from happy customers. On a blog, it might be a case study. You can’t fake this stuff: people will sniff that out faster than a dog scooping up bacon on the kitchen floor. You can get proof even if you don’t have any paying customers yet: try offering free consultations (not too long or too many) in exchange for a testimonial. If you’re awesome at what you do (you are, right??), you’ll be able to get that proof you need to keep doing it.

All of these characteristics can eventually lead to a certain amount of celebrity—which can lend its own authority. My favorite example of new authority is Dr. Oz; he was a successful cardiologist for years, had all the advanced degrees and probably even a degree of wealth and age that would confer authority on him by the old standards.

But he didn’t become a world-reknowned household name until Oprah crowned him a health expert. Oprah’s not a doctor.  She’s not the American Medical Association. Yet she gave Dr. Oz more authority than he ever could have gotten from those old school sources by saying that she chose to listen to him. That’s new authority in its most powerful form.

You’ve got to have the goods (whether you have the degree or not).

In truth, I’ve got several “credentials” that make me qualified to be a ghost blogger.  I’ve got three journalism awards to my name, eight years of professional journalism experience, and a track record of writing blogs that do well in a lot of different arenas.

I have to have the talent, the expertise, the experience to back up my claims.

But do you see how none of that would make a bit of difference if you didn’t like me?  If you didn’t enjoy reading my blogs, you wouldn’t be here. If you didn’t think I had something to say, you wouldn’t have signed up for my newsletter or liked me on Facebook.

I could have 40 journalism awards, and it probably wouldn’t make a bit of difference.

So tell me: How do you cultivate authenticity and authority on your blog? I’d love to hear your suggestions in the comments below!

Photo Credit: TinTrunk via Compfight cc

14 thoughts on “How to Become a Trusted Authority

  1. Hi Lacy,

    Great article and I love your suggestions on authority. Especially the emphasis on emotion and empathy.

    My main approach is to talk about my personal results on my blog. I’m a big believer in testing something for myself before I teach it to others.

    Thanks for sharing these tips,

  2. Hey Lacy, love this this post as I am scaling my biz and although I have no official qualification in wedding planning, I’ve spent the last 4yrs working in the wedding industry and providing help and advice for my stationery customers. Thank you for saying it out loud that establishing yourself as an authority in your field does not necessitate degrees or certificates. Zee xoxo

  3. hey Lacy, nice one, very eye opening, and also i kinda like the font thing you got going on the comment box, pretty cool

  4. Great writing Lacy. Authority = authenticity + vulnerability. A lot of influencers in 2019 paint the perfect picture of entrepreneurship. Some people exaggerate their success and let on the impression they were born-to-do-this. Perhaps the road to financial freedom had been paved with gold for a minority.

    Real authority, in my opinion, entails story-telling – chronicling your journey, your struggles and your failures. the audience would readily perceive you as an authority because they can literally walk in your shoes.They relate to your story and they draw a lot of strength from your eventual success.

  5. Hello Lacy,

    I love your statement: “I don’t know about you, but how old or how rich somebody is has very little baring to me on whether or not I trust them!”

    I personally believe a person of authority should be someone with proven results, and not certificates or position.


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