What Creates Credibility for a Specialist?
There's a bucket list of things you can do, along with some clunkers to avoid. And luck! Luck always plays a role.
This article is really meant to address the anxiety: "if I change my approach from generalist to specialist, will the change in context cause me to suffer a loss in credibility?" The idea of specializing raises the fear of being humiliated by a prospective client or by a problem we can't solve.
So, we worry about credibility and having sufficient expertise. I've already at least partially addressed the expertise part of this, so I'll use this article to describe what creates credibility for a specialist, but bear in mind that I'm still working to address the underlying expertise-related anxiety so you can move beyond the flimsy objections to specializing to real reasons you should/shouldn't.
If we look at enough experts, we see that 1) institutions, 2) certain artifacts, and 3) certain experiential things create credibility. I'm going to entirely skip discussing institutions — things like standards/certification bodies, the hierarchy of a licensed profession, and the pedigree of brands like MIT/MKinsey — because they are less relevant to us indie experts. We manufacture our own credibility through artifacts and experiences.
1: The artifacts of credibility
The book remains close to or at the pinnacle of credibility-generating artifacts. It can be self-published (but not too sloppy or hasty!), surprisingly short (as long as the brevity increases its usefuleness!), and self-distributed via Gumroad or similar. You can, of course, choose to work with a publisher, create something longer, or distribute via Amazon and other book outlets. These are all just choices and tradeoffs about how to get a book-shaped piece of your thinking into the market, and if done well, they don't have significant effects on the credibility that comes from this artifact.
Go deeper: https://writeusefulbooks.com
Useful publishing creates credibility. Done for long enough and with good curation, you build something like https://jamesclear.com/articles, which is a solid demonstration of what useful publishing on a web site looks like. Mark O'Brien of Newfangled.com describes our goal as regularly publishing "insightful, empathetic" content. I think he's right.
Useful research also creates credibility. 80% of what makes the research useful is the relevance of your research question; the other 20% comes from the effectiveness of your research method. What makes your research relevant is finding an area of uncertainty that your clients consider important. You don't have to be a research expert to use research as a tool to create value for your clients/market and credibility for yourself.
Go deeper: Listen to lecture 10 and following in https://indieexperts.io/the-expertise-incubator/tei-curriculum/
The fossil record of speaking gigs creates credibility. The content of an outstanding talk is part of where the credibility comes from, but the status signals of what stage that talk happened on and what other people were there — context — also matter. If constraints and tradeoffs are involved (when aren't they?) then focus on the content and use the readily-available tools of the outsider insurgent (self-publishing, amplifiers like social media, podcast tours, etc.) to become ubiquitously present with your market and then it's possible that invitations to a more prestigious context will follow (though an element of inviting yourself to the party is always at play in this journey). I specifically call out the "fossil record" of these speaking gigs because the video recording of the talk is likely to have far more reach and, ultimately, positive impact on your credibility than the talk itself. (h/t David Baker for articulating this truth first.)
Data also creates credibility. Much of our modern culture has a slavish devotion to the idea of data. While data really is powerful, its power often comes from surprisingly "un-scientific" places like the primal human need for a comforting bedtime story to keep the monsters under the bed at bay (data can, for many adults, be that comforting bedtime story; a fairy-tale). You can use the aforementioned research to generate data, but you can also use other people's research or data to strengthen your argument. The aforelinked James Clear, and my friend Liston Witherill are good examples of this usage of data to create credibility.
The final artifact of credibility is the spectacular success. This story comes to mind:
In 1986, Jobs recruited the famous graphic designer Paul Rand to create a brand identity for $100,000. Jobs recalled, "I asked him if he would come up with a few options, and he said, 'No, I will solve your problem for you and you will pay me. You don’t have to use the solution. If you want options go talk to other people.'" Rand created a 20-page brochure detailing the brand, including the precise angle used for the logo (28°) and a new company name spelling, NeXT.
Spectacular successes are like lightning strikes. They're not something you can design, manufacture, or work towards. But the credibility of a spectacular success can accelerate your career, so don't let one go to waste if you are fortune to get struck by this kind of lightning.
2: Intangible elements of the artifacts of credibility
Each of these artifacts of credibility is permeated with an intangible feel that effects the quality of the credibility that flows from the artifact.
That useful publishing you've been doing… does the website it lives on look polished and well-designed and… expensive the way James Clear's does? Or does the site have a more Craigslist/Drudge Report level of visual branding? We don't know which of these approaches is better until we consider the audience we're trying to reach, but with insight into that audience we can make good decisions about how to handle the presentation of a website, book, or other artifact in order to maximize its credibility-producing power.
Some artifacts of credibility will be dripping with intangible signals that say "I'm a pedigreed insider!". Others will remind you that they come from an outsider. Consider your book. The way you look in the author portrait, the blurbs that appear on the book cover, and the cover design itself are three signaling opportunities; three choices about whether to telegraph that you are an insider or an outsider. Consider this page of management staff headshots for Bain & Company. They're all pretty obviously photographed in front of a greenscreen, so they could digitally fly in any background they cared to. Why the out-of-focus, empty, light-filled office space? What signal(s) do they hope this sends?
Finally, presence with your market is a very intangible element of credibility. Reading a great book is wonderful. Reading a great book by an author who is present with the market or community that you are a part of is different. Is it a better experience? Again, that depends on your personality and your audience. It's worth considering whether ongoing presence, occasional presence, or a calculated aloofness best serve your quest for credibility balanced with your desire to serve your market.
3: Experiential elements of credibility
When you interact with an specialist, you have a qualitative experience of their expertise, and this experience contributes to how you assess their credibility. I'll describe these experiential elements in the assumed context of a 1-to-1 interaction, but you could also imagine them in a small group realtime interaction.
What I describe rather prosaically as market insight my colleague David C. Baker describes as a "holy crap, do you have a camera hidden in my office?!?!" moment. It's that beautiful moment when a client feels like you get them, along with their secret struggles and dreams. As the specialist who has had this happen dozens of times, you get used to it, but when a prospective client experiences their end of this perhaps for the first time, your credibility increases dramatically.
A similar moment happens when, out of a desire to help your client see things more clearly, you reframe, re-contextualize, or reverse the explanandum of their problem or question. I often remind folks that they don't actually fear specialization, but instead they have a 100 megapixel picture of what being a generalist is like and only a 3 megapixel image of what being a specialist is like, so they quite naturally focus on the high-resolution picture of what they would be leaving behind rather than the low-resolution picture of what they would be gaining. This is the kind of reframing experience that can cause clients to quickly assume you are smarter than they are. And within your area of focus, you are!
When a specialist weaves their point of view (POV) or a proprietary model/framework into the diagnosis process, this also creates an experience that increases credibility. Unless it's pure bullshit, a defensible POV/model/framework is the summation of a lot of experience — a lot of discrete data points made usable and comprehensible — and so we defer to the person who has this outcome of long, deep experience.
This broad catalog of experience the expert is working from leads to another experiential element: on-the-fly "benchmarking". Imagine a pediatrician who can easily — without looking it up or needing to "get back to you on that" — tell you where your child is relative to developmental milestones. This creates a path out of uncertainty and into clarity for the client along with increased credibility for the specialist.
Finally, a specialist is able to create the experience of their conversation partner enjoying being interrupted or derailed because this will be in service of quicker progress to the essential — the root of the blockage or problem.
These experiential elements of credibility are things you can work towards, but if you push this too far too fast it will feel forced. It's best to do your "woodshedding" through tons and tons of writing and then let these experiential elements emerge naturally with greater and greater frequency in conversation.
4: Credibility clunkers
I'm going to point out some things that others might say (or have said in the past) are good credibility indicators, but I have my doubts about their effectiveness in the current context of an Internet oversupplied with information and supersaturated with hucksters looking to deploy "authority hacks" for a quick buck. Yes, these jerks have spoilt what used to be good ways of earning trust. At the same time, I'll offer a caveat: I view things with a more jaundiced eye than your buyers might.
Think carefully about the following through your client's perspective:
- Logos from Forbes and similar publications. These might be necessary stepping stones on your way to appearing in high quality publications, but that doesn't mean you have to admit to slumming it with Forbes and company.
- Too many testimonials. Yes, Seth Godin said it's a good idea, but it feels like too much salt on a dish to me.
- Pay to play stuff like sponsored conference talks. If an employer sent you there at some point in the past that's fine, but the idea of paying for a speaking slot as an indie is cringworthy.
This article has been a pretty close look at what creates credibility for a specialist. As always, luck can have an outsized effect. You should not stake your business success on luck, but clients relax their credibility standards often enough for you to catch a break and jump-start or level up a bold specialization even without ticking all the “credibility checkboxes“ you think you should.
Marketing is earning visibility and trust. If you've worked on the visibility side of the equation enough, you might catch a break on the trust side before you've really earned it over there. This truth is both why the Internet is so full of hucksters who work on visibility without being deserving of trust, and why a bold specialization decision can sometimes turn into a dramatic career level-up before you've really "earned it".
As the saying goes: fortune favors the bold.
Think of this all as a credibility "bucket list" rather than some kind of pre-flight checklist. You won't build every item on the list, nor should you. Be realistic about the difference between stuff you can methodically peck away at (most of the list) and stuff that is like lightning striking (NeXT logos). Dedicate yourself to the slog while remaining open and ready to bottle any lightning bolts that come your way.
I hope that this article has helped you understand what creates credibility for a specialist. If you're looking for more context and detail on specialization and positioning, then read my free guide to specialization for indie consultants.