Just because you’re smart, thoughtful, and competent doesn’t necessarily mean people perceive you that way.
If you want coworkers and friends to take you seriously, you’ve got to think seriously about the image you’re projecting — from your outfit to your speech to your body language.
To that end, we put together a list of 15 science- and expert-backed strategies to help you establish credibility, fast.
Get to work early
The early bird gets the … credibility?
Research from the Michael G. Foster School of Business at the University of Washington suggests that employees who get into the office early are generally perceived by their managers as more conscientious and receive higher performance ratings than employees who arrive later.
And it doesn’t matter if those who get in later stay later, too.
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If you feel that you’d be more productive working from, say, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. instead of 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., consider explaining the situation to your manager and confronting their potential “morning bias” head-on.
Say ‘no’ sometimes
Successful people have mastered the art of declining requests. In fact, when psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote to a series of creative professors to interview them for a book he was writing, one-third responded “no,” typically citing a lack of time.
You can even say “no” to your boss on occasion — as long as you frame it the right way.
For example, if your boss assigns you a project but you’re already overloaded with other projects, national workplace expert Lynn Taylor recommends saying something like: “I would be happy to do that project, but what that could mean is that [whatever other project you’re working on] will have to be put off until tomorrow, because I was actually going to spend the next three hours finishing that proposal. Would you like me to put that off?”
The idea here is not to blindly agree to every request that comes your way — even if it seems impossible to decline.
Resist the temptation to flaunt your fancy vocabulary.
A 2012 Princeton study — with the fitting title “Consequences of erudite vernacular utilized irrespective of necessity: problems with using long words needlessly” — found that clumsily using big words often causes people to think you’re less intelligent.
In one of a series of experiments, researchers selected a sociology dissertation abstract with lots of long words and created a “simplified” version by replacing every word of nine or more letters with its second shortest entry in the Microsoft Word 2000 thesaurus. Then they asked 35 Stanford undergrads to read the dissertation and rate both the author’s intelligence and how difficult the writing was to understand.
Results showed that the simplified version was perceived as less complex — and its author was judged as more intelligent.
In one small study, researchers at the University of Vienna had 76 participants look at 78 images of faces — some without glasses, some with full-rim glasses, and some with rimless glasses — and rate them on a number of traits, including intelligence and attractiveness.
According to the researchers’ findings, people wearing glasses — rimless or with rims — were rated as more intelligent than people without glasses. Yet those without glasses were seen as more attractive than those with full-rim spectacles.
Show that you’re both warm and competent
Princeton University psychologists and their colleagues proposed the stereotype content model, which is a theory that people judge others based on their warmth and competence.
According to the model, if you can portray yourself as warm — i.e., noncompetitive and friendly — people will feel like they can trust you. If you seem competent — for example, if you have high economic or educational status — they’re more inclined to respect you.
Harvard psychologist Amy Cuddy says it’s important to demonstrate warmth first and then competence, especially in business settings.
“From an evolutionary perspective,” Cuddy writes in her book “Presence,” “it is more crucial to our survival to know whether a person deserves our trust.”
Fidgeting, and repetitive behaviors like rubbing your hands, can be a way of self-soothing.
Former FBI agent Joe Navarro recommends simply slowing these behaviors down: You’ll get the same pacifying benefit, but your anxiety won’t be so visible.
Speed up your speech
You don’t need to speak so fast that people have no idea what you’re saying. But avoid drawing out every sentence, word, and syllable.
In one 1975 study published in the journal Language and Speech, Brigham Young University researchers had 28 university students listen to recordings of six people whose voices had been manipulated to sound slower or faster than normal.
The student volunteers rated the speakers most competent when their voices had been sped up and least competent when their voices had been slowed down.
More recent research suggests that speaking quickly is also a sneaky way to win an argument — at least in the US. One 1991 study published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests that’s because people will have less time to think critically about your position.
Let people talk about themselves
Research backs him up.
Harvard researchers discovered that talking about yourself may be inherently rewarding, the same way that food, money, and sex are. According to the study, people even derive pleasure from talking about themselves when no one is listening.
Dress the part
Princeton researchers have found that it takes about 100 milliseconds to register a first impression, or as long as a hummingbird flaps its wings.
“The really good news here is that it’s about polish, grooming, and being put together,” Hewlett said. “It’s not about the precise shape of your body, texture of your hair, or the designer you wear.”
Some research suggests that dressing more formally can make you both feel and appear more powerful. In one 2014 study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, men dressed in either a suit or sweats engaged in mock negotiations with a partner. Results showed that the men were more successful in the negotiations when they were wearing a suit.
You don’t have to wear a gray suit all the time, she said. Instead, pay attention to how the best-dressed people in your organization and industry put themselves together, then pattern after them. Or, take a look at this outline of how to dress in any work environment.
Master the handshake
A strong handshake isn’t a matter of squeezing somebody’s paw.
It’s a matter of presence.
Esquire’s Tom Chiarella details how to exude it:
“On the street, in the lobby, square your shoulders to people you meet. Make a handshake matter — eye contact, good grip, elbow erring toward a right angle. Do not pump the hand, unless the other person is insistent on just that. Then pump the hell out of their hand. Smile. If you can’t smile, you can’t be gracious. You aren’t some dopey English butler. You are you.”
Know what’s going on in the world
The best-selling game developer Valve likes to hire “T-shaped” employees, meaning they have deep expertise in one area coupled with interest across a range of subjects.
That pattern can be expanded to anybody’s career.
If you work in business, then “be up to speed on changes in your industry so you can speak about them intelligently,” says Roberta Matuson. The “Suddenly in Charge” author recommends reading business news daily “so you can speak intelligently on business matters.”
But you need a broad base of knowledge, too — so keep up with science, tech, and popular culture.
Consider starting with this list of recently published and forthcoming business books.
Be ridiculously prepared
Don’t wing it — at least not at work.
Executives like Marissa Mayer and Elon Musk are known for pulling apart any idea that gets pitched their way. Count on the pitches you make to be scrutinized, and have your arguments prepared ahead of time.
It’s a matter of “embodying your intellectual horsepower,” Hewlett said.
Tell people stories
Numbers impress — but they’re not enough to connect with people.
Take it from TED Talks: The most successful presentations are about 65% stories and 25% figures, with the remainder an explanation of your credibility.
Sheryl Sandberg realized this just before giving her groundbreaking TED Talk in 2010.
“I was planning to give a speech chock full of facts and figures, and nothing personal,” she said in an interview.
But before she went on stage, a friend stopped her, saying that she looked out of sorts. Sandberg said that as she was leaving home that day, her daughter was tugging at her leg, asking her not to go.
Why not tell that story, her friend asked her. Sandberg listened — and launched a movement.
Watch your tone
If you say a statement with the intonation of a question, that’s called “upspeak.”
If you’re ending your sentences with a higher tone than you began with, then you’ll sound unsure of what you’re saying — even if you’re really not.
And while women tend to be criticized more for using upspeak (and for that creaky sound called “vocal fry”), experts say men use it just as often.
Opinions differ as to whether upspeak and vocal fry are problematic, but speech pathologist Susan Sankin thinks these speech phenomena can damage your professional image, regardless of your gender.
Stay confident — and humble
Venture capitalist and “Heart, Smarts, Guts, and Luck: What It Takes to Be an Entrepreneur and Build a Great Business” coauthor Anthony K. Tjan writes in the Harvard Business Review that garnering respect requires marrying humility to confidence.
“You need enough self-confidence to command the respect of others, but that needs to be counter-balanced with knowing that there is much you simply don’t know,” he writes. “Humility is the path towards earning respect, while self-confidence is the path towards commanding it.”
Bonus: The more you know what you don’t know, the more eager you’ll be to learn.
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