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Why Should I Listen to You? How to Signal Authority

Date: January 7, 2020 • Category: Publishing • By: Ben Guttmann

When we work with authors and other thought leaders, one of the first questions we ask is “why should anybody care what you have to say?” This may seem a little blunt, but it’s the internal monologue that is running through a reader when they see your book on the shelf or hear your voice in an interview. Why are you the authority on the topic which you are speaking or writing about?

People lead busy lives and can’t deeply research each and every source of information or opinions that are bombarding them throughout the day. We all rely on shortcuts to help us sift through the noise and figure out who’s worth our limited attention. We look at brief biographical blurbs, first-line Wikipedia entries, and Twitter bios to figure out who you are and why we should care.

In these short-form scenarios, we advise aspiring thought leaders to consider using the magic number of three when listing their bonafides: Jane Doe, Emmy-winning journalist, host of the Jane Doe Show, and PhD in subject X. Three is enough to show well-rounded experience, but also not too much as to become a full-blown resume.

There is no single way for you to become an “expert,” and some of it is a little bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy: the more you talk and write about something, the more you know about that something. But despite the lack of a clear path, there are some broad categories of signals that show you are worth listening to – and that fit in that Twitter bio.

Media

Are you a columnist, reporter, host, commentator, analyst, or some other form of talking head? If you’re the host of a podcast, featured panelist on a cable news show, or regular guest writer on a notable publication, you are able to directly show that somebody else agrees that what comes out of your brain is valuable. This is perhaps that most powerful signal.

On the flip side, have you been interviewed, featured, or profiled by a reputable outlet? While not as powerful a shorthand as creating the content itself, it’s still valuable to include these references in longer-form biographies.

Awards and Recognition

There are some unimpeachable awards that are the capstones of a career and become permanently attached to your name as a required prefix: Nobel, Oscar, Pulitzer, Emmy, and a handful of others. Including these in a biography goes without saying, but there are also dozens of impressive awards across industries and subjects that are also worth including as a signifier of noteworthy accomplishment and distinction. Beyond statuettes and medals, you may also be recognized on lists or rankings that are worthy of note: 30 under 30, top agencies in your city, etc.

Teaching and Learning

Nothing helps you learn a subject like teaching it. Fittingly, nearly nothing helps you be seen as a subject expert as teaching it. If you are an educator, whether it be full-time or part-time, you have a head start on building authority in your subject matter. You can do this at a formal institution like a college or university, or via more flexible means like a digital class on Skillshare or a seminar at General Assembly.

On the other end of the classroom, you’ll find the most traditional means of becoming an expert in something: studying it. Degrees, particularly advanced ones, are important in actually learning a topic as well as signaling to the world that you know said topic. Anybody can read a few books about something, but getting that masters or doctorate in the specialty puts you at a distinctly separate level.

Professional Accomplishments

Your resume is home to another set of valuable signals. Did you start a successful (or unsuccessful) company? Have you served in a leadership or specialist position in a relevant or noteworthy business? Are you on the board of any companies or non-profits? Your professional affiliations and achievements can help define your voice and bolster your credibility.

Personal Biography

Finally, we have the amorphous category of your personal biography: everything about you that doesn’t neatly fall into the buckets above. Did you grow up in a certain environment that makes your commentary unique? Are you a veteran, a social justice crusader, or related to somebody notable? Do you collect rare things or have read a thousand books? There is a lot that makes us who we are that doesn’t fit on a LinkedIn profile, and sometimes those are the qualifications that make us experts in the things we talk or write about.

Now, all these signals mentioned above are only so valuable if you actually do truly know what you are talking about. These can get you in the door to be considered by a reader or follower, but unless you have the brains to back it up then you’re not going to get you very far. Nothing is a replacement for true expertise, interesting insights, and effective communication.

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