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The Credibility Code

By Cara Hale Alter

(MeritusBooks, 151 pages, $19.95 U.S.)


Credibility counts. We reject other people because they lack presence, confidence, and a sense of competence. And we are similarly rejected when we fall short.

"In today's business world, being credible is not enough. You have to look credible. It must be observable in all of your face-to-face communications," consultant Cara Hale Alter advises in The Credibility Code.

People make up their mind in a split second whether you have credibility or not. Ms. Alter has compiled a series of specific behaviours that can help in such situations, particularly when you're not feeling at your best.

"Many people believe that credibility, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. In truth, very specific behaviours lead us to an assessment of credibility," she writes.

Three pillars combine to project credibility: a strong posture, a strong voice, and strong eye contact.

The book offers tips on how to take control in each area, so you aren't undermining yourself in meetings with colleagues or clients, or in high-profile interviews to gain jobs.

The posture code boils down to five essentials: Keep your spine tall and strong. Stand with your weight balanced equally on both feet. Keep your head level. Point your nose directly at the listener. And command the space around you. Strong posture will make you seem more dynamic, she says.

Too often, however, under stress we default to behaviours that feel good but project poorly. In particular, we act casual, and make ourselves look smaller. "Do you want to look more casual … or more comfortable?" Ms. Alter asks. "People who look comfortable stand tall with their weight evenly balanced between both feet. Their posture seems to say, 'I've got the situation under control.'"

It helps to practise. You can check your posture when you're in line at the grocery store, or riding an escalator. You can take a field trip around your office, chatting with colleagues and consciously checking to make sure that your head is level, you are balanced, and your nose is pointed directly at the other party.

While these behaviours will help in general conversations, Ms. Alter stresses that if you are giving a formal presentation, the bar is raised, and you must take command of the room.

"The most common mistake people make when at the front of the room is moving too often and never coming to stillness," she warns. To appear grounded and stable, whenever you move, stand still when you get to your intended destination, because watching someone in constant motion can be distracting and tiring for your audience.

Move no more than once every paragraph or so. Keep your head up and maintain eye contact while you move, rather than allowing your eyes to drop so you appear to be conversing with the floor.

To build credibility through vocal behaviour, speak with optimal volume, articulate clearly, keep the pacing relaxed, and highlight your message with expression.

For most people, the greatest opportunity for growth is in making ourselves more audible. In particular, watch that you don't speak too softly or drop volume at the end of phrases or sentences.

"In general, the more crisply you enunciate your words, the more intelligent and the more attentive to detail you'll sound," the author adds. "The more lazily you articulate your words, the less intelligent and less credible others will perceive you."

The most influential vocal skill, she suggests, is resonance. You want a memorable sound, like James Earl Jones or Oprah Winfrey. That comes with engaging your diaphragm, seeking more a stronger sound from below.

Credibility also requires making and holding eye contact. Ms. Alter notes that this is reciprocal, so if when speaking people aren't looking at you, perhaps you aren't looking at them. Maintaining eye contact also pushes back at our tendency to be self-focused, and automatically turns our focus to the other people we're talking to.

When giving a presentation, she encourages you to copy a sheepdog, constantly corralling the wandering sheep. "Never let any part of the room go too long without some attention from you," she suggests. "Maintain eye contact with everyone, regardless of rank or apparent enthusiasm. You'll seem more like a leader, more inclusive, and more in command."

The book covers many important areas, including how to control your gestures; the derailers that can subtly erode your credibility, such as Caroline Kennedy's "ums" and "you knows" that cut short her bid for a U.S. Senate seat when Hillary Clinton resigned; and how to find the balance between authority and approachability.

The focus is on practical tips and actions to improve, with many case examples that help to clarify where you can go wrong.


Some pioneering companies are successfully turning to employees and outside colleagues to help determine sales forecasts or even to make major decisions, in what is called market democracy.

In Oracles (Harvard Business Review Press, 261 pages, $26), Donald Thompson, an economist and professor at York University's Schulich School of Business, collects examples of some of these success stories and explores how they might be extended to other avenues, such as predicting U.S. Supreme Court decisions or crime rates in different neighbourhoods.

I wearied of such thought exercises – perhaps I'm not enough of a free-market economist – but there are enough examples of corporate successes for any executive to find use in this book, building on the notions of the wisdom of crowds and the value of open-book management.

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