Does being overly confident make someone less credible?


As a public relations professional, part of my job is to place clients in positions that will earn them both credibility and exposure. However a recent New York Times article cites a study that puts the validity of expert positioning to the test.

According to the study (soon to appear in the Journal of Consumer Research), there is a 15% increase in credibility when a novice expresses certainty and a 14% loss in credibility when an expert expresses certainty.  The author of the paper says “people do a cognitive double take when reviewers’ expertise is mismatched with their level of certainty. ”  I say: hold it right there.  Does this mean that experts should not speak with authority on their areas of expertise?  And that novices who speak with absolute authority gain our trust?

I’m going to dismiss the former outright, but the latter needs a second look.  Take political commentator Rush Limbaugh. According to the Washington Post, Limbaugh has a following that overshadows all other nationally syndicated personalities. Some reports estimate that he has as many as 30 million listeners.  He has never worked in politics, and yet earns at least as much exposure as President Obama on a daily basis.   Calling him a novice would be naive, but he’s also not a veteran of politics.   Despite this, he certainly delivers his message with conviction. Is that delivery what gives him credibility, or does his experience in talk radio and his access to information give him all the expertise he needs? It could be argued that his opinion should be no more valuable than any conservative observer.  But it’s not. It’s given greater credibility.

The same argument could be made for Oprah – well known as an expert in nothing, yet an expert in everything. CNBC says Oprah’s talk show is the highest rated of its kind in history. When Oprah endorses a product, book or service, the “Oprah Effect” takes hold and sends companies profits skyrocketing. She’s been named as one of the first visitors to the White House after Obama’s election.  Is this incredible status a result of her vast expertise in political strategy, publishing and product manufacturing?  Or because she delivers her messages with certainty?

Courtesy of, March 14, 2009 THE VOICES - the Barak Obama phenomenon and the Democratic Party triumphs in the November 2008 election create the impression that the right wing of U.S. politics is on life support, yet the most ardent voice of traditional American conservatism, Rush Limbaugh, is more strident and popular than ever. On the other hand, more Liberal commentators such as Oprah Winfrey enjoy undiminished power, public respect and wealth!

Which brings me back to the original point: is it true that experts should appear more tentative and novices seem more certain?  At EZG, our experience has served us very different results than the study suggests.  Multiple thought leadership papers, interviews with top media outlets, and targeted speaking engagements have solidified clients as experts in their industries. We encourage our experts to speak with authority and put their knowledge on the front lines, but have never recommended that a novice pass themselves off as an expert.  This approach has proven extremely effective in increasing exposure, credibility, and trust among our clients’ audiences.

On the flip side, we will continue to see novices who claim they know best and will gain the public spotlight…but someday, somehow, their credibility and brand will be called into question.  Losing that credibility check is the ultimate brand killer.  Rush Limbaugh’s status as voice of the Republican party has already been questioned by RNC leaders, and Oprah may face the same issues when Obama’s time is up.

So weighing the quoted study against first-hand experience, here’s my advice when it comes to gaining credibility— Strunk and White had it right with Rule #17: Omit needless words.  State the facts, without appearing too pompous; talk about what you know; and earn trust by staying true to your strengths.


2 Responses to “Does being overly confident make someone less credible?”

  1. Larry Says:

    Great post.

    At the end of the day, aren’t “leaders” like Limbaugh and Oprah just background noise? What meaningful influence do they really wield? I might take a longer look at a book Oprah loves, but I certainly won’t make a choice of presidential candidate based on what she has to say to a paying studio audience (although, coincidentally, I happened to vote for her guy this last time around). And while I typically lean to the right, Limbaugh has never uttered a word that resonates with my core beliefs – he’s on the far end of the fringe and as unimportant as Keith Olbermann.

    Perhaps this study confused “experts” with pundits, the two of whom are mostly unrelated. Today’s successful pundit must be the master of the sound bite. Within the realm of politics, the talking heads that occupy the roundup panels on our news shows are hardly showcasing their expertise. Because of the attention deficit of today’s news viewer, a political argument must be delivered as a zinger and there is little time to provoke deeper thought. Case in point: when the candidates to replace Ted Kennedy recently spend 90 minutes in debate, the NBC affiliate in Boston gave the debate about 45 seconds of coverage before its “expert” declared Martha Coakley the winner because “she didn’t blow it.” If that’s “expert” analysis, I’m the Emperor of Neptune.

    Continue to push clients to showcase their expertise. Continue to allow them to be sincere and to have meaningful opinions and they will continue to build their credibility among thoughtful stakeholders.

  2. Say it ain’t so, O « Says:

    […] Oprah’s team read Jamie Giller’s recent post, and realized she better get a new act together before the “Oprah effect” crumbles […]

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