The 4th letter in Made to Stick’s SUCCESs checklist stands for credibility- what makes people believe ideas? The Heath brothers point out the “powerful forces” that those who have to convince encounter with those they want to convince: family, faith, experience, and a lifetime’s worth of personal learning. Throughout the chapter, they outline three primary sources of credibility that people tap into to persuade a skeptical audience:

External credibility consists of authority figures (experts, celebrities, or other aspirational figures) and antiauthorities (like antismoking campaign star Pam Laffin) that vouch for messages. While authority figures use their status to do this, antiauthorities establish their validity through the honesty and trustworthiness that accompanies their personal experience.

Internal credibility is rooted in the idea that messages have to vouch for themselves. Vivid details boost credibility through their ability to incite visuals and tangibility, while meaningful details through concrete examples reinforce, symbolize, and support a core idea. Statistics are most effectively used when they illustrate a relationship (maybe by adding a sensory dimension), are contextualized through familiar schemas of the human experience (human-scale principle), and are used as input to a core idea rather than output. An example passes the Sinatra test when one example is enough to prove credibility: “if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.”

The final, and arguably most powerful, source of credibility is the audience itself! By allowing an audience to test a claim for themselves, they outsource their credibility and provide a testable credential that people can experience firsthand. On his search for credibility for his discovery of bacteria in ulcers, Barry Marshall cycled through many sources of external (endorsements and institutions) and internal credibility (data and detail), and they weren’t enough- he ultimately gulped a glass of bacteria to challenge his audience to “see for themselves”.

Whenever we make decisions on what or who to believe, we look for credibility in the ideas or the people behind them. Why did we choose to study at Duke? Looking back on it, the administration had to dip into many of these sources throughout the recruitment process to make the institution “credible”; it had to showcase the experts that are at the edge of innovation in their fields, highlight its successful celebrity alumni and current model students, provide vivid details about on-campus life/dorming/clubs/dining to help us visualize a day in the life of a Duke student, illustrate statistics that emphasize its “8:1 student-to-faculty ratio” and its status as the “5th largest research university”, and finally challenge us to see for ourselves by applying!

In our own search for credibility in the manuscripts, poster boards, and conferences that accompany our research projects, we also have to battle the skepticism of bias and error that the words “qualitative research” tend to carry for people. The researchers behind qualitative research are integral parts of the process and final product, so separation between a researcher’s values and opinions is not entirely possible. One way we can establish credibility in our projects would be to critically self-reflect and be transparent about our analytic focus and preconceptions in the processes that the data is collected, analyzed, and presented. We can use these external, internal, and outsourced references for credibility to support that our qualitatively derived data has a place in a system that determines impact through evidence-based decision making.

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