How to establish credibility in front of a crowd without being a complete blowhard

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We have all squeamed through this scenario:

  • You sign up for a conference and get really excited about learning critical things to grow your career or business. You invest time, money and energy to clear your agenda so you can be there.
  • The lights dim and the first speaker is introduced. They look friendly and pleasant, and start the talk off on a good foot. They mention that they grew up in Omaha and got an academic scholarship to Yale. Then they were President of their fraternity and maintained a 4.0 grade average while starting a highly successful business in their dorm room.
  • 5 minutes in, you are starting to want to stab yourself in the eye with a pencil if it would mean helping them get to the point of the presentation.
  • 10 minutes in, they are still sharing the fine points of their illustrious career, awards they have won, and famous people who beg and plead for their advice. “And then the Pope said to me, “Jim, I am really in a quandry here. …”
  • 15 minutes in, you are wanting to poke their eye out with a pencil, even if it meant serving a short jail sentence. Anything to stop their incessant bragging.

“If I were them,” you scream to yourself, “I would stop blowing smoke and get to the point of the presentation, which is about me and my needs.”


Well, almost right.

There is a fine line between being establishing necessary credibility with a new audience and being a complete egomaniac.

What your audience needs to know in order to trust what you say

Never assume that people in a new audience know anything about you. I just spoke at a wonderful local event here in Mesa, Arizona, and besides my friend Clate Mask from Infusionsoft and my former client and ace photographer Ivan Martinez, no one (in my home town!) knew who I was. I got to know my bright and talented fellow presenter in the session itself, so we didn’t have any context or background about each other to plan the session.

A new audience needs to know:

  1. Your formal education or training that prepares you to do your work. If you have a degree from Harvard, or a Phd in Engineering from MIT, tell them! Rather than bragging, this puts their mind at ease. If you are talking to a group that values community education, tell them! When Clate did the keynote today at Mesa Community College about how he grew his company from a Ramen noodle eating group of three broke guys with big dreams into a $30M company with 200 employees, what did he mention about his education? That he started it at Mesa Community College. This was extremely meaningful to newer entrepreneurs and students in the audience.
  2. Key parts of your own life story to prove you did what you teach. Are you teaching lawyers how to set up a virtual law practice? Tell them how you did it yourself, and what you learned from the experience. Are you proud of the fact that you grew a great company while raising your kids as a single parent? If that would establish credibility with your audience, tell that part of the story.
  3. Specific examples of how you have helped others just like them get great results. Track:
    Numbers of clients (“I have worked with over 350 small and medium-sized businesses …” “Every one of the 250 high school seniors we had in our program went on to a college or university.”) Concrete numbers mean something.
    Business results of the clients you worked with – even if you haven’t worked with many! (“Three of my clients went from zero to $30,000 in revenue in their side hustle in the year after working with me”) I like to tell my friend Ramit Sethi that he is a possessed madman when it comes to tracking concrete results from his clients, but that is only to keep his ego in check. He is MASTERFUL at it, and constantly reminds us of the concrete results readers of his blog and participants in his programs have gotten from following his advice.
  4. Street credibility. As much as us social media pundits like to exclaim “old media is dead,” there is still huge street credibility in mainstream press mentions. Mention:
    -Mainstream press (“Featured in the New York Times,” “Names one of the Top 25 Entrepreneurs to follow by the Wall Street Journal)
    -Awards and honors (“Best Business Book of 2011” “Top 100 Women on Twitter” “Voted Most Likely to Succeed in high school.”)
    -Influential people’s view of you (called “one of the best presentation designers I have ever seen” by Nancy Duarte.)

Do you need to say ALL this stuff in your introduction?

Of course not. That would make you a blowhard. But you do need to review all of the concrete things you could share about yourself and choose the specific information that:

  1. Is most relevant to that audience. (If you are speaking at Harvard, mention your degree. If you are speaking at a start up conference, mention your personal bootstrapping story)
  2. Will shut down the nagging doubt in the audience’s mind (“Is she too young to talk about this topic?” “Does this blowhard consultant have any real-world experience building a software product?” “Is this one of these people who just teaches people to make money on the Internet so that they can make money off of those people on the Internet?” (This reminds me of a true story of a local friend who I had known for a few years, and who finally said to me “You know what my problem is with you? You are like one of those people who create an infomercial to teach people how to create infomercials.” To which I responded, a bit stunned, “Do you have any idea what I do, and have you ever read my book?” Which it turns out that he didn’t, and he hadn’t. I thanked him immensely for the feedback, because if he was brave enough to say it to my face, it meant that there were a whole bunch more people who thought it and just said it behind my back.)
  3. Will it set the stage for people to comfortably trust that the advice you will give them in your presentation is sound and tested? (Your audience would think “OK, phew, she has successfully started a company, raised venture capital, sold the company, and started and sold four others. I can trust what she tells me.”)

As my best friend Desiree reminded me today, in the good Anglo Methodist upbringing of my grandparents, we were taught to be humble, to be in service of others and to always put others’ needs above our own. This is a fantastic heritage, and I am so thankful for the teaching, since I think it helps me be a good, respectful and decent human being.

However, in business situations, sometimes in order to gain the trust of the audience so you can be of service, you must first establish credibility.

Even my kind, generous and humble Grandpa Frank would support that. 🙂

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24 Responses to “How to establish credibility in front of a crowd without being a complete blowhard”

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  3. Jessie White says:

    Fabulous post Pam. Your Grandpa Frank sounds like a great guy to heed the advice of.

    I always find articulating the difference between a great speaker and an average speaker such a difficult thing to put your finger on but you’re so right about the need to tread the line between humility and impressing the audience. One particularly over-vain lecturer at university used to mention in literally every lecture that he was friends with Arthur Miller. I mean that’s very cool and all but after the fiftieth time hearing the story of when he went out for dinner with Mr Miller and Marilyn Monroe was there you began to want to throw your copy of Death of a Salesman at him!

    P.S the photo at the top is hilarious!

  4. Vicki Childs says:

    Oh PAM!!
    Once again you have blown my best efforts out of the water!!!
    I’ve just finished writing my ‘About Me’ page and I have to say that I was quite smug about it. But having just read this post I’ve realized that it does NONE what it actually needs to do!! It tells the tale of ‘adventure and discovery’ which is all very nice but it’s not going to encourage anyone to part with their money as it doesn’t do anything to increase my credibility as a coach!
    Blast you. You’re always doing this to me. Just as I think I’m approaching something like brilliant you make me step it up to a completely new notch!!
    And that’s just through a blog post … I dread to think how you could drive me forward through an actual coaching session! 😉
    Thanks as always – you’re an inspiration 😉

  5. Hi, Pam. I really struggle with point #1. As an MBA, I’m very turned off by other MBAs who throw that title around like it’s part of their last name.

    I get the credibility that an Ivy League MBA provides, but I also know enough clueless MBAs to wonder how much it really helps. Thanks for reminding me of the need to strike a balance between quiet credibility and blowhard status.


  6. Pamela,

    Another arena where this advice is applicable (and the ‘pencil in the eye’ that preceeds it) is in the social media channels. There is a big difference between a credible participant and a spammer, and a lot of your tips here would help folks be the former rather than the latter. Thanks!

  7. This is amazing advice! Thank you. In two weeks, I’m speaking to a group of professional speakers and coaches just like yourself. Because I have a successful blogging career, they’ve asked me to come speak to them about how I started, and what I can teach them about using social media to increase their business. I’m very honored to show them what I know, and I certainly want to make a good impression. It was my professor (a professional speaker, author, and corporate coach) who invited me to speak, so I want to make him look good too. I have another question for you: are there any good Twitter hashtags related to professional speaking/coaching? I’m going to show my audience how to use Twitter, and I want the content to be relevant to them. I’m also going to ping you on Twitter to ask you as well, just in case I forget to check back here. Thanks!

  8. Lawrence Fox says:


    I too started squirming while reading your intro–I once sat through an entire presentation that was all about the presenter, with nearly no informational content. It was terrible (and even worse, I was a VP of the organization that was sponsoring the event!)

    I’ve often wondered since–what’s the best way to get a speaker like that back “on topic”, if it’s at all possible?


    • Pamela Slim says:

      Egads Lawrence, that must have been excruciating!

      The very best way to get a speaker on track is to ask a great question. “So Bob, if we were to apply this scenario to Larry here in the audience, what advice would you give him for growing his business?”

  9. Barbara says:

    Great post. I am usually thinking of using an ice pick, not a pencil.

    I write course manuals for speakers and some of these guys speak “in real life” in the same blowhard style they use onstage. (Not my clients, of course…) Whenever someone goes overboard on the creds I get a sneaky suspicion that they are lying or insecure. Neither one is the impression a speaker should leave with an audience.

  10. YES!!! I start every presentation/webinar the Cliff Atkinson “Beyond Bullet Points” way. What is in it for the audience? It’s all about them and how you are going to solve their problem(s). You have to earn their attention.

    In my talks/workshops I leave a very brief intro about me until about 3-10 minutes into the presentation and I keep it exceptionally brief. Having sent a welcome letter a week previously, they all can search me out on google to their hearts content (and they do).

    Pam, so true, according to Nancy Duarte in Resonate, the audience are the heros!

    • Pamela Slim says:

      I love Cliff! Indeed, the audience are truly the heros.

      That said, it is SO critical to give the right intro for yourself at the beginning (or even better give it to someone else to introduce you) so that they know you are a trusted guide.

  11. fas says:

    The best way to connect is through the about page and social profiles.

    • Pamela Slim says:

      True Fas, that is a great way to let people know more about you after a talk concludes. I still like having a couple seconds of introduction that establishes credibility in the live presentation.

      By the way, I SO appreciate that you comment on virtually all of my posts!

  12. This does help balance all the advice to immediately dive into the benefits you are offering your clients/audience. If you don’t take a minute or two to establish some credibility, why would they follow your great advice/system/strategies, etc.? Thanks, Pam. I love your posts.

  13. I love this advice, especially the parts about using real-life examples — my own and my clients’ — to demonstrate credibility. I can imagine weaving these stories throughout a presentation instead of simply listing them all up front.

  14. Pam, 5 minutes into reading your post, I was howling with laughter, and crying with understanding, about the desperate pencil-poking urge. Then I calmed myself down enough to read the rest of your post, and I would like to say 1) Thanks for the hysterical amusement and 2) Thanks for an excellent, valuable, content-rich post. I have heard you speak in front of a crowd and you rock it. Thanks for stepping into the spotlight, practicing what you preach, and sharing your insightful advice with readers, pencil stabbers and presenters everywhere.

  15. That Desiree sure sounds like she is super smart. 🙂