Over the past few columns I’ve written about techniques to improve your communication, because I believe the merit of your communication makes a big difference to the effectiveness of your engineering. But it’s time to introduce you to one of the great injustices of life: no matter how skilled your communication may be, the perception of your professional and personal credibility is the most important factor in your communication effectiveness.
If this seems old hat, you’re right. The phenomenon has been known since ancient times, and communication researchers have studied it for decades. In the 1940s and 50s, Carl Hovland at Yale University found that ‘high credibility’ sources were three to four times more likely to sway opinion than ‘low credibility’ sources, even when the communication itself was identical. Perceptions matter a lot.
The literature identifies three key components of credibility: expertise, trustworthiness and goodwill. The strongest of these, however, is expertise, and this is where the injustice is heaviest on young engineers. No matter how brilliant your ideas may be, or how smooth your communication, you face a professional disadvantage simply because of your shorter time in the engineering game.
So what is a young engineer to do? Rapid ageing is not an option, clearly. In my opinion, the best way to avoid credibility prejudice is to give your expertise the exposure it deserves.
As a young engineer, you should take confidence in the fact that few engineering projects are ever the same. Each new project is likely to require innovation just as much as it requires experience. Young engineers can quickly become experts in specific areas of practice, becoming central to an organisation’s activities. The first step in building your credibility is to appreciate the expertise that you already have.
The second step is to actively gain recognition for your expertise from those you’d like to influence, whether they be company executives, peers or clients. Don’t be shy to ‘publish’ your work in your sphere of interest—whether as a document or presentation—but be tactful in your approach.
Think carefully about the knowledge you have to share (an engineering technique, or a piece of market intelligence) and, most importantly, make sure you match it to the interests of your audience. Then, boldly organise your own seminar or circulate your new document (or both!). If your audience members feel like they’ve gained knowledge that is useful for their own purposes, they’ll appreciate your communication and attach expertise in the material directly to you. Oh, and don’t ever forget to put your name on the front page.
Communication builds credibility, which enhances communication, which builds more credibility. It’s an unjust cycle as the credible become even more credible all too easily. For the sake of your engineering influence, your responsibility is to actively break into the credible class.
 Hovland, C. I. & Weiss, W. (1951). The influence of source credibility on communication effectiveness. Public Opinion Quarterly, 15, 635-650.
 Perloff, R. M. (2010). The Dynamics of Persuasion: Communication and Attitudes in the 21st Century (4th ed.). New York: Routledge.
 Wilson, E. J. & Sherrell, D. L. (1993). Source effects in communication and persuasion research: A meta-analysis of effect size. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 21, 101-112.