By Linton Chalmers
Can you establish credibility and influence in a room of people when you are the youngest one there?
As a Phuel facilitator, I work with different groups across corporate Australia. I am onmy feet facilitating usually three to five days per week, all year round. Working with banks, consulting firms, telcos, you name it. The opportunity to influence hundreds of groups and thousands of participants; from graduates to C-suite. A dream job!
Only thing is, I’m 27 years old, which is a whole lot younger than the average participant in my sessions. Working with leadership teams of ASX listed companies, partners of top-tier firms, and individuals with decades of experience, I’ve had to figure out how to build credibility when my face screams Gen Y.
It used to play on my mind, and I would be overly conscious of clients’ responses when meeting me for the first time. In my head they would be thinking, ‘Good Lord, where are your parents?’, or ‘why do we get the apprentice?’ which would understandably affect my confidence. My initial reactions were to become more serious, dress more formaly, and attempt to subtly lower my voice (how manly!). However, my age awareness became a distraction, and was limiting my effectiveness.
I realised that to build credibility, I had to make a conscious effort to reshape my focus, rather than allowing something out of my control, in this case, my age, to become an issue.
Here is what I have done to increase my influence and credibility, despite my age:
My natural style (and fortunately one that my colleagues at Phuel share!) is to be informal, use humour, and where relevant be borderline cheeky – when I am relaxed, that style can be very effective for me. However, anticipating people’s negative response to my age can take away the ease with which I naturally facilitate, replacing it with a contrived ‘appropriate’ version of myself. In turn, I end up delivering a substandard performance, and ultimately find myself in the very position I was afraid of – not coming across well, and losing credibility. A classic self-fulfilling prophecy. The more I relax and let my true personality come through, the better I am received, appropriate or not!
I was recently running a session with some very senior people at a very well-respected organisation. I was nervous, knowing they were a highly technical group, there were some big ego’s in the room, and it was the final afternoon of a long conference. I found myself coming up with reasons they weren’t going to engage in my session. Realising what I was doing, I reminded myself this group was fundamentally no different than any other, and simply relaxed. I was then comfortable, the participants were comfortable, and they turned out (as they always do!) to be highly engaged and interactive. I was repeatedly thanked afterward, and it has since led to further business opportunities for us. I see a definite link between authenticity and charisma, but not necessarily age and competence.
Don’t overthink it!
Age is only an issue if we let it be. If someone walks, talks and acts with confidence, what do we assume? That they have something to be confident about. Conversely, if someone acts timid, uncomfortable and insecure, we are given a reason to agree. I’m convinced how people view us is a direct reflection of how we view ourselves.
First impressions are formed within seconds, and our physical appearance is one minor factor people take into consideration as they form an opinion of us. Like anything else, age isn’t as big a deal as it can seem!
My personal approach has been to remind myself of the value I bring, and why I’m in the room, rather than focusing on the reason people may not take me seriously. I’m there for a reason, and focusing on that ‘why’ quickly eliminates any distractions. 23 year old Michael Hooper, Vice-Captain of the Australian Wallabies isn’t questioned about his age, because he doesn’t act or play the game like he was born in 1991. He is an impressive leader, a proven athlete, and recognised for his maturity on and off the field – it doesn’t seem like he’s questioning his value. When my internal narrative validated my place, I found others responded in the same way.
Use your opinions sparingly
In the information age, we have access to anything we want to know, but it’s a common mistake to think that overrides experience. Having opinions is good, but knowing when to give them is the art. In my experience, it’s not often! The squeaky wheel gets the oil, and the loudest voice often gets the most attention, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right kind of attention.
There is a fine line between getting noticed, and being perceived as arrogant. It’s phrasing things in the right way, and asking the right questions. The right questions give evidence of your insights, show you ‘get it’, and create natural opportunity to be invited to contribute further. Conscious of not coming across as a know-it-all facilitator, I regularly use phrases like: ‘There’s one of me, and X number of you. You’ll learn as much from each other as you will from me’, ‘I don’t claim to have all the answers here’ and ‘would you like me to share what I observed from that exercise?’
Building credibility through what you say
The strong brand of Phuel gives me a level of credibility automatically, but it’s the words I say that enhance it. As an organisation, we are very conscious of ensuring anything we say is backed up either by research or proven experience. I learn content inside out, so I can speak with confidence on each topic, even when questioned on it. I also reference real life stories of where I have seen the content come to life, which shows I have been around a while, and I didn’t just read it in a manual. This approach gives people confidence in the content, entertainment and engagement from the stories, and furthers the credibility of the facilitator. Win-win!
See age as a strength
Ultimately, I have come to see my age as a strength. I’m not always going to be young, but while I am, why would I spend all of my time trying to act older than I am.
Credibility isn’t built through age, it’s built through the value you bring. If people are asking themselves, ‘why should I listen to you?’ age won’t hold up for long if that’s all they have. For those who observe youthfulness with cynicism, age might be a slight hiccup, but only until they are given a convincing reason to form a genuine opinion on you. That comes from backing yourself and your unique value, asking the right questions and finding opportunities to share what you know.