The Nice Guy’s Guide to Authority

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I’m a big fan of being a nice guy. (I’m using “guy” in a gender-neutral way here. Feel free to read it as “gy” if that floats your boat.)

The kind of marketing I practice doesn’t work too well for jerks. It relies on spending sustained quality time with your customers—and who wants to spend all that time with a jerk?

But sometimes nice guys don’t project a sense of authority. Everyone wants to spend time with us, but they don’t necessarily want to do what we tell them to.

And make no mistake, my friends, we want them to do what we tell them to.

Here are a few observations I’ve made recently by carefully watching and modeling supremely nice people who also have massive authority and credibility. As I’m using these techniques more consciously myself, I’m seeing a significant shift in how I’m perceived.

Combine these with a basic commitment to decency and you’ll be on track to rule the world (nicely) by some time this summer.

Be incredibly good
True authority springs from true expertise. Become insanely good at what you do. If you’re already very good at one or two things, become obsessive about perfecting them.

Unless you’re Leonardo DaVinci, you’re not going to be able to pull off being a generalist. Figure out what you do spectacularly well, then become otaku about getting to be the best in the world at it.

Does “best in the world” sound scary? Remember that “the world” probably means the micro-world you and your customers happen to swim in (the Internet; mid-sized ad agencies in your zip code; barbecue joints in Duluth).

Once you know the size of your world, keep narrowing your focus. Divide and refine what you do until you hit the point where no one can outclass you.

Know where you are going
You may know more than anyone about millefiori Fimo or seahorse wrangling, but if you can’t articulate that knowledge in a helpful way, you aren’t an authority.

Create maps and checklists for what you do. When someone approaches you for help, use those maps to show them you know exactly what to do, in exactly what order, and using exactly which tools.

Of course the first step is always “figure out what the hell this person needs.” You know that and I know that. That step is on your map too, but don’t dwell on it in the early days.

Show your customer what the overall map looks like, and that you can travel the territory with confidence and ease. They’re already spending most of their time trying to figure out what the hell they need, they don’t need you to increase their anxiety there.

(In fact, you almost certainly need a mini-map to “figuring out what they need.” Get good at that and you’ll be better than 90% of the folks you’re competing with.)

You could get a little pompous and call this your methodology. If you do, the nice-guy rules require you to immediately snicker at yourself and point out your own pomposity.

Know your core
Nice guys are flexible. They listen. They take the other person’s position into consideration.

Authority figures have a core set of values that simply doesn’t move. It’s not stubbornness, it’s deep, confident knowledge. Think of the calm, centered energy of a mountain.

Remember, keep it relaxed, never cutting or defensive. You’re going for the Dalai Lama, not Donald Rumsfeld.

Know what you’re willing to bend on. And know what you will never bend on, because it’s integral to who you are and what you have to offer.

Get your ego out of the way
You’re here to facilitate solving someone’s problem, not to look smart or cool or in control. Watch yourself carefully for signs that it’s becoming about you and your ego, rather than about making things great for your customer.

Ego is such a gigantic force that there’s an entire religion devoted to trying to dissolve it. Keep watching carefully, and keep asking yourself, “Is this about me?”

Keeping a watchful eye on your ego is the best defense to keeping it under control.

Be disarming
If you’re three feet tall with a hair lip and long, flowing back hair, mention those facts frequently. Make fun of yourself as often as possible over something that isn’t all that important. Your appearance is usually a good place to start. On the other hand, if you’re stupidly good-looking, you might want to develop some really funny material about your vanity.

Confess to small flaws that people can relate to. For example, I’m a hypersensitive, cranky, politically correct, compulsive control freak with nearly disabling insomnia and a significant chocolate problem.

Weirdly enough, the more open I am about all of those, the more people trust that I’m also a smart, strategic, perceptive marketer and copywriter who uses content, relationship and community to create wildly successful marketing.

Tell us in the comments: what are you working on that you could become the best in the world? Is that how the world sees you, or are you still working on it?

Comments

  1. Well, it’s no surprise to you that I am working on becoming the world’s #1 blog consultant.

    There many lovely touches in your article, from the picture to things like “Ego is such a gigantic force that there’s an entire religion devoted to trying to dissolve it.” Love that.

    I would like to point out that having a methodology and being confident do not go against being a nice guy. That’s not pompous. Calling your service the “Blog Master Package?” Now that’s pompous!

  2. Sonia Simone says:

    But in such a lovable way.

    That package name does crack me up. I’m always tempted to rename it to be even more so. “Blog Dominator Package.” “Blog Crush the Competition Package.” “Blog Imperial Overlord Package.” etc.

    I’d go on, but it descends into crudeness fairly quickly, and I only swear in Naomi’s comments.

  3. I think you’ve found your own calling–being a NICE authority. It’s interesting that you didn’t point to many examples of nice authorities because honestly I think most people are not nice authorities to most people. Instead, they’re nice to those who they’re close with and have admiration for…but not everyone else. Perhaps that’s part of time management, but it’s also frustrating. As someone who knows plenty of authorities and is perceived very differently by different one, I’ve seen how different one can be treated.

    But you, Sonia, you’ve always been sweet. It’s in your personality to give back. So yeah, you rock.

    Me? I’d like to be the one who makes technology work for people rather than against them. I’d call it productivity, but it’s more about changing relationships with technology than just the quantitity of people’s outputs. I’ve got a ways to go in my little niche.

    Anyhow, keep up the good writing and stay nice even when you’re out of all of our reach.

  4. I too love the ego comment ’cause that’s what always get’s me in the biggest trouble! Ya hit home on that one.

  5. Christine says:

    I believe in being disarming and letting people know up front what I’m all about. I use my background as a great ice-breaker. This is such a well written and fun article to read. THANKS!

  6. Evan says:

    I think a nice blog authority, apart from Sonia, is Chris Garrett.

    As for me and my ‘niche’ (what an imprecise and over used term that one is), well I’m a generalist. My interest is health (and that health is multi-dimensional: thoughts, feelings and our situation all affect each other). It sort of crosses into the ‘self improvement’ (there’s another term I’d like to see go) niche too.

    As to being nice, usually. My impatience with people who should know better is when it goes out the window.

    Thanks for a great article.

  7. Sonia Simone says:

    Thanks all! Esp. to Jared for not only leaving a nice comment, but the very smart suggestion (offline) to make my comment box wider. I’m about to take the WordPress plunge, so that’s going on the list.

    I’ve been lucky enough to work with a few nice authorities, but it’s just recently occurred to me to really make a study of them.

    Evan, I agree, ChrisG is a great example. A lovely, soft-spoken and kind person, and knows his stuff backwards & forwards. I have never met Darren Rowse, but that’s how he strikes me as well.

    They’re out there. Maybe I should start a movement!

  8. Daniel Smith says:

    Sonia,
    Great article! I, too loved the ego comment. Spot on.

    Your post reminded me of Seth Godin’s fairly recent article “We Specialize in Everything.”

    Really has had me thinking about my own
    blog.

    Since I am just starting out, I am trying to be as focused as I can be without limiting myself too much in what I can write about, because first and foremost I am writing to recapture the joy of writing itself… and yet I worry that I am not niche enough to be successful long run. I appreciate any feedback you or your readers can provide on this dilemma.

    Keep up the great writing,

    Daniel Smith
    Smithereens Blog

  9. Kelly says:

    Sonia,

    I’d love to hear about your impending plunge into WP: why, how, and how difficult, etc. I’m doing it this summer and I’m afraid it’s become public knowledge that I’m chicken. I’m still doing it, though.

    Great guide. Best point to me: a little humor is very important, to keep from being too smarmy as you ascend to godlike status in the millefiori Fimo world. We all appreciate a bit of humanity in our polymer clay gods.

    What am I working on? Well, I don’t want to be the world’s top authority on Experience Design. I want to be The authority on Experience Design for smaller businesses, because there’s a lot more benefits to small business in creating Maximum Customer Experience, than there is for companies with 72 VPs of everything from customer experience to toilet-paper acquisitions. I love working with little guys.

    Regards,

    Kelly

  10. I just wrote a post on my blog with a similar theme. More specifically, how to get people I hire to finish things quicker without turning into a jerk about it. There is a fine line between being nice and being too concerned that everyone likes you. It is a quandary.

  11. Once upon time I read that Fairfield Porter was a painter’s painter. I always wanted to be that. Now there is a new director of the Phillips Musum in DC ( one of my favorite art museums in the world ) who has as her mission to open a true dialogue with actual living American artists around some very finely honed ideas. I am beyond excited bout that.
    I think your first point is a crucial one, be incredibly good at what you do. Word of mouth spreads on that. To me the beauty of art is that it translates across disciplines. So these “finely honed ideas” may just be some wonderful things to explore, in words and in paint.
    And personally, the world needs all the civility it can get. So here’s to the nice guys.

  12. Sonia you’re awesome, insanely good at what you do, and incredibly beautiful too :-)

    Here is what I do: I help going global SMBs communicate with their foreign and overseas markets and audiences , i.e. strategic cross-cultural communication. So I call myself “The Cross-cultural Connector”. Does that sound good, or is it simply “pompous ?

    Oh, I almost forgot: people generally think I’m a “nice guy” :-)

  13. James Hipkin says:

    In addition to being really nice, at least all evidence suggests you are, you select the most amazing and perfect pictures to support your posts. Love this one especially.

  14. “In addition to being really nice, at least all evidence suggests you are…”

    I’m sure there is some sordid hidden fetish buried behind that squeaky clean facade somewhere. The photos are probably just the tip of the iceberg :)

  15. Sonia Simone says:

    LOL, Tim. I don’t know if my sordid secrets are very secret. I will give you one for free: I drive too fast and I am inexcusably impatient with other drivers. There is a lot of cursing and occasionally some honking.

    James, thanks for the kind words! I sometimes spend a lot of time on finding an image that works with a post. I bought this one for a video project I’m doing, and it really does make an impression. Maybe he’s my Power Animal–I should print him out & attach him to my corkboard.

  16. Sonia,

    My feeling is that you are not only a *nice* person, but also a trustworthy one (probably more important than just being nice).

    I’m also very receptive to your ‘non-Guru’ approach. Letting people know about what you’re doing well, without having to pitch your talents with a whole list of superlatives, is more effective.

    And er… you wouldn’t want to hear me when I’m driving.

  17. Sonia:

    This was by far an excellent post. I’m even printing it out to remind me of the tips your provided here.

    Nice guys/gals do finish first, contrary to popular belief.

    I loved the “be insanely good at what you do.” It’s so true. If you’re very good at it, people will want more of you.

    And who trust jerks anyway? I don’t! I run from them. They won’t get my business – nada.

    Thanks for an excellent post. I’ve not only stumbled it but I’m also Twittering it too. :0

  18. Barbara says:

    Love this post–and this idea of focusing more and more intently on what you do best has been coming up a lot lately. For my Gemini nature, it’s hard to choose. I keep worrying I’ll get stuck in a box and no one will ever let me out again.

    I could relate to Janice’s post: “Once upon time I read that Fairfield Porter was a painter’s painter. I always wanted to be that.”
    That was probably my goal, to be a writer’s writer, but that pursuit has not necessarily brought the rewards I wanted. So I’ve been reassessing. Thinking.

    This helps.

  19. Sonia Simone says:

    Barbara, it’s always so good to see you. Let’s go grab coffee somewhere and catch up with all that reassessing!

  20. Sonia Simone says:

    @Nadine, very interesting observation that being trustworthy is more important than being nice. I am going to chew on that, I think you’re onto something.

  21. Janice Chan says:

    @Nadine, Sonia – I think this stems from the inherent vagueness of the word “nice.” Does nice mean being polite? Considerate? Courteous? Does it mean being helpful? I don’t think the “nice guy” Sonia is talking about here is the person who’s nice to your face and then goes talk smack about you with their buddies at the bar. People may think you’re nice at first, but it will catch up with you. And what that ultimately gets to is trustworthiness: can I trust this person to mean what they say? That when they offer me help, it’s genuine help and not part of some hidden agenda? (On a tangent, I think this is part of the issue a lot of people have with “marketing.”) Some of my dearest friends are the kind of people others think are jerks. They’re honest. Sometimes brutally. And this rubs people the wrong way. But these friends don’t lie to me, they’re there when I need them, and I can trust them with anything. While admittedly, I can be a bit of a pushover at times and I try to be “nice” (whatever that means), I’m starting to realize that I’d much rather be trustworthy than nice.

  22. J.D. Meier says:

    That’s the beauty of today’s authority model. The network says who the authority is. The network favors the nice guys.

    Plus, it’s a small world. Brutally small.

    J.D. Meiers last blog post..Use Stress to Be Your Best

  23. Daniel Edlen says:

    I’m the best in the world at handpainting portraits with acrylic on vinyl records.

    There I said it. Online. I have to feel it, to believe it, in order to have the self-confidence to promote it. And it’s true to boot.

    In promoting it, though, I’m probably rambling too much, and about me. I know people like to know about the artist, but I know I ramble about myself. I’m not good historically at self-editting especially about myself. See?

    I need to think that, what you said. Along with “don’t take things personally”, “is this about me” is brilliant.

    Thank you. Peace.

    I LOVE that photo. Just a stunning creation of Life.

    Daniel Edlens last blog post..VA™ – Now I Can Merchandise Vinyl Art!

  24. Steve Nickse says:

    Somebody please explain why America loves Simon Cowell, from American Idol. Mean as a junk yard dog and immensely popular for the same reason. I’m listening.

    Steve Nickses last blog post..Your Closet- Is it an Untapped Gold Mine?

  25. David Craft says:

    I am new here so bear with me as I feel out the landscape. Love the picture. Relaxed, confident and don’t mess with my banana…

    I sense a difference in definition. What is personal authority and what is being an authority? When is being nice a good idea without being a doormat?

    And Simon Cowell is a both a challenge and an AUTHORITY JERK. It is a challenge to impress him because when you do you KNOW you’ve ascended in to another world of talent. He is an authority jerk because he knows, is confident in and cares not one whit whether you like him or not. His success doesn’t depend on you, yours depends on him and his persona says so.

    Remember here though being the best will aid in others perceiving your quiet confidence and being recognized as an authority in your field. It will not magically grant you personal authority when dealing with others unless you allow that confidence to permeate throughout your life.

    Want personal authority? Believe in yourself, be confident you can do whatever you set your mind to and help others to get there as well. Does it matter they can count on you? Does it matter they can believe you? Does it matter they can count on you to tell the truth? Can they depend on you to let them know when they are making a mistake without jumping down their throat? Do you know how to be quiet and listen even when what they are saying leaves you wondering whether to laugh in their face or shake the s**t out of them?

    Having personal authority means you could do either one but deliberately choose not to. You respect and believe in yourself enough you can freely believe in others. They’ll know without having to be told.

  26. Excellent advice! I’ve always considered myself the expert on GOOD. Good Business, Good Marketing, and just plain doing Good everywhere. It’s worked extremely well for me!

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