Does uncertainty sell?

Part of the benefit of expertise, says conventional wisdom, is certainty in the answers it produces. Complete factual accuracy, combined with a total absence of doubt. In fact, that is one of the defining characteristics of expertise, and a part that most sales reps strive to project when asserting their own expertise.

Recent research by Stanford Professor Zakary Tormala suggests a different possibility. In his study, experts that showed uncertainty were found to be more persuasive, while non-experts benefited more from certainty. These findings could have significant implications for companies building a digital marketing program, both in terms of the content you create and user generated content.

The finding that experts should show uncertainty to be persuasive is, at first glance, very counter-intuitive. We go to experts for their certainty, and so we can feel certain ourselves. Looking at it more deeply, though, it might not be so surprising.

First, remember that many questions asked of experts are not purely factual. This means there is no objective "right answer"; there are conditionally-correct answers, and deductive chains based on particular assumptions, but very few absolutes. Especially since so much in construction depends on the project's specific goals. Which is more important: durability, sustainability, functionality, or cost? When purely factual questions do arise, certainty is a benefit. What's your product's R value? Can I get it in red?

For more complex answers, however, expressing some doubt or reservation strengthens your position because it shows you understand how complex the issue is. In fact, Professor Tormala also found that changing your answers later could also improve persuasiveness. (I've been thinking about what I said last time, and upon further reflection...)

He postulates this is because of the surprise factor. We expect experts to display certainty; when they do not, potentially calling their expertise into question, it is notable so we pay more attention to what they say. I suspect this is a large part of it, but also think it helps the audience relate to the expert by making them more approachable, and less of a distant, perfect theorist.

Conversely, non-experts benefit from displaying certainty. This is important to remember if you are developing a Facebook page, forum, blog comment area, or similar interactive site. Look for the users that seem certain your product is the best, and are certain about why. Promote them; nurture the relationship, invite them to do guest posts, get them to work your trade show booth, and help the rest of your clients feel as certain as they are.