Want to appear competent?

Use numbers, lists or counts. Prophet Muhammad, upon whom be peace, seasoned his messages with numbers:


-Five Pillars of Islam

-Six Articles of Faith


-Two statements that will weigh heavily in your favour on the day of judgment 


Let me quickly point out that the Prophet used numbers not to appear competent, but conveyed them as they were revealed to him by God. 

He also used numbers probably to make communication easy to understand. That’s why, for example, you could see most of the numbers he used could be counted on the fingers of one hand. 

However, we can use the Prophet’s strategy to communicate our ideas in a concise and powerful manner. After all, the Prophet is an example for mankind. 

Many experts for instance, while bursting with ideas, can’t communicate them even with a gun to their heads. So why not use Prophet Muhammad’s technique, which as you will learn below has been validated by science?

When asked “what are the problems of this country?” Instead of delving into the issues, you could say “I see three primary problems with this country.”

That way your answer would appear well thought out, nuanced, credible and competent. 

What if you don’t have a lot to say? Use “one.”

To answer the above question for example, you could say: “There’s one major issue that troubles this country…”

But first, the background. 

From our last chapter in the book “Social Science of Muhammad” (the science of greeting and first impressions) we understand that when we meet people, they expect two things from us, warmth/trustworthiness and competence. 

How to achieve or demonstrate warmth has been shown to us by many experts. 

Richard Wiseman’s research, for example, showed that if we show some vulnerability, some imperfection, people are likely to warm up to us and gravitate toward us – because we are going to be relatable to them, because allowing imperfections to show,  makes us human. 

The problem with this tactic is that if you’re not already known as a competent person, it would destroy one’s standing further. Accordingly, Wiseman wrote in “59 Seconds” that the technique should only be used by those already known as competent. 

So how do we achieve warmth and trustworthiness if we’re not known? Or if we’re meeting someone for the first time?

One way as suggested by Amy Cuddy is to yield the floor to the person we’re meeting, listen to them and allow them to talk. 

This is a a significant suggestion, since research has found that people derive pleasure by being allowed to talk; and warm up to the person who gives them such opportunity. 

Yet, if an acquaintance wants two things, demonstrating trustworthiness in this fashion has only solved one thing. 

Therefore, how do we take care of the second expectation: competence?

There is scant emperical attention on this. Therefore, I determined to check out the evidence by doing a simple survey. 

But first, through observation, I noticed that competent people, experts if you will, talk, write and generally communicate using lists or through counts. In other words, they use numbers, they enumerate. 

Examples would make this idea clearer. We can find numbers on book covers authored by experts. 

Jordan B. Peterson wrote a book titled “12 Rules for Life,” Bryan Mattimore wrote “21 Days to a Big Idea” and Rodd Wagner and James K. Hatter simply titled their book “12.”

But even when numbers are not on the title, the contents are structured around lists or counts.  When the Heath brothers, for example, wanted to teach us how to make our ideas sticky and long lasting, they gave us six elements to use in communicating our ideas in their book “Made to Stick.” And when Leil Lowndes wanted to teach us “How to Talk to Anyone,” she gave us 92 tricks. 

As I write this, out of the top 10 bestsellers in non fiction, five of them have counts in their titles and majority of them wove the contents around numbers. 

Even God Almighty, the ultimate expert, Knower of all things, communicates with us using numbers. 

Therefore, with this insight we may be able to present our competence without undermining the warmth and trustworthiness. And in doing so, meet both expectations of the people we meet. 


The research hypothesis of the study was that when presented with two identical responses, research participants would choose the option with a list as coming from a more competent person. 

The response, written differently, are factors economic experts agree are needed to improve productivity. (Check for example, “The Little Book of Economics” by Ip.)

Following was how the survey was presented:

The respondents below were asked the same question. Based on their answers, who do you think is more competent?

What does Africa need to develop?

Africa will develop when it does three things. One, Africa needs to develop human capital – that is, educate the citizens in large numbers. Two, use technology and lastly,  use ideas to support the first two factors. 

Africa needs to build human capital and educate the people. It needs to apply technology and use ideas to make these factors work together. 

The survey was shared on the social media (Facebook, Twitter and Whatsapp) to an international audience but mostly to an African population who clicked a link that took them to the survey. 

Since the respondents knew that the answers were the same, to prevent them from choosing the first or the last option or just answer arbitrarily, the online form was programmed such that it presented the options randomly. 

That is, what is option ‘1’ to one participant, may be option ‘2’ to another. 


Results show that majority of the respondents (up-to 20% more) chose the option with a list as coming from a more competent person.  Therefore, the research hypothesis was accepted. 


On the question of who was more competent, the respondents agreed that the person with an answer structured in a list format was more competent. 

What this means is that by simply structuring your messages using numbers, you may appear more competent. 

The support for this can be found in the way experts have communicated for millennia. 

Even religious texts come with lists such as the 10 Commandments, the Five Pillars of Islam, etc. 

It is not exactly clear why using numbers has this effect. But it appears that the person who communicates in such a fashion has given his opinion a deep thought, therefore answered advisedly. 

What’s more interesting is that even though the respondents knew that the options were identical, they still chose the list. 

Seeing that the options were identical, statistically, we would have expected the choices to be around 50% shared either way. 

This has significant implications for communicators, leaders and for those who want to appear both trustworthy and competent, they could simply count like Muhammad. 

(This is a continuation of the Social Science of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) series by Ibraheem Dooba)

If you are interested in being notified when the book is completed, please email

Also, do share. 

Dear Esteemed reader,

As part of our drive to keep improving the content of our newspaper, we are conducting a readership survey to enable us serve you better.

Kindly take two minutes of your time to fill in this questionnaire.

Thank you for your time. Click here to begin

Download Daily Trust News App

Get it on Google Play
Share this article


You Can Prevent PROSTATE CANCER!!!


Don't Let It Threaten You!

To SHRINK And NORMALIZE Your PROSTATE Within 15 Days Without Surgery Or Chemical Drugs, Click Here!!!

Join us on

Share your story with us: 08189301900 (Whatsapp and SMS only) Email:

Complain about a story or Report an error and/or correction: +2348189301900

DISCLAIMER: Comments on this thread are that of the maker and they do not necessarily reflect the organizations stand or views on issues.