Persuasive communication

Do You Sound Like A Wimp?

We sometimes overestimate how powerful we appear to others.

Research has shown what most of us take for granted, that confident speakers are perceived as more credible and more persuasive.[i] Listeners are very adept at picking up subtle signals that indicate the confidence speakers have in their message, and gravitate toward the leadership of people who sound confident. Confidence is a key emotion, and emotions can be contagious.

Unfortunately, lack of confidence can also be contagious, so your first priority is to make sure you don’t sound like a wimp. For starters, it helps to recognize speaking patterns that can insidiously subtract power from the persuasiveness of your message, without you being aware of them. 

How much power is in your speech?

The words we choose can project confidence and power—or insecurity. To see how this works, let’s look at research from two very different worlds: aviation and the law.

Mitigated vs Direct Speech

In 1983, ice buildup on the wings caused an Air Florida passenger jet to crash into the 14th Street Bridge in Washington D.C. shortly after takeoff from Washington National airport, killing 74 people onboard. The subsequent investigation, based on transcripts of the cockpit conversation, discovered that the copilot had given several hints of concern about the ice, and about what the instruments were indicating on takeoff. The pilot ignored these hints—or maybe he just missed them, because the copilot never directly told him he was concerned that something was wrong.[ii]

Confidence is largely about status. Relationships between two individuals almost always contain some element of hierarchy: one person might feel inferior or superior to the other because of title, social standing, age, gender, or experience. This relationship can sometimes insinuate itself into the way they speak to each other, which can affect the confidence and/or clarity of the message. A speaker who feels himself “above” the listener will be less concerned about how he or she is perceived, and will transmit a greater sense of confidence.

As the Air Florida investigation showed, the lower status speaker may use mitigated speech: the tendency to sugarcoat a message because they might not want to sound too assertive to the higher status listener. In striving to be as tactful as possible, they may feel safe, but they pay a price in persuasiveness.

Let’s demonstrate. Notice the increasing degree of directness in the phrases below:

  • Do you think it’s cold in here?
  • Don’t you think it’s cold in here?
  • I’m cold.
  • It’s cold in here.
  • Where’s the thermostat?
  • Would you mind turning up the heat?
  • Please turn up the heat.
  • Turn up the heat.

Mitigated speech is more common in cultures (national or organizational) that have a high Power Distance Index. PDI is a dimension of cultural behavior that measures the amount of deference given to those in authority. For example, the US has a PDI of 47 and India’s is 77. Although PDI is mainly used in the comparison of national cultures, it’s also a characteristic of corporate cultures and even varies by individual. [iii]

It’s that individual level of power distance (i.e. respect for status) that can affect the confidence and directness that you portray in your speech patterns. Of course it’s important to respect others’ status, but excessive concern for how you’re perceived can make you sound wimpier than you intend or expect.

Other forms of powerless speech

The legal field has also seen a lot of research into what makes a speaker persuasive, because the credibility and persuasiveness of witnesses can be a matter of life and death.

Researchers have identified five principal forms of powerless speech which sap a speaker’s forcefulness:

Hedges:

  • Prefaces: “I think that…” It seems to me…”
  • Appendages: “You know”, “like”
  • Modifiers: “kinda”, “sort of”

Hesitations: otherwise known as filler words—“um, er, well”

Excessive politeness: too much use of “sir, please”

Uptalk: where your sentences end in rising intonation so that a declaration sounds like a question

Excessive Intensifiers: “very, definitely, really”

What can you do about it?

If you use any of these forms of powerless speech, they’re probably deeply ingrained into the way you normally talk, so it’s not an easy matter to change. The first step is to practice awareness, so that you notice when you catch yourself using them. If you want to go a step further, enlist your peers to help; ask them to let you know when they hear them.

If you suspect you’re mitigating your speech too much, try to listen to yourself and notice whether you hear differences between how you speak to subordinates, peers and superiors. Also, pay attention to others who seem to be influential and compare their speech patterns to yours.


[i] “What Do We Really Know About Witness Preparation?” Marcus T. Boccaccini, Behavioral Sciences and the Law 20:161-189 (2002) contains an excellent list of sources from the legal profession, which is intimately concerned with individual persuasiveness.

[ii]Source:” How To Give Orders Like a Man”, Deborah Tannen. The New York Times Magazine, August 28, 1994.

A partial transcript of the final conversation is provided here:

The co-pilot repeatedly called attention to the bad weather and to the ice building up on other planes:

Co-pilot: Look how the ice is just hanging on his, ah, back, back there, see that?
. . .
Co-pilot: See all those icicles on the back there and everything?
Captain: Yeah.

He expressed concern early on about the long waiting time between de-icing:

Co-pilot: Boy, this is a, this is a losing battle here on trying to de-ice those things, it [gives] you a false feeling of security, that’s all that does.

Shortly after they were given clearance to take off, he again expressed concern:

Co-pilot: Let’s check these tops again since we been setting here awhile.
Captain: I think we get to go here in a minute.

When they were about to take off, the co-pilot called attention to the engine instrument readings, which were not normal:

Co-pilot: That don’t seem right, does it? [three-second pause] Ah, that’s not right. . . .
Captain: Yes, it is, there’s 80.
Co-pilot: Naw, I don’t think that’s right. [seven-second pause] Ah, maybe it is.

 

 

[iii] To see how national cultures stack up on measures of PDI and other differences, see http://www.geert-hofstede.com/hofstede_dimensions.php

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