One of the great things about reading books about psychology is that you learn the scientific reasons for your past screw-ups. Adam Grant’s new book, Give and Take, summarized a lesson that I learned through trial and error many years ago.
Having been a commercial banker before making the switch to sales training in the early 1990s, I was acutely aware that the participants in the classes I facilitated had far more experience in high-tech complex sales than I did. I tried to compensate by downplaying my lack of experience and stressing other credentials.
I very quickly found out, however, that most people saw right through my little charade, although there were two different reactions: some thought it made me look defensive while others perceived me to be arrogant.
But I also discovered that as long as I was competent in the topic I was teaching, they did not care how much experience I had. Going further, I saw that being completely open about my weaknesses would actually make me more credible in the audience’s view.
Grant calls it the pratfall effect, citing a study in which an audience viewed a tape in which a candidate for a spot on a Quiz Bowl team spilled coffee on his suit. Those candidates who came in with a high score on their qualifying exam were viewed more favorably after the clumsy incident, while those with a low score were viewed less favorably.
The point is that expressing vulnerability to an audience can make them like you more, if they have already seen other signals of your competence. If they don’t see you as competent to begin with, vulnerability or imperfection will give them another reason to like you less. But if they see you as competent, imperfection humanizes you and makes you seem like a regular person.
Although Grant does not say it, it appears to me that it’s another manifestation of confirmation bias at work. The vulnerability that you show, perhaps by admitting to a weakness, works in the direction to further confirm whatever impression they have already formed.
The interesting paradox is that being self-deprecating can pump up your persuasive power, but you have to earn the right to be self-deprecating. Otherwise, it can come across as false modesty, which is perceived as another form of arrogance. It reminds me of a wonderful quote by Golda Meir:
“Don’t be so humble. You’re not that great.”
In my own situation, the audience had already received signals of my competence: the first was the fact that their company had hired ours to conduct sales training, and the second was that usually their boss or another respected authority figure would introduce me.
There’s another dynamic at work. If you’re making a strategic sales presentation, you are likely presenting to high-ranking individuals who control the purse strings that will determine your fate. In the subtle dynamic of interpersonal relationships, they see themselves as high-status individuals compared to you. Trying to come across as too perfect may challenge their status, while a little humility on your side can put them at ease and makes them more favorably disposed to listen.
If you do reveal a weakness, it should be about something over which you have no control. In my own case, I could not go back and change my past, so it was OK to be candid about it. On the other hand, if you apologize up front because you did not have time to fully prepare for the presentation, your listeners will probably punish you for it. It will sound like an excuse and will prime them to look for additional flaws.