Persuasive communication

Why Is Confidence So Important to Credibility?

In a completely rational world, facts and logic would always win. Your credibility would rest on the content of your argument and the clarity of your expression.

In a completely rational world, people who think they are better than they are or who fake confidence would be immediately exposed, and people who know their stuff but are naturally shy would still rise to the top.

But the world is much messier than that, and that’s why confidence is a key ingredient of personal credibility. There are several reasons for this:

  • People don’t make decisions on logic and facts alone
  • Proposals and ideas almost always contain some measure of uncertainty and subjectivity
  • Higher confidence makes you appear more competent to others

People don’t make decisions on logic and fact alone. Your listeners are using two mental processes simultaneously to decide whether or not to believe you. System 2 involves the active involvement of their logical thinking processes to weigh evidence and form judgments of the probability that what you are saying is true. System 1 involves the rapid and unconscious reading of cues, and the complex and unknown interplay between emotion and intuition. System 2 is hard work, while System 1 is easy and automatic, which is why it carries so much influence in our decisions even when we try to prevent it.

Uncertainty and subjectivity. Although System 2 might seem to be a superior way of making decisions, System 1 is actually essential to good decisions and the proper functioning of organizations. Organizations exist to combine different specialties and competencies under one roof, so you will likely be speaking to people who are not equipped to fully understand your logic and facts, at least not without putting a lot of time into it. That means that they have to take shortcuts and rely on your judgment. Their confidence in your judgment depends heavily on whether they perceive that you have confidence in your own judgment and competence. Since they can’t read your mind, the only way they have of perceiving your confidence is through the behaviors you exhibit.

When I interviewed executives for my book on sales presentations, several admitted that they don’t have the knowledge to fully judge the accuracy of claims that salespeople make when they present highly technical solutions. So one of their favorite tactics is to ask a couple of questions to “scratch beneath the surface” and judge how confidently the salesperson answers. To some extent, even multimillion dollar decisions are being predicated on the decision-maker’s confidence in their own ability to assess others’ confidence!

Confidence adds to perceived competence. Being social animals, humans are exquisitely sensitive to verbal and nonverbal cues that indicate relative levels of status within groups. Those who act more assertively and confidently tend to be accorded higher status, and in general are perceived to be more competent than they actually are.[1] In fact, while it might seem that overconfidence could be dangerous to decision making, the fact is that overconfidence makes you exhibit the behaviors that others find convincing, so – within reason – thinking you’re better than you are actually pays off in terms of higher influence within the group. It’s called “honest overconfidence” and it works. It leads to speaking up more in meetings, appearing calmer and more relaxed, and seeming more confident in your answers.

What does this mean to you as a persuader? Anything you can do to boost your outward confidence will add to your credibility. Of course, the best and most reliable way is to boost your inward confidence by being prepared and thoroughly knowing what you’re talking about. But because that’s not enough, you also need to get comfortable with speaking to groups, and even in some cases, fake it even if you don’t fully feel it.

You might also like:

Should You Fake It ‘Til You Make It?

Book Review: The Confidence Code

Max Cred Factor #4: Confidence

How to Project Confidence



[1] Cameron Anderson, Sebastien Brion, Don A. Moore, and Jessica A. Kennedy, A Status-Enhancement Account of Overconfidence, 2012.

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