Expression

Verbal Confidence

In my last blog post, I wrote about the foundations of confident communication, the factors that prop up the confidence you feel coming into the presentation or conversation. Adding to whatever natural confidence you possess, if you‘ve done the work to have high earned confidence and given yourself an additional boost with some priming techniques, that inner confidence will spill out in your displayed confidence, like the light and sound from a party house on a darkened block.

A lot of that confidence will genuinely display itself in your body language: you will be more open, stand a bit taller, and face people squarely with a smile. Even if you’re still nervous, you can to some extent “fake it “til you make it” by consciously trying to show more than you feel.

And yet, despite all your efforts, there is still one more factor to consider, which in my experience is most often overlooked: your actual language. That’s because the human mind is exquisitely tuned to detect cues that indicate strength (and warmth). We’re no different than the animals we see on nature shows that use body language displays to indicate strength and status, but unlike them we also have spoken language which contains subtler but no less important cues.

Your actual language—the words you choose and the style and structure of your speech patterns—can be hugely important in determining how confident others perceive you to be.

Verbal confidence (or lack thereof) comes through in three ways: directness, clarity and power leaks.

Directness

Direct language is confident language. Direct = confident. It shows you have enough faith in your own idea that you want to show the world your idea in all its naked reality, without dressing it up in little detours or decorations.  Get right to the point, don’t mitigate your message. “Turn up the heat” is far more direct and confident than “is anyone else cold?”

Winston Churchill, who probably did not have an unconfident bone in his body, said: “If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time – a tremendous whack.”

Clarity

The perception of your confidence is also affected by the clarity of your message, because when people aren’t sure what you mean they may think that you’re either unsure yourself or trying to hide something. Clarity depends heavily on the words you choose. Here are three ways to

  • Weasel words, which Josh Bernoff, author of Writing Without Bullshit, calls adjectives that seem to add power but actually weaken your speech, such as very, tends to, many. Try to give them a number, or leave them out.
  • Euphemisms mean well but we’re so afraid to offend anyone nowadays that we contort ourselves into knots trying to figure out how not to say something, such as United’s assertion that the passenger they beat up was “re-accommodated”.[1] Think what you would say is someone asks, “What exactly do you mean by that?”, and start with that.
  • Abstraction is not necessarily a bad thing, because it’s often the only way to describe complex ideas. But unless you prop them up with examples that listeners can picture in their minds, it can be like trying to grasp a heavy object without a handle, not impossible but harder than it needs to be. When you can easily spout numbers, facts and names, it adds power and confidence to your communication.

Power leaks

Despite your best efforts to be direct and clear you may still suffer from what I call power leaks. These include:

  • hedges, such as, “I think that, maybe…”
  • hesitations, “such as kind of, sort of…”
  • filler words, “um, you know, like…”
  • tag questions, “don’t you think?”

Unless you pay close attention to your own speech patterns, you may not even be aware that you have power leaks. Ask a trusted friend or associate to tell you if they notice them, and then focus on breaking the habit.

In sum, if you want to be perceived as a powerful and confident communicator, be direct, be clear, and cut out the wimpy power leaks.

[1] I was once told by a client that I could not use the term “flip chart” because it might be offensive to Filipinos!

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