In a previous post, I suggested ways to increase your verbal confidence to make your speech more powerful and persuasive. While I hope you benefited from it, I also hope that you did not take it too far, because like most strong medicine, it’s one of those prescriptions that should be accompanied by a warning label. It’s not appropriate in all contexts. Sometimes too much verbal confidence can hurt your persuasive power.
For example, my boss once put me in touch with a senior executive at another company, who happened to be a friend of his. I was probably a bit intimidated and anxious to make a good impression, so I used some of the techniques I wrote about last week in order to come across as more confident. He later told my boss that I was very cocky.
This may sound crazy, but would you be open to the idea that sometimes it may be better to dial down your verbal confidence—to actually have less power in your speech? As I show in this post, there are certain situations where a humbler approach can be more effective in getting you what you want.
When to dial it down
When there are clear status differences between you and the person you’re trying to influence. Relative status is very important in human relationships, and higher status people tend to guard it jealously. When you talk to them, you can come across as cocky or arrogant if you speak too confidently. Even worse, you risk being seen as a threat to their status. As David Rock says, “A sense of increasing status can be more rewarding than money, and a sense of decreasing status can feel like your life is in danger.”
Higher status people expect a certain level of deference to their position, and they don’t react well when they don’t get it. According to Wharton professor Adam Grant, subordinates who speak out are seen as “difficult, coercive, and self-serving.” This applies not only to higher-ups, but in our market economy where the “customer is always right”, it applies to buyers as well. If you haven’t earned the right (by having specialized knowledge or expertise that they lack), they will gladly take you down a peg.
When you are already perceived as an expert. Even if you have earned the right to speak more confidently, that does not always mean you should. When your credentials are not in doubt, you may actually boost your credibility by hedging your statements a little. That’s because hedging or softening signals that you’re open minded and have considered both (or more) sides of the question. It also gives the impression that you’re well calibrated—that you know what you don’t know.
When your audience is initially skeptical. When someone tells you something you don’t want to hear, it’s natural to act like a stubborn ass and shut them out or to immediately think of a counterargument. That’s not a good place to start, so it helps to get them to lower their shield a bit and at least open their minds enough to be willing to listen. If getting agreement is more important to you than being right, you might want to consider being more hesitant in your expression.
How to tone down your verbal confidence without screwing it up
Use hedges. Words such as I think, maybe, what do you think? soften the power and directness of your speech.
Give disclaimers. “It doesn’t work every time, but I’ve found that…” A statement like this couples open-mindedness and long experience.
Ask questions. What is the best way to get agreement that will last? By making it the other person’s idea, which is why questions are among the most powerful tools you have in your persuasive toolbox, particularly when you use them to get the listener to tell you the story you want them to hear. The other benefit of using questions is that people would rather listen to themselves than to you.
Lead with your weaknesses. Adam Grant calls it the Sarick Effect, and it’s effective for two reasons. First, it can steal the thunder of someone who is just waiting to pounce on your idea, and it can increase trust by making you seem more intellectually honest.
Start with the opposing point of view. The best way to get skeptical people to listen is to begin by telling them something they already agree with; you’ll have their attention and even a modicum of respect.
Express your initial reluctance to think this way. “I found it hard to believe at first, but when I learned more about it…” It will signal that you were once one of them, and make them curious about what changed your mind.
Avoid “hot” words. Certain words trigger unhelpful emotions, which is one reason that euphemisms—despite their potential for misunderstanding—can help. For example, I make a living teaching rhetoric to businesspeople, but I rarely use the word because unfortunately it has come to mean “manipulation”.
In summary, good communicators tend to have an adequate intuitive feel for just how much confidence to put into their speech. But for especially important or challenging conversations, it pays to choose your words wisely. You may not remember the specific situations described in this post, but as long as you make a sincere effort to think outside-in, and practice a little self-awareness, I’m confident that you will become a much more effective communicator.
 Adam Grant, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, p. 65.
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.
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.”
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”. 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.
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.
 I was once told by a client that I could not use the term “flip chart” because it might be offensive to Filipinos!
The level of confidence that you display to others can have a huge impact on your credibility and persuasiveness, but what people see is only the tip of the iceberg. While others only see what’s above the surface, that visible portion is hugely influenced by what’s beneath:
How much of what’s beneath the surface is under your control?
Some people are simply born with more confidence than others, a fact which is obvious when you compare your friends and acquaintances. They blithely charge ahead in situations where others may hang back, seemingly sure that they will get what they want regardless of the situation.
It may seem unfair, but often that confidence becomes self-fulfilling and self-reinforcing, for two reasons. First, by daring more, naturally confident people tend to win more (as long as they avoid catastrophic misjudgments), which of course confirms and reinforces their confidence. Second, the positive feedback loop is also fueled by the increased confidence of those who surround them.
It’s also backed by science; a recent study involving twins determined that self-confidence is at least as heritable as IQ, so there is clearly a “nature” component to confidence. Being extraverted also helps; being comfortable around other people and being the center of attention is a head start.
But we’re not going to spend any more time on the natural sources of confidence here, because you don’t get a Mulligan on choosing your parents. We’ll focus instead on what you can do to create and build on whatever you have naturally.
Earned confidence is the most important factor under you control. It comprises two parts, general and specific. General confidence is that which you develop through your life experience and achievements, your status within the group, and your learning. You can increase your general confidence by continuously learning, building up your general competence, and successfully facing your fears by exposing yourself to stressful situations.
Specific confidence is what you have in a given situation, earned by ensuring that you have sound content and competence for that topic, that audience, and that time. When you thoroughly know your topic and you’re pretty sure you can get the other person to agree with your point of view, how can you help but feel confident? Being also promotes confidence, because the discipline and effort you put into clarifying your message will boost your confidence in that message, and in turn boost your listeners’ perception of your credibility.
Probably the most succinct statement of specific earned confidence is what Davy Crockett wrote on the title page of his autobiography: “Be always sure you’re right, then go ahead.”
Earned confidence is absolutely the most important layer of all, because it is completely in your control and it is the hardest to shake, even in the most stress-filled or intimidating situation. As Elaine Chao said, “Expertise empowers.”
If you are blessed with natural confidence and have prepared extremely well, you can stop reading now. But if you need just a little more of a boost, here goes:
Even with a clearly-earned right to complete confidence, it’s still possible to be nervous despite yourself. Your conscious mind may know there’s nothing to fear, but your unconscious mind may not have gotten the memo. Besides, you can have a strong conviction that you are right and still feel a lack of confidence in your ability to get others to buy into your point of view, or you may have pre-speech jitters despite your solid grasp of your material. It’s completely natural to feel anxiety before a high-stakes meeting or big speech, and it’s just as natural to misinterpret that stress as a bad thing.
So, you may also need to get your head straight by priming your confidence level. Priming means getting yourself into the proper frame of mind to increase your felt confidence level. It prepares your unconscious mind to direct your behaviors when you speak to others, which saves you from having to spend your precious mental bandwidth thinking about your outward behavior.
This is where the psychology gets interesting. Your state of mind can influence your bodily behaviors, including posture, movement, gestures and facial expressions. But it also works in the other direction: your bodily behaviors can also influence your state of mind. Your feelings affect your actions, but your actions also affect your feelings. In fact, at any given moment, you are subconsciously reading your own body language to infer how you feel!
So, there are two general ways to boost your confidence before the meeting. You can prime your mind by changing your body, and you can prime your body by changing your mind.
Changing your body. It’s called embodied cognition: your mind takes cues from your body to help it decide how you are feeling. For example, studies have shown that simply clenching a pencil in your teeth, so that your lips are forced upwards, can make cartoons seem funnier.
More importantly, acting confidently, such as taking up space and adopting “power poses”, can make you feel more confident. Doing this before your important talk boosts your confidence and actually carries over into the actual situation. Amy Cuddy and her colleagues found that the mere act of adopting a power pose for just two minutes raised testosterone levels and depressed cortisol in their test subjects. The former is associated with dominance and power and the latter is associated with stress.
They also found in a different study that subjects who adopted power poses before mock interviews were rated more highly and were more likely to be “offered the job” than those who put themselves in a closed, low power position. The subtle part of the study is that there were no observable differences in behavior between the two groups during the interviews – but somehow they projected a more confident and assertive demeanor which translated to more credibility.
A power pose is one in which you open up and take up space. Stand with feet spread and place your hands on your hips with elbows out, or place both hands on a desk, more than shoulder-width apart. You can even do it sitting down; if you can get away with it, place your feet on a desk and lean back with your arms behind your head.
The important point in all of this is that you want to be fully “on” before important communications, and just like an old-fashioned vacuum tube television, you need a short warm-up period to get there.
Changing your mind. Take a minute to think back to a time when you spoke to a room full of people and you really rocked. You were totally on top of your material, you were confident and articulate, and you felt the almost scary power of having every single person tuned carefully into what you were saying. Can you picture the scene, maybe remember what you were wearing, or how you sounded? It felt good, didn’t it? You’re probably sitting up a little straighter and smiling a bit right now.
Now, imagine going through that same thought process before an important meeting or presentation. If you’ve already earned the right to be confident, it will be like lighting the afterburners on your confidence. You will feel much more confident, you will project that to the room, and your credibility will soar.
The process we’ve described is called priming, which means getting your mind into the right state before your performance. Actors do it – the best actors aren’t faking the emotions they show, they are actually feeling those emotions because they have gone through what’s called an “offstage beat”, in which they primed their minds to feel the right emotion for the scene.
There’s another equally important benefit to this. You can only feel one emotion at a time, so focusing on the right emotion will keep you from obsessing on the wrong emotion, the fear you feel before the speech.
What emotions do you want? I personally like to focus on the thrill of giving my listeners useful information that can make their lives better. Jack Welch used to prepare so much for some outside speeches that he would work himself into feeling that he could not wait to share his ideas. Think of a time when you had exciting news that you could not wait to share with someone. (In my case, I recall the time when I called my son at school to tell him that the mailman had just delivered an acceptance packet from his first-choice school.)
The great thing about priming excitement is that it feels very similar to anxiety, so it’s an easy step from one state of mind to the other.
Besides priming your mood, you can also benefit by channeling your focus. Confidence and charisma are closely related, and communication expert Nick Morgan tells us that charisma is simply focused emotion. Emotions are contagious, and someone who clearly feels an intense positive emotion is going to pass that on to anyone listening. If you can achieve that intense focus, you are going to appear supremely confident to others.
In my next post, I will focus on the visible part of the iceberg: the speech patterns and body language that affect your displayed confidence. But, if you haven’t earned and/or primed your confidence before you start, you have probably already lost.
 Dave Munger “Just Smile, You’ll Feel Better!” Will You, Really? http://scienceblogs.com/cognitivedaily/2009/04/06/just-smile-youll-feel-better-w-1/,
accessed May 16, 2014.
 Amy J.C. Cuddy and Caroline A. Wilmuth, The Benefit of Power Posing Before a High-Stakes Social Evaluation, Harvard Business School Working Paper, 2012.
Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao in a recent podcast, talked about lessons she has learned trying to succeed in a male-dominated world. She makes three points that resonated with me, because they apply to everyone who faces the challenge of being taken seriously in meetings, sales calls, presentations, or simply general conversation.
Prepare: Chao says, “I prepare so much more than some of my male colleagues, and I know women who are prepared more and we get ridiculed and it’s like, ‘Oh, my gosh. She’s just preparing so much. She’s such an automaton. Can’t she just like, wing it?’”
This one resonated with me, because it is one of the most important lessons I’ve learned in my career in sales. That’s because I’m not a “natural salesperson” who knows exactly what to say and when, or who has the confidence to just wing it. But when it comes harder for you, you get a little paranoid and plan a bit—actually, a lot—harder. That’s how I’ve won deals against competitors who were natural salespeople, and who were overconfident and therefore unprepared. So if you think you’re too good to plan, I hope to compete against you.
Don’t be afraid of mistakes: Chao says that coming from an Asian culture initially made her very worried about making a mistake, because Asians pay close attention to everything being said, and every word counts. But that doesn’t happen in American culture, because a) we’re just not good listeners, so we are less likely to catch small errors or remember everything that was said, and b) we’re much more forgiving when we do.
This point is the corrective to overpreparation. Plan as carefully as you can, and then relax. Mr. Murphy will inevitably show up and something will go off track. If you make a mistake, the crucial point is to immediately acknowledge it, own it, and move on. Especially in speeches and presentations, I’ve found that people will remember how you recover from an error far more than the error itself.
Expertise empowers the person: I love this quote! When asked what made her successful in a very male environment, Chao responded, “because I knew what I was doing.” She always had “incredible subject area expertise.”
Many of my coaching clients ask for techniques to deal with nerves or increase the confidence that they display. Of course, there are numerous techniques, and I do share those, but not without first asking them why they have been chosen to speak to this particular audience on this particular occasion. The answer is always that they know more about this particular topic than anyone else in the room—otherwise someone else would have been asked to speak. It doesn’t matter whether you are a woman, a minority, or the youngest person in the room; if you have something useful to say, that no one else knows, you will always have power.
The title of this post is a bit disingenuous, because these three points actually have nothing to do with gender. They have everything to do with the fact that the best people to learn from are those who have to overcome the greatest obstacles to achieve success. Their initial lack of confidence is precisely what drives them to do the things that make them more confident and more successful.
 Although Sean Spicer may disagree on this point!