Persuasive communication

Expression - Presentations

The Foundations of Confident Communication

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?

Natural Confidence

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

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:

Primed confidence

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.[1]

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.[2] 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.

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

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Persuasive communication

What Men Can Learn about Credibility – from Women

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.[1]

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.

[1] Although Sean Spicer may disagree on this point!

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Book reviews - General business books - Questioning skills

Book Recommendation: Ask More

If you could think of one change to make in your communication habits that would make you more influential, more interesting, and more well-liked, what would it be? The answer, according to Frank Sesno—and one which I strongly endorse—is to ask more questions. In his book, Ask More: The Power of Questions to Open Doors, Uncover Solutions and Spark Change, Sesno, a former CNN anchor, explains why questions are so powerful and how to ask them.

In this review, I will ask and answer four questions:

  • Why should you ask more questions?
  • Why read this book?
  • What are some of the main lessons?
  • How should you read the book?

Why ask more questions?

You probably don’t ask enough questions—so what? The big-picture answer, filtered through the lens of lean communication, is that you are producing less value and more waste than you should. Value is defined by the listener, and if you don’t know your listeners as well as you should, how can you express your points in ways that are most likely to resonate with them? Asking more questions helps you zero in on exactly what’s important to the other person. But even better, asking questions engages the other person so that together you both create more value and more memorable communication. I love this quote from the book: “People forget what they heard, but they remember almost everything they say.”

Why read this book?

There are many good books on questioning, written from the perspective of sales, psychology, management[1], etc. but this is the first one (that I’ve read, at least) by a journalist, who by definition makes his living through the quality of his questions. Besides the credibility it adds to the book, Sesno’s professional expertise adds two other assets that make Ask More worth reading. First, he knows how to find other credible sources, so he is not just relying on what has worked for him, as so many experts do, and this brings a breadth and diversity of different situations and applications where questioning is helpful. of questioning applications. Second, he knows how to tell stories lucidly and concisely, so the book makes for pleasant and engaging reading.

What are some of the main lessons?

The book is organized into chapters that explain how to ask questions for different purposes, from solving problems to inspiring others, to sparking creative thinking, to building rapport. But regardless of your purpose in asking questions, some general principles come through. Probably the most important is that you should have a purpose and a plan for your questions. Your plan will help ensure that you don’t miss anything important, and your purpose will keep you on track when the person you’re interviewing inevitably throws you off your plan, whether accidentally or on purpose. Second is the importance of knowing how to listen to the answers and what to listen for—especially what is not being said. Third, by learning the basic structure of each specific questioning application, you can apply a reasonably repeatable process that will save you time and ensure you don’t miss anything.

How should you read the book?

If there is one improvement opportunity I would suggest for this book, it would be to go a bit lighter on the stories and heavier on the “how-to”. For example, in the chapter on empathetic questioning, as he introduces a man who got John Hinckley to open up through questions, do we really need to know the path of each of the six bullets John Hinckley fired? That’s why I would suggest that you begin reading the book at page 211, which begins the “Question Guide” section, where the basics of each major questioning task are laid out. Then, you can go back through the book and read the sections that you find most useful, and having the layout of each section in mind will make it easier to tease out the lessons from the stories and extraneous detail.

Despite that last quibble, Ask More is an important and worthwhile book. We can all benefit from improving the quantity and quality of the questions we ask, and I personally resolve to improve on that this year. So, let me end with one more question:

What are you waiting for?

[1] A few good examples: SPIN Selling and Question Based Selling for Sales; Leading with Questions, for leadership;

Humble Inquiry, for psychology.

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Persuasive communication

What Can You Learn About Persuasion from Post-Truth Politicians?

One of the principal pillars of Practical Eloquence is that even though emotional appeals can be hugely powerful, content is still king. In other words, the only way to get your ideas accepted consistently is to be honest and not let your claims get ahead of your facts.

But along comes Donald Trump and seemingly blows that idea right out of the water. As a student of persuasive communication, I’ve been both fascinated and repelled by the 2016 political season, which has led the Oxford Dictionaries to tag “post-truth” as their word of the year. Wikipedia defines post-truth is defined as “a political culture in which debate is framed largely by appeals to emotion disconnected from the details of policy, and by the repeated assertion of talking points to which factual rebuttals are ignored.” That’s a nice precise definition, but to be perfectly clear, post-truth, in my book, equates to emotion, exaggeration and even bald-faced lies.

It worked spectacularly for Trump, so will it work for you in business communication—whether in sales or in trying to get your ideas accepted within your organization? What can you learn about persuasion from him and the other post-truth politicians and pundits?

There are two lessons that you should absorb from the success of post-truth politicians. First, it worked because Trump has shown himself to be a master at sensing what is on the minds of his audiences, and tuning his message into perfect resonance with their emotional state. One gets the sense that he is a virtuoso in at least two legs of what Daniel Goleman calls the empathy triad: cognitive empathy and emotional empathy. The third leg is empathic concern, and your guess is as good as mine on that one.

The second lesson that you might be able to apply—if you’re careful with it—what Trump himself calls “truthful hyperbole”. With truthful hyperbole, everything is wonderful or huge or terrific or world-class, and every statement contains multiple!!!!! It works, because even if you don’t objectively believe the description, it’s hard to avoid being swept up into the enthusiasm and confidence of the technique. But you have to be careful to know where to draw the line; what happens when truthful hyperbole becomes mere hyperbole is a topic I will cover in my next post.

Those benefits aside, here are four reasons you would not want to adopt a post-truth approach to your persuasion efforts.

You’re not Trump.  You don’t bring celebrity, money or a large staff of people who can clean up after you if you make a mistake. Plus, it’s part of what people expect from him—it’s a central feature of his ethos. I strongly doubt that you can dominate a room with that level of charisma, and if you try to “fake it ‘til you make it”, see how far that will get you. Never forget that your listeners often have the power to tell you, “you’re fired!”

It’s too early to tell. Post-truth persuasion worked got elected, but will it work in getting things done in the actual job, where details matter and above all measurable results count? He has definitely sold the sizzle, but it remains to be seen whether the actual steak will be any good. Emotions tend to wear off, but truth endures, and facts are stubborn things. That’s one reason that organizations have created decision processes to avoid impulsive decisions.

The decisions that you’re trying to influence are different. Millions of people—probably the vast majority of voters—filtered their information and made their decisions through the lens of their personal ideology or identity. Business decisions are different for the most part. Most people don’t get so personally involved when making a choice between the Acme and the Amalgamated widgets.

The deciders are different. Especially when pitching ideas to senior executives, the people you are trying to influence are generally more sophisticated in their approach to decision-making, at least in the subject matter of what you’re selling. They’ve trained themselves to be more analytic and empirical, and those decision processes mentioned above are also designed specifically to guard against individual bias.

To sum up, there may be a post-truth era in politics, but I strongly doubt that it’s coming to business or interpersonal communication anytime soon. As the announcer reminds you: “Don’t try this at home!”

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