In the last post, we saw that flattery works, even when it is patently obvious to the receiver that you have an ulterior motive for saying nice things about them. That said, I admit that there are three things wrong with following my advice to be a suck-up. First, you may feel a bit slimy doing it, even when you know it’s the smart thing to do. Second, your peers or any outside observers may think less of you. Finally, while the research shows that there’s a low risk of having it backfire on you, there are more skillful and less awkward ways of ingratiating yourself. As Mark Twain said,
The happy phrasing of a compliment is one of the rarest of human gifts, and the happy delivery of it another.
In case you don’t have the “gift”, here are some suggested techniques to improve your complimenting skills:
Probably the most important rule of all is to keep it real by complimenting them for something that you genuinely admire. When you believe it, you are much more likely to say it authentically, and the recipient is much more likely to accept it gladly without question.
Find something different to compliment them on. If it’s something less obvious than what they hear all the time from others, it’s more likely to get their attention, and it also signals that you cared enough to research them carefully before meeting them.
Be specific in your praise. I confess that once or twice, when I’ve had someone compliment me about one of my books, I’ve asked them what they specifically liked about it, and it became obvious that they had not read it.
Of course, these first three suggestions require If it’s someone you’re meeting for the first time, research them as much as you can—the deeper the better. It shows you care, and it’s so easy nowadays that not doing it can be seen as insulting.
Ask them for advice. Everyone loves to be considered important and/or knowledgeable, and asking them for advice is an indirect way of expressing your admiration while potentially getting something valuable in return.
Go behind their backs. In other words, don’t praise them directly. If you praise them to others, you can be sure it will get back to them and seem even more heartfelt for being said to someone else.
Separate the praise from the need. Praise followed by an immediate request is too transparent, so invest into the bank of goodwill early with your compliments before you need anything.
Soft-pedal your praise. Just like a backhanded compliment can offend, you can a faux insult can please: “Wow, that’s actually not such a dumb idea!” Be careful with this one, but it works really well with some personalities, especially people who are a little uncomfortable with suck-ups.
Listen to the other person. I believe that the sincerest form of flattery is not imitation but actually listening—paying the other person the compliment of believing that what they have to say matters.
Finally, adjust your attitude toward complimenting others. If you consider flattery beneath you, ask yourself how making another other person feel important can be a bad thing.
I have to admit to taking off three hours from real work today to watch former FBI Director James Comey answer questions from fifteen senators of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Putting aside the fact that he was under oath and therefore subject to severe penalties if he is later found to have lied, I found his testimony to be very credible, for three reasons.
Together, they comprise what I call 3-Ds of credibility: Directness, Detail, and Demeanor.
Directness: First off, Comey answered every question he was asked, except those he felt that he could not comment on in an open session. There was no dancing around or playing cute by giving evasive answers. He also answered each question directly, without any “context-setting” or preemptive excuses for what he was about to say. In general, every answer was a classic example of BLUF, or Bottom Line Up Front.
Detail: He supplied enough concrete details when he described incidents or conversations to give the immediate impression that he was telling the truth, even at one point trying to mimic the facial expressions he saw when he asked AG Sessions not to leave him alone with the President. People who make up stuff don’t tend to supply a lot of detail which can be verified, as for example when he described receiving one phone call at noon as he was getting ready to board a helicopter with the head of the DEA.
Demeanor: Throughout three hours of questioning Comey was calm, thoughtful, and sincere. There was no sense of evasiveness or nerves, nor did he appear to lose his composure or temper when any questioner appeared snarky or hostile. One commentator afterwards said that Comey had told one of his friends that truth makes you calm.
These three factors: directness, detail and demeanor– all contributed to a powerful sense of credibility from Comey’s testimony. Do they prove he was telling the truth? Of course not. He is an experienced lawyer and former prosecutor who knows full well that these three factors could work in his favor, so it’s possible that he faked the whole thing. It’s like the old joke that “sincerity is important, and once you can fake it you’ve got it made”. I don’t think he faked it, but if he did, that by itself does prove how important these three factors are.
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!