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?,

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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Expression - Lean Communication

Lean Communication Applied to Writing

Your time is more valuable than mine, so I’ll get right to the point: I recommend that you read Writing Without Bullshit, by Josh Bernoff.

Because so much of your business communication consists of words on screen or paper, you have to be able to write lean if you want to be a complete lean communicator. That’s because even though lean thinking applies equally to spoken or written communication, writing poses its own challenges that require specialized approaches.

How is writing different?

The principal difference between writing and speaking is that written communication is asynchronous, which is a fancy way of saying that production and delivery of the message don’t happen at the same time. That can help or hurt your communication.

It can help because usually the first time you say something, you don’t say it as well as you could. Writing is like a ballistic missile: you can choose your target and take pains to aim properly. You can take time to think carefully about what you want to say and choose your words, and you can edit and polish as much as you want. On the receiving end, the reader can absorb your message at their own pace, re-reading if they have trouble understanding or skimming over parts that they already know.

It can hurt because if you’re off target, you don’t have the feedback loop of real-time dialogue which allows you to adjust, clarify and take in the listener’s viewpoint to improve your original message. Plus, if you write the way you were taught in school, you’re almost guaranteed to produce crappy writing. That’s because the sole purpose of writing in school is to make yourself look smart, not to help the reader improve their outcomes.

That presents a great opportunity for a good writer. Since most business writing is bland, boring or baffling, you can easily stand out and make a reputation for yourself by just being a little better than everyone else. Unfortunately most people throw away the advantages of writing by not taking the time to carefully craft and edit their message, so the bulk of business writing is full of waste, or to use the more colorful term: bullshit.

So what?

Fortunately, Writing Without Bullshit supplies the antidote. If I were to write a book on Lean Communication as applied to writing (and if I were a better writer), this is the book I would have tried to write.

So much of what Bernoff writes aligns closely with LC principles. That’s no coincidence, because a lot of my LC ideas have come from studying and trying to apply ideas from books on writing. Lean keys such as outside-in thinking, Bottom Line Up Front, and Transparent Structure all apply as well to writing as they do to speaking. But this book brings a writer’s perspective to the principles.

Let’s just focus on one his Iron Imperative, which you see reflected in the picture above this post:

Treat the reader’s time as more valuable than your own.

That’s Outside-In Thinking, applied to writing. It’s powerful because it focuses your mind on adding value to the reader without wasting their time. If you stick a post-it note with it on the top of your computer screen, it will remind you to take the time and make the effort so that your reader won’t have to, and it will hugely improve your writing[1].

Actually, that’s not exactly true. You will throw away the advantage you have as a writer if you don’t take the time and make the effort to carefully craft your message and choose your words. That’s why the second half of the book is so valuable. It’s about the project management aspect of writing, and it will teach you how to be productively paranoid, find your flow, and edit your own and others’ work effectively.

The nice thing about becoming a better writer is that it will make you a better speaker as well. So if you truly want to add value with less waste no matter what medium you use, you must learn to get rid of the bullshit. You—and the rest of the world—will be better off.

[1] I would be guilty of peddling bullshit myself if I didn’t disclose some disagreements I have with Bernoff. While I agree with his Iron Imperative, I don’t believe it says enough about understanding the reader’s perspective and their needs. If the purpose of business writing is to change the reader, as he says, then one should think more deeply about the WIFM when writing.

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Expression - Lean Communication - Persuasive communication

The Persuasive Power of Numbers and Detail

Gauging from what’s happening in politics this season, fact-based persuasion has gone woefully out of style. And it’s not just politics—one of the most common themes in the sales and persuasion blogosphere is that emotion rules persuasion. You don’t need to have a detailed grasp of the facts to make your case, because anyone can look up the details. Impressions and emotions sway decisions, numbers and details simply bore people.

But when you tear yourself away from a computer screen and pay attention to what’s happening in the real world, it’s clear that having a deep command of the facts—and being able to speak them at the rate of normal conversation without having to use your slides as a crutch—still has tremendous persuasive power. In fact, when everyone else is relying on vague, unsupported emotional appeals, those who state their case calmly, but with airtight confidence based on a tenacious grasp of the evidence, can stand out because hardly anyone does it anymore.

I’ve seen this phenomenon repeatedly over the past several months, as I’ve been involved with a group that has been fighting a battle against overdevelopment in my city. Our little band of dissidents lacks the money or influence that the developers and politicians have, and we’ve learned the hard way that emotional appeals at City Commission meetings are simply ignored. But we’ve also figured out that we can get attention by carefully researching the issues and backing up everything we say.

We’ve also learned that nothing is drier than too many numbers in a presentation, right? Actually, I’ve seen that if done correctly, rattling off a series of numbers from memory can have an enormous impact on the minds of your listeners. Paul, a member of our group, is a master at this. When we met with the editorial board of our local paper to make our case, Paul began explaining the public safety impact that the project would have, citing numbers such as response times, traffic delays, number of incidents, etc. Halfway through his spiel the paper’s editor interrupted and said: “You have an amazing grasp of the numbers!” That’s when I knew we had made our point.

In another public meeting, Paul’s detailed analysis of the weaknesses in the developer’s traffic study was so devastating that when the traffic expert tried to rebut his testimony, every time she mentioned a number, she looked at him as if she needed approval.

These examples point out another benefit of fact-based persuasion. When people are already emotionally invested in their own opinion on a matter, it’s extremely difficult to change their minds with an emotional appeal; they will simply dig an and defend their point of view even harder. Even if they agree with you, conceding your point may make them lose face. But if confronted with irrefutable facts, this “new information” gives them an honorable way out of their position, and they can show themselves to be reasonable people by changing their minds. This is especially important if you’re challenging those who are more powerful; a torrent of facts can be your best protection and surest way to succeed.

There is one key to keep in mind if you want to use details to impress and not to simply bore people. State the bottom line up front and then support it with numbers. As John Medina says in his book, Brain Rules: “Meaning before detail.” People will lose interest if they don’t know what your point is right away. When they grasp the meaning, they can much more easily pay attention to and absorb the necessary detail.

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Expression - Persuasive communication - Presentations

Too Good for your Own Good?

Last week, my church brought in a guest pastor from out of state who delivered a technically perfect sermon. Her message was strong and well-organized, she had great stories, her delivery was enthusiastic with excellent vocal variety and gestures that perfectly choreographed with her key points.

And I didn’t care for it at all. There was something missing. The message made sense intellectually, but I wasn’t touched at all on a personal level. She did not connect with me; she did not tap into a feeling that I could relate to.

Similarly, I watched the presidential debates last night, and one candidate in particular piqued my professional admiration for his technique—but quite frankly he also gives me the creeps. That’s because I can’t tell whether he actually believes or feels what’s coming out of his mouth.

As I analyzed why I reacted this way to both of these examples, my first thought is that too much perfection is a bad thing. But as I reflected further, I don’t think it’s that. After all, Churchill, King and Reagan were also technically perfect, and they deeply touched millions.

I believe the pastor and the candidate missed the mark for two different reasons. The first can be cured with hard work, the second is probably terminal.

I think the pastor truly believed in her message, and genuinely cared about whether the audience benefited from it. Her intentions were pure, but she fell short in her technique. It wasn’t too perfect, it was just one step shy of perfection. Perfection is not only doing everything just right, but making it seem so effortless that it doesn’t call attention to itself. She gave off the impression that she was so proud of her skill that she wanted everyone else to notice it. The problem with that is that she succeeded: I was so busy watching the performance that I missed the message.

That can be cured by working on the technique even more, and getting it to the point where it’s truly unconscious and effortless competence. Here’s a practical example: most people don’t realize it, but natural gestures actually precede the words they support by a few milliseconds. When people are thinking about the gesture they want to use, it comes out at the same time as the words. The difference is so minuscule that we don’t consciously notice it, but something in our minds registers that it’s not right. So, how do trained actors get away with it? They “become” the person they’re portraying, and it becomes real. When you’re so good that it’s a part of who you are, the real you can come through, and that’s where connection begins.

The second reason is less about technique and more about character, which is why it might be terminal. Besides working on their craft over decades, the great speakers had something else that all the practice in the world won’t give you: they started from a place of genuine conviction and feeling and then honed their craft to improve their delivery. They did not work on delivery for its own sake. One got the sense that they cared how their message affected the listener, not how their delivery made them look. Reagan actually alluded to this when he said, “In all of that time I won a nickname, ‘The Great Communicator.’ But I never thought it was my style or the words I used that made a difference: It was the content. I wasn’t a great communicator, but I communicated great things…”

I am not against working on your style and delivery—after all, I make a living by helping people improve on those things. But I am against working only on style and delivery; I am against thinking that outer perfection can make up for inner conviction. If you don’t truly believe in your message, if you don’t truly believe that the product you are selling will help your listener, there is no amount of technical perfection that will help you in the long run.

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