Confidence Makes You More Persuasive (Even When You’re Totally Wrong)

One of the most important strategies for all presenters (especially those who are nervous about public speaking) is to make sure they are an expert on their topic. When you know your subject matter backwards and forwards you’re much less likely to freeze or lose your place in your talk, you’ll be able to answer questions from the audience easily, and you’ll be able to ad lib when unexpected things happen.

But becoming an expert can also help accomplish something that may be more important than just giving you command over facts and information. It can give you confidence. And being confident, it turns out, may be even more important than being right when it comes to persuading people. Studies show that confident people are seen as more competent, more persuasive, and even more attractive than less confident individuals–even when their confidence is totally misplaced. Here’s a quick summary of one experiment from an article in Slate:

In 2009, Cameron Anderson, a psychologist at the University of California–Berkeley Haas School of Business, decided to run an experiment on his students. He gave them a “list of historical names and events, and asked them to tick off the ones they knew.” But he also stacked the deck with fakes: Made-up figures he called “Queen Shaddock” and “Galileo Lovano,” and a fictitious event called “Murphy’s Last Ride.” Anderson found that the students who ticked off the most fake names showed signs of excessive confidence, if not competence. At the end of the semester, he surveyed the students about one another and found that those who held the most “respect, prominence, and influence” in the classroom were the same ones who claimed they totally knew who “Queen Shaddock” was. Anderson concluded that it’s confidence, not ability, skill, or accomplishment, that ends up swaying other people. “Whether they are good or not,” he said, “is kind of irrelevant.”

I’m not encouraging anyone to be a blowhard or pretend they are an expert on the reign of Queen Shaddock. There are few things more obnoxious than someone who exhibits confidence they clearly haven’t earned, and audiences will quickly turn on a presenter as soon as it becomes clear that their confidence is misplaced. Few people like a fraud once they’ve been exposed.

But there are all kinds of things you can do to boost your confidence without being a phony. Study your material. Rehearse your talk. Get to know the room you’re speaking in and make yourself comfortable. And try to interact with the audience in a natural way so it feels more like a conversation than a big scary performance. All of these strategies will help calm your nerves and make you feel more confident. Perhaps even more importantly, they’ll make you seem more confident to your audience.

What you don’t want to do is undermine yourself by seeming unsure, announcing the things you don’t know, or seeming noncommittal or disinterested in your topic. Remember that you’re there to persuade your audience and that, if you want them to believe in your ideas, you have to believe in them yourself.

Asking yourself whether you can serve as an expert on your topic is also a really great test of whether you should be presenting at all. If you find yourself in over your head, if you don’t have time to prepare, or if you’re just the wrong person for the subject matter, it’s a good idea to ask for help or just politely decline the assignment. I’m speaking from experience here–the worst talks I’ve given have all happened because I was the wrong presenter from the beginning. It’s not always possible to say no, but it can save both you and your audience a lot of pain and wasted time.

Latest Publishing Trend: Books That Teach Women to Be Overconfident Blowhards, Just Like Men

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Clifford Chance’s Dubious Public Speaking Tips For Women

A leaked memo from the giant law firm Clifford Chance has been getting a lot of attention for offering its female lawyers (just the female lawyers) public speaking tips, including these bits of wisdom:

  • Wear a suit, not your party outfit
  • Don’t giggle
  • Avoid the urinal position
  • No one heard Hillary the day she showed cleavage
  • Project power by visualizing filling a fat arrow extending 10’ out
  • Don’t take your purse up to the podium
  • Practice hard words
  • Understated jewelry, nothing jingly or clanky
  • Move your mouth when you speak
  • Think Lauren Bacall, not Marilyn Monroe

I know it’s hard to believe, but those bullets are directly quoted from advice to highly accomplished lawyers at one of the world’s biggest law firms.

Some of the responses to the memo have come from sources that usually cover the legal industry, but the controversy has taken on a broader life in the general media, too. As I’m writing this, the story is currently the top item you get when you google “Clifford Chance” (which can’t be a happy result for the firm’s marketing department). But I’ve been waiting to write about it for a little while because there’s so much wrong with this document that I’ve been trying to figure out how to respond.

Is it sexist? Sure.

Is it surprising that the lawyers receiving the memo were insulted? Nope.

Do the condescending tone and sloppy writing detract from the writer’s message? They do!

Is it especially troubling that this was written by a female lawyer and distributed by the firm’s Women’s Committee? You bet!

But on top of everything else, what I find really shocking about the advice in this document is how shallow most of it is. Sure, there are many helpful tips included among the more mystifying suggestions (“Make nose contact”), things that would be helpful for speakers of any gender. Of course you shouldn’t read your slides to your audience. Yes, you need to make sure that people can hear your voice. But almost all of the tips in this list are about surface effects: how you look; how you sound; what you should wear. And very little of it is actually concerned with making sure you have something interesting, important, or useful to tell to your audience.

I’m not saying that the surface details don’t matter–they do. It’s hard to have credibility with an audience if you don’t look and sound the part. But the content of any presentation should be given much greater priority than it’s appearance should. One of the reasons that this document comes across as sexist is because it focuses so relentlessly on how female presenters should look without giving them much guidance on what they should say. After all, if you don’t have something important to say and a good reason to take up peoples’ time and gather them in a room, you really shouldn’t be giving a presentation in the first place.

During my presentation training I always ask the audience for examples of the best presentations they’ve seen and what made them so great. In every single case, the elements of great presentations that audiences bring up are things like expertise, sincerity, storytelling, humor, commitment, emotional content, and making a connection with the audience. No one has ever mentioned what a speaker looked like or how they sounded.

When you’re putting together any presentation, the strategies you will use to engage your audience are what you should plan first. Yes, it’s important to give a polished performance. But it’s much more important to figure out what you have to say and how you’re going to persuade your audience to see things the way you do. The only good reason to have a presentation in the first place is because you want to take advantage of having the live audience there to interact with them. So you have to give them a good reason to show up and listen to you. Once you’ve done that you can worry about the polish, the surface elements that the Clifford Chance document tried to address.

There’s nothing wrong with offering speakers tips about how they can improve their performance. Even experienced presenters need to be reminded of the basics sometimes so they don’t get sloppy. Because the way you present yourself does matter. You might have great material, but people won’t hear any of it if you mumble through your talk or if the audience is distracted by a big stain on the front of your shirt. But the content of your presentation has to come first.

If I were going to offer a quick list of tips for creating substantial, effective presentations, I’d suggest that any speaker start with these questions:

  • What do you want your talk to accomplish?
  • What is interesting about what you have to say?
  • Why should your audience care about this?
  • How are you going to engage your audience?
  • What do you want your audience to take away from your presentation?

Once you’ve answered those questions, you’re well on your way to knowing what your presentation is about. Then you can start to worry about how you’re going to say it.

If you’re interested in much more extensive advice on creating better presentations, some samples of the handouts I’ve created for law firm and legal department clients are here, and embedded below.

And here are the Cliffford Chance tips:

Bulletproof Presentations Handouts

https://bulletproofpresentations.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/bulletproof-presentations-handouts.pdf

Clifford Chance Presentation Tips for Women

Presentation Tips: Start On Time

7.10

Want to really annoy your audience and turn them against you even before you begin your presentation? Start late.

This week I attended mandatory training that was scheduled for 7:00 pm, which meant that everyone who needed to be there had to figure out how to get to downtown Oakland after work and where they were going to be able to find some dinner. When I arrived 15 minutes early the huge room was almost half full and all of the seats were already taken. A few minutes later there were probably 150 people there, many were sitting on the floor, and the organizer lost my goodwill.

“We’re going to start 10 minutes late to give people a chance to get here,” she announced.

If you’re going to ask people to attend your meeting or presentation, don’t insult them by announcing that they matter less than the people who can’t be bothered to get there on time. What they’ll learn from this kind of training is that you aren’t serious and can’t be trusted. Why would they bother to show up for your next event on time (or at all)?

When 7:00 rolled around the room was full of about 200 people, and no more than 10 more showed up as we waited for our delayed start. Is alienating 95 percent of your audience in order to accommodate a few people who can’t be bother to be on time worth it? I sure don’t think so.

Occasionally you may need to start late because of technical difficulties or because someone you need for your meeting isn’t there, but never just announce that it was always your intention to start late and then just stand there ignoring people. Use the time to make smalltalk and build relationships or to take care of some business where you don’t need everyone to be present. Just make sure to keep your audience busy and entertained so they have more to do than stare at you and think about how rude you are.

Common Spelling and Grammar Errors: Don’t Lose Your Credibility

Are you a grammar stickler? Does it grate on your nerves every time you hear “nuclear” mispronounced in the style of George W. Bush? Does the abuse of “literally” make you figuratively want to rip someone’s tongue out? Do your eyes roll whenever you hear someone proclaim they “could care less“?

I’m one of those people. This morning I heard Matt Lauer talking about how topping-out the spire of One World Trade Center today was “an historic event.” It annoyed me so much that I briefly thought about writing him an email explaining that the only instance in which it is ever okay to say “an historical” is if you have a cockney accent and don’t pronounce the “h.” Go crazy saying “an ‘istorical” all you want. But never “an historical.” I actually do send messages like that from time to time. Sadly, I never get a televised correction. Or, actually, any response at all.

I’ve noticed my teacher friends passing around this video of common spelling and grammar mistakes over the last couple of days. We’re clearly enjoying it, but the problem is that we aren’t the people who need these tips. And the people who do either don’t know that they have a problem or they don’t care.

But if you’re not interested in spelling and grammar, you probably should be. Especially if you ever have to present to an audience. Here’s the thing. Even if you’re not a grammar stickler, chance are high that some of the people you’re speaking to are. And we’ll sit there judging you. Make enough mistakes–or just one really bad one–and we might decide you don’t have any credibility and stop paying attention to you. Spelling and grammar mistakes are especially bad if you use slides and project your errors for everyone to see, then distribute them as handouts. I’ve sat through some presentations that I only recall because of the typos, which is not how you want your talks to be remembered.

If you want to seem authoritative and maintain your credibility with an audience, take the time to get your words right. It’s a great idea to have someone else double-check your work, especially when the stakes are high. There’s no shame in asking for a little help. I taught writing for years and I still like to have another set of eyes look at my writing whenever I can. It can mean the difference between being taken seriously and being ignored, or worse.

(I sure hope there are no typos in this post. Those spelling and grammar people can be mean.)

38 Common Spelling and Grammar Errors

Presentation Visual Aids: Some Fonts Are More Believable Than Others

It’s been a while since I’ve written much about designing visual aids. I’m more of a writer than a designer, but I’m completely intrigued by the impact that visual tweaks can have on the success of your presentation.

Fonts are especially interesting because they’re something most of us don’t even think about–the vast majority of people simply accept the defaults in Word, PowerPoint, Keynote, or whatever program they’re using. But fonts can have unexpected influence on how your presentations are received. In an earlier post I pointed out a study that surprisingly seemed to show that readers retained more information when it was presented to them in a font that was difficult to read.

Now there’s another experiment (I love these things, can you tell?) that suggests certain fonts are seen as more credible than others. Documentarian and generally interesting guy Errol Morris created a sneaky survey to see if changing the typeface of an article altered how believable it was to readers. And it turned out that it did.

After polling approximately 45,000 unsuspecting readers on nytimes.com, Morris discovered that subjects were more likely to believe a statement when it was written in Baskerville than when it was written in Computer Modern, Georgia, Helvetica, Trebuchet, or Comic Sans. Baskerville: truth’s favorite typeface?

It’s probably no surprise that Comic Sans wasn’t taken as seriously as some of the other fonts, but who knew that Baskerville conveyed such authority?

The lesson here isn’t that you should only use Baskerville from now on. But you should put some thought into all of the design choices you make and the impact they might have on your audience. It’s not just the words you use that matter–fonts, colors and images all make a difference as well.

http://www.fastcodesign.com/1670556/are-some-fonts-more-believable-than-others

Presentation Tips: Be Yourself

Whatever kind of presentation you find yourself doing, it’s critical that you engage your audience and find a way to relate to them. But that doesn’t mean that you should pander or pretend to be something you’re not. Audiences are very good at detecting insincerity and are as unlikely to be swayed by an inauthentic performance as they are by Jason Sudeikis as Mitt Romney in this Saturday Night Live skit. They may not shout “we don’t believe you,” but they’ll probably be thinking it.

Remember to be yourself, but the best version of yourself possible.

Public Speaking Lessons from The Hunger Games: Be Yourself

For centuries, human beings have turned to literature for lessons about life. Homer (of both The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Simpsons). The Bible. Shakespeare’s plays. The Art of War. More than anything else, it may be our literature that makes us human.

At least that’s my excuse for using The Hunger Games to teach public speaking.

There are public speaking events scattered throughout all three Hunger Games novels. We see many rallies, speeches and interviews, and we’re told that Peeta’s real talent isn’t for fighting, but persuading an audience and winning allies. Unfortunately, it’s Katniss who finds herself being turned into a spokesperson for the rebels in Mockingjay, while Peeta is held as a prisoner of the Capital.

Readers of the previous books already know that public speaking has never been Katniss’s strength. She requires a lot of coaching. So the first step in preparing her to film rebel infomercials is, of course, to give her an elaborate makeover. After all, these are novels where Katniss’s outfits are often more detailed than the characters.

But her new look and the slogan written for her to shout fall flat on camera. No one finds Katniss convincing, so her former mentor convenes a meeting to talk about why:

“All right,” Haymitch says…. “Would anyone argue that this is of use to us in winning the war?” No one does. “That saves us time. So, let’s all be quiet for a minute. I want everyone to think of one incident where Katniss Everdeen genuinely moved you. Not where you were jealous of her hairstyle, or her dress went up in flames or she made a halfway decent shot with an arrow. Not where Peeta was making you like her. I want to hear one moment where she made you feel something real.”

When they do come up with examples of times when Katniss has done something touching, brave or kind, Haymitch asks what they all have in common.

“They were all Katniss’s,” says Gale quietly. “No one told her what to do or say.”

The lesson for public speaking is a good one, both in the universe of The Hunger Games and in real life. It certainly works for Katniss. Afterward she goes off to visit a rebel hospital (the occupants of which are almost immediately incinerated in a bombing raid), shoots down some hovercraft with her bow, and wins a huge PR victory.

You may never excel at archery, but remembering to be yourself can be a powerful weapon when you want to speak persuasively. Unless you’re a seasoned performer, playing a role when you speak to an audience is almost always too difficult to do convincingly and can actually turn an audience against you. Much better to let them see the real you.

As a bonus, being yourself should also render makeovers, stylists, flaming dresses and jumpsuits with wings unnecessary. Just pick something nice from your closet.