This blog might be stupid, but would you mind reading it anyway?
I may not know what I’m talking about, but if you could give me the benefit of the doubt I might have something you want to hear, but I also might not. Is that OK?
How interested are you in reading this blog at this point? I doubt I’m instilling confidence.
I can’t imagine ever prefacing anything I want to say, written or verbally, with the disclaimer, “This might sound stupid, but…” yet I know I must have said this out loud in the past.
We all have. Don’t lie. Everyone at some point has felt insecure about something they were about to say and prefaced it with a disclaimer that let them off the hook in case it did indeed sound stupid.
There’s only one person for whom the disclaimer, “This may sound stupid, but…” works and that’s the 1970s TV detective, Columbo.
Even soft openers like “I believe,” “I feel” and “I hope” do you a disservice.
- When you open with I feel you subconsciously tell your listener, “this has no factual basis, it’s just a feeling of mine so listen if you want, or don’t.”
- When you open with I hope you subconsciously tell your listener, “I hope you believe this because I’m not sure it’s true.”
- When you open with I believe you subconsciously tell your listener, “I believe this, but that’s not to say that anyone else does.”
You’re not winning anyone over with your humility and/or lack of arrogance.
I’m not saying it’s fair, but I am saying it’s time to stop to because you are doing yourself a disservice. The good news is it’s not your fault…
IT’S YOUR BRAIN’S FAULT
We are wired to determine whether the information being given to us is being given to us with confidence or insecurity. The mental state of another person is important to us, at least our brains think so.
It turns out our brains have a primal, vested interest in the mental state of who it is listening to.
On an obvious, superficial level we of course want to know whether the info we’re listening to is trustworthy and the source (speaker) is truly knowledgeable.
No one wants to waste their precious time listening to someone who doesn’t know what they’re talking about.
But this desire goes beyond the superficial. Even on a neurochemical level we want to know whether whom we are listening to can be trusted.
Xiaoming Jiang, a postdoctoral researcher in the Neuropragmatics and Emotion Lab led at McGill University discovered that our brain activity lights up when a listener encounters a “confident” voice, suggesting our brains like and give attention to what it considers a confident voice. Simply put, our brains are attracted to confident tones.
Which begs the question…what is a “confident” voice? There are apparently confident tones and non-confident tones.
Jiang and his colleagues determined that a confident tone tends to be lower in pitch, with flat intonation, and a faster speech rate. A non-confident tone tends to be higher in pitch, slower speech, and rising in pitch towards the end (think: upspeak).
Confident speech also ends in a period and never a question (when a question isn’t being stated).
The researchers didn’t give any real examples but I’m thinking of voices like Morgan Freeman, Barack Obama, Alec Baldwin, Kathleen Turner.
Our neurons pick up on these tones and we receive encoded information about whether this voice is a voice to be trusted, based on it sounding like it knows.
And what’s more, this all happens in under a second. “When a speaker is very confident about something, this can be assessed at a very early stage,” Jiang says.
So as soon as you mutter “This might…” or “I feel…” or “I believe…” your listener’s brain has placed you in the non-confident realm. If you are up against a competitor or a colleague with a “confident” tone you put yourself at a disadvantage. And your listener won’t even be cognizant of how their preference is being formed because it’s happening on a neural level in less than a second.
Whether the person behind the voice does actually know what he/she is talking about is another story, but for our own sake it behooves us to try and project a tone of confidence, thereby eliciting the trust of our listener.
This research offers some insight as to why incompetent people might excel within a company, much to the confusion and consternation of those that truly know their capabilities (It also sheds light on how narcissists climb the corporate ladder when they might be a hollow shell, without the know-how to do the job expected of them).
WHO CARES IF WHAT I’M SAYING IS TRUE
Cameron Anderson, a professor of organizational behavior at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, has studied the effects and motivation of overconfidence. “When people are confident,” says Anderson, “when they think they are good at something, regardless of how good they actually are, they display a lot of confident nonverbal and verbal behavior.”
In Anderson’s study, he concluded that overconfident individuals “…spoke more, used a confident and factual vocal tone, provided more information relevant to the problem, exhibited a calm and relaxed demeanor, and offered answers first.”
We see that mention of “tone” again. And what’s also interesting is that the overconfident individuals in Anderson’s study never made “explicit statements about their own abilities…or their certainty in their answers.” How convenient! It suggests that tone and confidence is the only support overconfident individual require to put forth their opinions.
If there are those out there who can project confidence without having the skills to back it up – and if our brains are wired to detect confidence in under a second – then it behooves all of us to give ourselves a fighting chance in this competitive world.
BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE…
There’s a gender factor at play here too. Jiang’s study revealed that women are more apt at detecting the confident tone in another; but according to Brenda Major, a social psychologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, women are also more likely to underestimate their own abilities.
There is a testosterone vs estrogen battle here. Testosterone is prepping men for taking risks, fueling them with competitive drive. Estrogen on the other hand is known as a hindrance for risk-taking.
Katty Kay and Claire Shipman wrote an eye-opening article in The Atlantic called “The Confidence Gap,” which explored why women tend to be less self-assured than men.
They cite a study by Victoria Brescoll from the Yale School of Management, who tested the theory that “the more senior a woman is, the more she makes a conscious effort to play down her volubility.”
Brescoll had men and women participants rate a “fictitious female CEO who talked more than other people. The result: both sexes viewed this woman as significantly less competent and less suited to leadership than a male CEO who talked for the same amount of time. When the female CEO was described as talking less than others, her perceived competency shot up.”
Damned if we do, damned if we don’t. Obviously a catch 22. So recognize the inequality, and then move on and do what you can to portray your most confident self.
WHERE DOES THIS LEAVE US?
What can we do to project confidence when we don’t feel it and give ourselves a leg up?
- Stop with the disclaimers. Immediately.
- Work on your tone – Confident voices tend to be lower in pitch, have a flatter intonation, and a faster speech rate. This may not be your tone of voice but play around a bit and see what fits. Most importantly, stop the upspeak? (<– question mark intended)
- Make sure your body language matches what you are saying. Don’t be confusing.
- Pay attention to the cues that others may give you that you aren’t capturing their attention (e.g., speaking over you, lack of interest, looking away, etc.) When you see this, acknowledge it (e.g., “It seems like I may have lost you on that last comment, let me rephrase it” etc) and readjust.
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