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3 Tips to Sound More Confident

A woman pointing to a flip chart while sounding confident

By John Millen

Working with more than 7,000 leaders since I started my consulting business in 2004, I’ve seen every kind of communication you can imagine.

One dichotomy I see in nearly every group: one person, expert in the field, will speak conservatively, constantly underplaying their own valuable statements. 

Another person, with much less experience, will confidently express thoughts, ideas and facts that sound good, though they are often wrong.

This is one of the situations addressed in a new book called Magic Words, What to Say to Get Your Way, by Jonah Berger, a professor at the Wharton School of Business. I recommend this book, as I did Berger’s previous book, which I wrote about in How to Change Anyone’s Mind.

Exploring the question of confident communication, Berger cites a study in which researchers asked participants to choose a financial advisor to help them invest an imaginary inheritance. Two advisers were supposedly recommended by friends, so the researchers set up a competition between the two.

“Each adviser would judge the probability that some of the individual stocks would increase in value after three months. Participants will check the adviser's judgments against the stocks’ actual performance, and hire the adviser, whose judgment they preferred,” Berger writes.

While the ultimate performance of the two advisers would be the same, being right 50 percent of the time, their styles of prediction would vary. The participants read a few dozen predictions from the two advisors. 

One advisor would make moderate predictions, while the second adviser would make more extreme predictions. 

Berger writes: 

Though they were equally accurate, one made judgments that were much more extreme. While their more moderate peer thought a stock had a 76% chance of going up, for example, the more extreme adviser thought it had a 93% chance. And while their more restrained counterpart thought a stock had an 18% chance of going down, the more extreme adviser thought it would be more like 3%.

One might think that people would prefer the moderate adviser. After all, they were better calibrated. Given all the uncertainty around performance, the more moderate estimates were more reasonable. 

But that's not what happened.

In fact, when choosing advisers, almost three-quarters of people pick the more extreme one. They preferred guidance from someone who expressed greater confidence (seemed more certain), even though that confidence outstripped advisers' actual ability to estimate market trends.

And the reason is the same as what drives the power of powerful language….Listeners are more persuaded when communicators seem more certain, or confident about what they are communicating.

Because when people speak with certainty, we're more likely to think they're right.

Some leaders, especially technical experts, believe that in order to be accurate they must speak conservatively and hedge their statements with many qualifications. 

Unfortunately, this makes them less effective communicators when they are trying to influence others to take action, such as funding a project, approving a proposal or hiring them for a new position.

I’m going to offer three ideas I discerned from Berger that will help you to sound more confident when you speak. 

But let me be clear, I’m not suggesting that you should make up facts, deceive anyone or distort the truth. I’m just asking you to speak your truth with more conviction; to stop undercutting yourself as you speak.

Here are three tips to sound more confident as you speak:

1. Stop hedging

Berger says that we all use hedge words that undermine the point we are trying to make. 

“We note that we think something will work, that a solution could be effective, or that an alternate approach might work better. We suggest that something seems like a good course of action or that,  in our opinion, something else is worth trying.

“But without realizing it, hedging can undermine our impact, because while we’re sharing our thoughts or recommendations, by hedging, we’re simultaneously undercutting them. We’re suggesting that we’re not sure those thoughts and recommendations are worth pursuing,” Berger says.

(Of course, there are times when you should hedge your opinion, just make sure it’s a conscious decision on your part, and not an unthinking habit.)

Try to develop an awareness of whether you are undermining your influence by hedging your communication.

2. Stop using hedge words

There are many, many words and phrases we use to hedge our thoughts when we should be speaking clearly and unambiguously. Here are a few of the example hedge words Berger provides. 

Try to eliminate these from your vocabulary when you are trying to influence others:

  • May/might, could, probably
  • In my opinion, I think, I suppose
  • Kind of, around,, generally

To convey confidence, Berger says, ditch the hedges.

3. Use definite words

Berger says that we should replace hedges with “definites,” words that convey a clear sense of confidence. Here are some examples of definites he provides:

  • Definitely, clearly, obviously
  • Absolutely, everyone, guaranteed
  • Unambiguous, essential, every time

“Definites do more than signal and lack of uncertainty. They suggest that things are 110 percent clear. The speaker is confident, and the course of action is obvious. Making listeners more likely to follow them, and whatever they suggest,” Berger says.

I hope you’ll stop using hedges and start using definites because I've seen this  transform the way people speak, conveying greater confidence and increasing their influence with others.

Give this practice a try. I’m sure it will help you to sound more confident when you communicate.

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John Millen

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