Have you ever noticed how some people own a room or own a conversation? They command instant respect, present themselves well, and engage in conversation effortlessly. They exude competence, and if you converse with them, you leave thinking that you had a great conversation.
And then there are those others that seem a bit awkward. They don’t exude confidence, and conversations don’t come as easily. Or something about them seems forgettable, or even negative.
Is there really a huge difference between these types of people?
I don’t believe so. Most of us could appear more credible and be more memorable if we simply became aware of the little things we are doing that are hurting our credibility. These are not the obvious “he-doesn’t-know-what-he’s-talking-about” issues (a poseur will always be a poseur!), but rather seemingly minor things that people notice – consciously or subconsciously.
Are you doing any of these things?
Uh … Um … Many years ago, when critiquing our project interview teams, I became profoundly aware of the prevalence of the “uhs” and “ums” and, well, um, I found it very distracting. I created an “Um Counter,” and every time someone used one of the offending words, I’d place a tick mark on my notepad. We had some presenters that could approach triple digits in fewer than 20 minutes! Most of us aren’t even aware that we are doing it. There’s some subconscious need to fill blank conversation space with sound, so we naturally default to saying gibberish like “um.” I was at a recent networking event, and the sponsors were all given 1-2 minutes to talk about their companies. The host was very polished and competent, and added humor. Then each sponsor stood and peppered their company overview with the dreaded u-words. “We’ve, um, been in business for 50 years and, um, offer, uh, multi-discipline engineering.” Whether in front of a large audience, or engaging in one-on-one conversation, the um-offenders are unknowingly diminishing their credibility. “Uhs” and “ums” are distracting, and take away from the natural flow of the conversation and the statements being made. A person might be brilliant, but they are limiting their ability to impact their audience (again whether one person or many) because they are not able to effectively make their point. “Four, uh, score, and, um, seven, uh, seven years ago…” doesn’t quite inspire the masses, does it?
Do this instead: pause. Take a breath. Enjoy the blessed sound of silence, if even only for a second. Use a strategic pause to make a point – intentionally let silence follow that profound statement or observation you just made. Let it sink in. And then continue. This will instantly improve your credibility and make you appear more confident. Become aware of how often you use “ums” – even record yourself talking. Admitting you have a problem is the first step!
Failing to Make Eye Contact. This one also drives me nuts. Have you ever been in a conversation with someone who refused to look you in the eye? They look at the floor, they look over your shoulder, they look at their papers or computer or screen. It’s not natural! And perhaps even worse, when in group conversation, there’s occasionally that person who will focus all their eye-attention on one other person, and not even look at anyone else in the group. How does that make everyone else feel? Excluded from the conversation clique! It’s like high school all over again! In fairness, the listeners owe their eye-attention to the speaker as well. I was recently engaged in a conversation with four people. The person talking had their eyes laser-locked on mine. It was awkward. I tried to gently “hand off” their eyes to someone else in our little group, but was shocked to realize that the other two people participating in the conversation were not even looking at the person talking. One was looking at the floor, the other was looking around the room. So throw the penalty flag, because we have multiple infractions here. I’m going to go ahead and rule them personal fouls. One is the speaker not engaging the others in the conversation. The second is the others not paying attention to the speaker. So this leaves everyone with an uncomfortable feeling, and you’ve heard the cliché a thousand times before (note my clever use of a cliché right there … throw another penalty flag!): people don’t remember what you said, they remember how you made them feel. And men, stop locking eyes with the other men in the conversation and totally failing to make meaningful eye contact with the women. Whether intentional or not, this immediately creates the impression that the other men are more important, or that the women don’t have value to add to the conversation. It’s hard enough for a woman in the A/E/C industry without having to deal with this poor behavior.
Do this instead: make sure you look at everyone in your group conversation, whether you are sitting across a conference room table, standing at a networking event, or hanging out at your kid’s soccer game. Engage everyone. It is your responsible to look everyone in the eye – don’t move your eyes rapidly from person-to-person; rather, hold onto each person’s eyes for a while before moving on. And if it is not your turn to speak, focus your full attention on the person talking, even if they are not looking at you. And be sure to actually listen: don’t let your mind race ahead to determine what you want to say next, or you’ll mentally lose track of the conversation and appear disengaged.
The Limp Fish Handshake. You know what I’m talking about – you reach out to shake someone’s hand, and it feels like you’re holding a dead fish, minus the smell. How does that demonstrate confidence? When people see a lack of confidence, they began to wonder about credibility. Women tend to be commit this infraction more than men, but limp fish syndrome is equal opportunity. If you can hold a jar to open it, you surely know how to squeeze your hand a bit! But of course, there’s some caution required here. Don’t squeeze prematurely. Oh, how I hate the premature squeeze when someone shakes my fingertips! And likewise, don’t overcompensate with a finger-breaking squeeze. Yeah, you’ll be memorable. But not in a good way. And don’t over-pump, either. We’re shaking hands, for goodness sake, not inflating a bicycle tire! If you have been holding a drink in your right hand, or are sweaty, quickly wipe off your hand before shaking. And speaking of that, make sure you wash your hands after using the restroom! The stats vary, but one I saw recently found that 62% of men and 40% of women don’t wash their hands after using the restroom. Eww!!! No one wants to shake hands with that! Don’t leave anyone hanging, either! Have you ever reached out your hand to shake someone else’s, and they ignored it or didn’t’ see it? Awk-ward! And once again, men, don’t only shake the hands of the other men – shake the hands of the women, too.
Do this instead: extend your hand, and grasp the other person’s entire hand firmly but don’t squeeze too tightly. Look the other person in the eye and share a greeting as you pump once or twice. If you know them, say their name: “Susan, so nice to see you again.” If you don’t know them, introduce yourself: “Hi, I’m Scott Butcher, nice to meet you.” And don’t forget to smile.
Dominating the Conversation. Do you know what everyone’s favorite subject to discuss is? Ourselves! We love ourselves. If you don’t believe it, just hop on Facebook, where millions of people compete to impress their friends – or at least those people they barely talked with in high school that are now their Facebook friends! Don’t get me wrong, it is natural to talk about ourselves, because it is the subject we know best. And most people are genuinely interested in what you have to say. To an extent. So while it might be fun to be the center of attention, the person – or people – you are talking with also have a right to equal center-of-attention status. Don’t interrupt people who are talking to make a point or talk about something you or your firm accomplished. Don’t fill every brief moment of silence with a vomit of facts, figures, and anecdotes. Remember, people don’t remember what you said, they remember how you made them feel.
Do this instead: shut up! Listen. Pay attention to others. For years we’ve all been trained about how to give an elevator speech. And the elevator speech is important – articulate who your firm is and your value proposition in 30 seconds. Have a second elevator speech as well – the one about you, that defines your personal brand. But do you know what the most effective elevator speech ever created is? It is one that we can all use verbatim: “Tell me about yourself.” Or “Tell me about your firm.” Simple, huh? It is a way to get everyone involved in a conversation. A way to get shy people to speak up. A way to learn about others. Of course, once again, you have to be listening to what they are saying. This demonstrates that you are interested in others – and if you are truly interested in others, you'll be viewed as more credible because of your ability to empathize with them.
Failing to Dress for the Occasion. I recently attended Big Important Event. An internationally renowned business man was in town, looking to invest some money. He was nicely dressed, but not overdressed: slacks, dress shirt without a tie, sport coat. His host – who wanted to tap in to said money, wore jeans, work boots, and camouflage tee shirt. And no, this was not in a factory environment. What kind of impression does that create? How credible did that person appear? Don’t get me wrong, I truly enjoy dressing casually. Even though I once penned an ode to my favorite tie, I really despise wearing them. I’m happy that professional attire, at least in many places, has skewed toward being more casual. But that doesn’t mean that I wear jeans and tee shirts to important meetings! If you are the top dog – think Steve Jobs – sure, wear what you want. The rest of us need to dress for our audience. Quiet day at the office? If your company permits casual attire, by all means go for it. But if you are going out of the office – whether to a client meeting, Rotary Club lunch, or evening networking function, look the part. My firm does a lot of work with industry, and we’ve made the mistake of wearing suits and ties to meeting and been told, in no uncertain terms, “Don’t ever wear that here again!” This is why it is important to know your audience – it goes both ways, dressing up or dressing down. Not to pick on men once again, but we’re usually the offenders here. We wear wrinkly shirts or tie our ties too short or don’t realize that the sport coat that has been hanging in our office is now caked in layers of dust!
Do this instead: in many environments, dress slacks and a button-down dress shirt are appropriate for men. Throw on a sport coat and you are usually prepared for almost any situation. But if you are visiting with a client or audience where you know that you’ll be meeting with “the suits” – by all means dress like them. Be conservative – it is better to be overdressed than underdressed. You can always take off your sport or suit coat and tie. And remember that there’s a simple ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ card to play, which works in most environments: wear company attire. A dress shirt, or even polo shirt, with your company’s logo allows you to underdress because you are clearly representing your company!
I’m Too Sexy for My Shirt. Okay, maybe this one isn’t about clothing – but it is about attitude. We are all at different stages of life and have different backgrounds and experiences. Some of us have accomplished a lot. Some of us have big, unrealized plans. Some of us are content where we are. But we’re all pretty unified in not liking the braggarts of the world. You know who I’m talking about: they name drop incessantly. (I know a guy who name drops so much that it is sort of a game to those he’s speaking to – not speaking with, because he’s also a conversation-dominator: how many names can Joe drop in a conversation? The person who counts the most wins! Not that any of us even know half the names he’s dropping!) Or they constantly brag about how awesome they are – or their company is. I really love the ones who brag incessantly about their Big Global Firm, looking down on those who work at smaller firms, even though they have had absolutely nothing to do with their firm’s success! Big words are another element of “Too Sexy” syndrome. I like to think I have a pretty good vocabulary, but that doesn’t mean I should use every word! (I comprehend a superfluity of words, but tend to avoid being too loquacious!) What’s somewhat ironic about this behavior is that while it reeks of overconfidence, it actually creates the impression of being under-confident. If you feel the need to brag and try to impress everyone, it indicates that you really aren’t that confident in who you are. It also brings your credibility into question: what's really behind that façade? So, sticking with the song-title theme, “That Don’t Impress Me Much.”
Do this instead: be yourself. Be authentic. Absolutely feel free to share some of your accomplishments or your company’s successes – if germane to the conversation and if you’re asked! Remember that it’s never about you, so leave the bragging and fancified words at home because they indicate that you are overcompensating. Focus your attention on others. The purpose of bragging is to make yourself look good and those around you feel inferior – and people remember how you made them feel.
Debbie Downer. My wife is named Debbie, and as someone with a very upbeat personality, she hates the expression “Debbie Downer.” And yet, the name of the iconic Saturday Night Live character has become a generic term for someone who is always negative. You know the type. You say something like, “Business is really good right now, I like the way the economy is headed and feel bullish on the year we’re going to have.” Then they respond, “Yeah, but we’re already past due for a recession, and even if we don’t have a recession this year there’s probably going to be a war or something.” Does this person come across as happy? Or confident? Maybe they are not a “Debbie Downer,” but rather someone with absolutely no sense of humor. They’re always fun to talk with. You crack a joke or try to say something funny, and they just look at you (or don’t even give you that courtesy) with a long face and match it with a long sigh.
Do this instead: to borrow from Monty Python, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” When you are with others, be upbeat. Be positive. Smile. Smiling goes a long way and is contagious. Confident people like to smile, they like to positively impact others and make them feel good about themselves. Laugh when appropriate (but don’t force a laugh – everyone can see right through it). Talk about the positive things. Compliment those you are with. Make everyone feel good about the conversation – don’t depress the hell out of everyone! When people like you, they are more likely to trust what you have to say, enhancing your credibility.
Shrinking Violet. Shyness does not exude confidence – and can even be detrimental to credibility. And shy people often have poor posture, which sends a non-verbal message loudly and clearly. Their head tilts forward, eyes toward the ground. Their shoulders slouch forward. They may be the most interesting, intelligent person in the world, but they carry the look of someone who has been defeated. Imagine being a client, interviewing a firm for a new job, and the project manager has the appearance of a shrinking violet. What they say certainly has less impact than how they look saying it. There’s a school of thought – that I don’t necessarily believe but nonetheless feel it is important to understand – that when you are speaking, 55% of what you are communicating comes from your body language, 38% is in the tone of your voice, and only 7% is the content – what you are saying. I totally agree that the non-verbal communication and tone play a major role, but I sure hope that more than 7% of the communication relates to the actual words being spoken! Even so, the shy, shrinking violet is not very animated and tends to have a weak voice, creating the impression that they are not very confident.
Do this instead: Be an actor! Whether or not you feel comfortable talking with others – one-on-one, in interviews for jobs or projects, or speaking in front of groups from two people to two hundred people, remember that you are playing a role. Force yourself to stand straight, to speak confidentially, to use hand gestures and other body language. It will have a huge impact on how others respond to what you have to say, and build your credibility.
None of this advice is groundbreaking. In fact, your parents very well may have tried to instill this behavior in you during your formative years: “Don’t say ‘um’.” “Look people in the eye.” “Say hello to everyone.” “Shake hands when you introduce yourself.” “Wash your hands after you go to the bathroom.” “Don’t talk about yourself too much.” “Dress up for special occasions like dinners or church or weddings.” “Keep your chin up.” “Smile more.”
Does any of this sound familiar? Perhaps as you read the last paragraph you heard your mom’s voice in your head?
Do you know someone that exudes confidence? A friend, mentor, or co-worker? Pay attention to the way they act, the way they look, and the way they speak. Mirror those behaviors that impress you. Don’t try to copy them, but let those positive attributes be a model for you. If you are competent, and come across as confident, your credibility will be enhanced.
You can’t control much of the world around you, but you can control the way you act, the way you look, and the way you talk. So follow the advice of millions of parents around the world – and most likely your own! – and you can be that person that exudes confidence when you walk in the room. Employers will want to hire you. Clients will want to commission your firm. Partners will want to team with you.
Sometimes, changing the little things you do can have a huge impact.