Quick question:  which is better for a public speaker – to be overconfident, or to underrate yourself?

Understand that both are not getting reality exactly right – the first thinks she is better than she is, and the second thinks she is worse than she is.  Which is the more optimal attitude for public speaking?  One can imagine the overconfident speaker letting her brashness and enthusiasm carry the day – and infecting the audience.  But one can also imagine the overly concerned speaker preparing much more thoroughly and then finding that the doubts drop away and she sails to a glorious conclusion, with an appealing humbleness and self-deprecating charm.  Which is the model that works best?

Some research from a few years ago suggests that there is one right answer to this question.  

It pays to be overconfident.

I know, it’s another reason to hate people who overrate themselves.  But the research finds that if you overrate yourself, other people will share your delusion and do the same.  So you’ll get promoted more often, elected more frequently, and offered more chances to speak.  And when you do speak, you’ll be rated more highly.

Call it the Overconfidence Aura.  It’s annoying, but apparently it works.  And the reverse is true, too:  if you underrate yourself, other people will do the same.  The people around you – your audience, for example – pick up on your level of belief about yourself.

One can imagine that it’s not only annoying, but also dangerous.  If we’re more likely to promote and elect people who are self-delusional about their abilities, they’ll probably take greater risks with the organization – or the country – they’re in charge of.

That’s scary.

Back to public speaking.  What can you do about your level of self-confidence?  This research suggests that if you’re already over-confident, great.  Keep up the good work.  A little crazy optimism is a good thing, apparently.

But what if you lack confidence?  Can you hide it, or change it, or neutralize it in any way?

Here’s where self-talk can become very important.  Amy Cuddy’s original work on the so-called “wonder woman” pose to bolster your confidence before you do something difficult like speak was discredited – but only partially.  Follow up research found no evidence of hormonal changes – i.e., increased testosterone – from stances or mantras designed to make you feel more powerful.  But the subjective feeling of increased confidence did hold up.  And that is all you need, according to this research.

So, get busy, if you lack confidence.  Start talking to yourself.  I’ve blogged on the importance of this sort of work before and written about it in Power Cues Now further research has made it imperative in order that the audience not underrate you.

Then you’d be doomed before you start.  So don’t take any chances.  Take on the positive self-delusion that you’re great, because it will greatly increase the chances that the audience will think you’re great, too.

My new book on the dangers of digital communications — and how to fix them, Can You Hear Me?, is due out in October.  You can pre-order it here.  




  1. Another important article, thanks.

    Good luck with your new book!

    (see a message I just sent you through your website).

  2. Nick, Again, thank you for your very helpful and insightful posts. You are a treasure chest of positive, useful energy for so many of us. I still look for the day that I will be able to get your help one-on-one. Glenn

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.