Kill the qualifiers to connect with your audience, writes Ian Whitworth.

Want to be decisive and masterful? Damn right you do. Confidence will get you everywhere. It’s why you see gorgeous women with short, tracksuited criminals, and why the most annoying person you knew in school is now your local MP.

As you suspected, many less-intelligent people are super-confident, because they have little sense of their own limitations. Taking a wild stab in the dark, I’m guessing you may have worked for someone like this.

It’s known as Dunning-Kruger Effect. These two psychologists were inspired by a man who robbed two banks with his face smeared with lemon juice. Why? Because he knew that lemon juice could be used as invisible ink, so it would stop security cameras recording his face.

Their studies found that incompetent people not only failed to recognise their own lack of skill, but also failed to recognise genuine skill in others. Yet smarter people underestimate their skills, because they suffer the indecision that comes from all that fancy consideration they do.

So when the un-stupid speak or present, they can come across all soft and hesitant, like an annoying Hugh Grant movie character.

I saw this recently at the launch of some new software that everyone in the audience was excited about. From the back of the room came: “Looks great. But will it be available for mobile as well as computers?”

The presenter paused, eyes darting from side to side, and replied “Potentially… yes.” Or translated into English, “Not in a million years.”

Qualifiers are words that make you look evasive, or at best, weaken your message. They sneak into a perfectly good line and dilute its impact and meaning.

Tell them you either are or you aren’t. Not potentially might be, or could conceivably be. You will or you won’t, not probably going to in the fullness of time.

Here are some of the classic offenders: Sort of. Kind of. Rather. Sometimes. Possibly. Maybe. Quite. Potentially. Probably. Reasonably.

Qualifiers suck the life out of all communication, but particularly speeches. Part of the art of making a speech is looking decisive. You’re the expert, that’s why you’re standing out the front.

Let’s add some weaselly qualifiers to some great speeches and see if they would still turn the course of history.

  1. We may find it necessary to fight them on the beaches!
    Winston Churchill
  2. We have few things to fear including fear itself.
    Franklin D. Roosevelt
  3. It is an ideal for which I am possibly prepared to die.
    Nelson Mandela
  4. Ask not what your country might consider doing for you – ask what you might sometimes do for your country.
    John F. Kennedy
  5. I am probably the greatest!
    Muhammad Ali

As in most areas of presentation, less is more.  And if it all goes terribly wrong, maybe try the lemon juice on the face one more time. m

Ian Whitworth leads a double life as a co-founder of audio-visual group Scene Change, and principal of creative marketing consultancy, A Lizard Drinking. He can be contacted on email – ian@scenechange.com.au.

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