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power points

Former U.S. President Donald Trump doesn’t seem to rank as a great speaker – certainly not when compared to eloquent leaders such as Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill or John F. Kennedy. His oratory sinks rather than soars, often rambling and incoherent. But Wharton School marketing professor Jonah Berger, who studies influence, rates Mr. Trump’s communications highly because his words convey confidence. He’ll build a wall. He’ll beat China. Whatever the topic, he knows more than anybody.

Prof. Berger urges you to seek a more confident style through four steps:

  • Ditch the hedges: You must speak with certainly rather than with hesitant caution. “When people speak with certainty, we’re more likely to think they are right,” Prof. Berger writes in Magic Words. Try to cut words like “may,” “in my opinion,” “could,” “I think,” “sort of” and “I believe” from your vocabulary. Such hedges may be more honest, but they undermine your recommendations.
  • Don’t hesitate: Our speech tends to be littered with “uh,” “um” and “er.” Prof. Berger warns that this suggests we don’t know what we’re talking about. Often those hesitations arise because we start talking before we have thought our ideas through. He suggests gathering your thoughts before speaking.
  • Turn pasts into presents: A study by Prof. Berger and Schulich School of Business professor Grant Packard of Amazon book reviews found those that used the present tense – the book “is” a good read rather than “it was” a good read – had greater impact, in terms of citations for helping others. That was later confirmed with studies of music, restaurants and consumer electronics. He speculates that the past tense can convey the rating is more of a personal opinion or fleeting, while present tense is more general and enduring. We’re more likely to go to a restaurant where the food “is” good than “was” good – and the same applies to your recommendations and advice.
  • Know when to express doubt: As you might expect, there are some situations when being circumspect is more effective. A key one is when trying to change somebody’s opinion. When people feel strongly about something, if you are too strong it can be threatening, leading them to become more entrenched. Expressing doubt – indicating you are conflicted or uncertain – encourages them to be more open-minded in the early part of a conversation, when they feel you are trying to sell them on an idea or your product.

Prof. Berger also recommends building a habit of asking follow-up questions as they similarly build rapport. That can range from when somebody asks you what you had for lunch – “A Reuben sandwich, how about you?” – to exploring more when somebody mentions a new product they are developing or that they are looking forward to the weekend. Follow-up questions show you are interested – you value the other person – and can pay off in a deeper connection.

Stanford University research found that when children were asked to be a helper they were more likely to participate actively in cleaning up a space than when asked to help. Prof. Berger says you should similarly look for ways to turn a verb into a noun – an action into an identity. On a resume, don’t say you are hard-working. Write that you are a hard worker. You’re an innovator, not just innovative. It can change how you are perceived by others, as well as yourself.

Some words, Prof. Berger says, are magic – more impactful. “The right words, used at the right time, can change minds, engage audiences and drive action,” he writes – confidently.

Quick hits

  • No one cares about your excuses as much as you, notes Ottawa blogger Shane Parrish. In fact, nobody cares about your excuses at all, except you. Whatever the reasons, it doesn’t change the outcome or solve the problems that remain. Adopt a next move mindset: Deal with the current circumstances as best as you can.
  • Actor and science communicator Alan Alda has a rule of three: Make no more than three points; explain difficult ideas in three different ways; and make important points three times.
  • According to the Forgetting Curve devised by psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, one hour after a webinar or training seminar you will probably only remember 50 per cent of what you learned and a week later, you’ll remember just 20 per cent. Consultant Stephen Lynch says the key is to put the ideas into practice as soon as possible – do whatever is called for, which enhances retention.
  • Executive coach Laura Gassner Otting says action beats stagnation: When you’re unsure about what to do, you’ll be happiest if you just choose something. The status quo doesn’t fare as well as some action, even when that action resulted from flipping a coin, research has found.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.