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Why confidence isn’t a trick

So Twitter is doubling its character length from 140 to 280 (for most users). Aliza Rosen, Twitter’s product manager explained why – it’s “hard to fit a thought into a tweet”. In tests, longer tweets led to more followers and more engagement.

Hurrah. I see this as a vote for nuance by people who feel constrained by Twitter’s forced brevity.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge advocate of succinctness but sometimes ideas need space to breathe. Without it the online world and beyond will be filled with crude, simplistic opinions, often expressed in angry voices.

The idea of a society dominated by the loud and the opinionated was explored in a recent R4 programme, The Confidence Trick, fronted by writer Laura Barton (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09bykhx). She wondered if our definition of confidence needs redefining. I agree.

20 years helping people to become more confident and skilful communicators has taught me to recognise that confidence can sometimes be subtle and understated: not about shouting loudest, but rather about inner strength and stillness. Michael Caine’s preparation for his role as a British army officer, in Zulu, led him to conclude that powerful/confident people are still, they speak slowly and they pause.

Charles de Gaulle believed that “silence is the ultimate weapon of power”.

So, is confidence about space – taking up your fair share of it in the world, physically and verbally (or in the case of ‘manspreading’ on the tube, more than your fair share?) Note to self – be sure to give space to those whose confidence we want to nurture (eg allowing children to finish a story rather than hurrying them along or interrupting).

Truly confident people show vulnerability, and experience self doubt – useful traits in avoiding arrogance or complacency. FT columnist turned teacher Lucy Kellaway fell foul of this in her car crash speech to her old Oxford college earlier this year. So badly did she insult her audience, she was asked to leave the premises (she writes about the experience here: https://www.ft.com/content/b5efc2b2-2667-11e7-a34a-538b4cb30025).

Confident people are also open to challenge, and they welcome new, differing ideas. Albert Camus – the need to be right- sign of a vulgar mind”.

For many though, this is a huge source of unease. They fear being exposed and judged for “not knowing everything”. Helpful in combating this anxiety (particularly useful early in a career) is a change in mindset to “I know some things and I’m keen to know more”. Curiosity, interest in your subject/clients, an eagerness to learn will position you well with your peers/clients/senior colleagues.

Our most valuable tool in dealing with challenge is actually one simple thought in the split second before we speak. If we respect the other person’s entitlement to have a different opinion to ours, and ask ourselves why that might be, our reply will be more measured and reasonable.

Sheryl Sandberg explores this change in mindset in Lean In: “there is my point of view (my truth) and someone else’s point of view (their truth). Rarely is there one absolute truth so people who believe they speak the truth are very silencing of others”. Allowing space around the challenge rather than closing it down is transformational for many. It gives them a sense of control and power.

Being quietly confident rather than shouting loudest is also about authenticity, the subject of another excellent R4 programme (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09dxddw). I have actually done something other than listen to radio programmes this week!

Professor Rosie Campbell for Analysis examined the complex relationship between the public, politicians and authenticity, striving to define what it looks like and how to recognise whether it’s real or feigned (is that inauthentic authenticity?).

She discovers that the brash, loud, apparently authentic confidence so often seen in public figures might not be all it seems, and that changing ourselves to a version of authenticity which we think will appeal to our audiences (remember Gordon Brown trying to smile) can backfire.

So, let’s not celebrate an arrogant, opinionated version of confidence and/or excuse it as authenticity. Let’s instead value and give space to a more subtle and nuanced style, expressed in 280 not 140 characters.