Beware the Humblebrag

Young cheerful Indian businessman relaxing at swimming pool side (Little Soft Image)You’ve probably heard the term—humblebrag. It’s a rhetorical device that wraps pride in a cloak of false modesty.

A Fortune magazine article recently included several examples, like this Tweet attributed to former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleisher: “They just announced my flight at LaGuardia is number 15 for takeoff. I miss Air Force One!!”

So Ari was important enough to fly in Air Force One. Why do I think the complaint about the delayed flight was largely an excuse to remind me of that?

Other examples, easily found on the Internet, include, “Can we start a media campaign to question how I got into Columbia, too? Still scratching my head about how I got accepted & demand answers!” Not a brag, of course.  You’re being self-deprecating. Everyone can see that.

Or this: “It still amazes me that I can be in Prague, London and the Paramus Whole Foods all in one day Travel and technology boggle my mind.” Yes. Great shout-out for travel and technology.

Those who humblebrag consider it a good self-promotion strategy; the sympathy elicited by the complaint or the modesty demonstrated by self-effacing words will provide a good context for the self-promotion—the best of both worlds.

But a Harvard study published last April by Harvard Business School Professors Francesca Gino, Michael Norton, and graduate student Ovul Sezer says different.  If you humblebrag—if you deliver a mock-complaint—people see the ulterior motive. They see it clearly. You come off not as accomplished or important, but as conceited and insincere. You’re actually better off with an outright brag, which at least is seen as authentic. Humblebragging is a self-promotion strategy that is guaranteed to backfire.

While a lot of humblebragging occurs on social media, it can also find its way into job interviews and talks, as well. And it does no better there than it does on Tweets.

So when you’re reviewing a talk, your own or anyone else’s, scan it not just for jargon and arcane knowledge, but also for humblebrags. It’s an extra step that can keep the speaker from making an embarrassing  mistake.

The curse of knowledge

Don't look like thisThe best moment in a game of charades happens for me when time runs out. That’s when the exasperated guy who has been silently cavorting around the living room for three long minutes explosively blurts out the secret phrase in a heartfelt release of emotion. It was this! That gesture meant this! Why didn’t anyone pick up on his signals? They were so obvious!

It’s hard to imagine others don’t see the same things we do. It’s called the curse of knowledge.

And it’s a recognized phenomenon. Economists started talking about it back in 1989. When two parties bargain, the one with more information should do better. But if you know that the used car you’re selling was in an accident you’ll ask less for it even though the buyer who sits across from you has no idea. If you know that the dress you made has a high level of workmanship, you’ll ask more for it, even though it looks like a normal dress to the buyer. Once you know something, it’s hard to imagine yourself—or anyone else—not knowing it. Knowing more than the other guy can distort your point of view, which can work to your disadvantage.

In 1990, a Stanford University graduate student in psychology came up with a game that shows how it works. She asked subjects to tap out on a tabletop the rhythm of a well-known tune. Before the subjects began to tap, they were asked to estimate how many of those listening would be able to identify the tune. On average, tappers estimated that 50% would guess correctly. In actual practice, it was fewer than 3%. That’s because the tapper was running the music full blast in her head as she tapped. To her, the answer was obvious. But the audience, who heard no music at all, hardly had a clue. (Try it. Tap out the Star Spangled Banner. Now tap out the Birthday Song. Challenge a listener to hear any difference.)

Now, when you’ve been working in your field for 20 years—or just a special project for 6 months—you’ve had plenty of time to absorb and internalize all kinds of complex information. Things that were once strange have become familiar to you. You may not even think about them anymore. Steven Pinker, a cognitive neurologist, points out that we build up our knowledge one step at a time. A child knows that when someone exchanges items with someone else, that’s called trading. When it involves exchanging money for an item, that’s called buying. When many buyers and sellers gather, that’s called a market. Many interacting markets comprise an economy. And by now, the child has been left far behind. Central banking, quantitative easing, derivatives—those are terms used up at the next level, where economists live.  Economists understand everything behind those terms because the music of economics runs strongly in their heads. But pity the audience that never learned the tune.

The curse of knowledge is especially dangerous when you present to an audience. I mean, the whole reason you’re up there is that you know more about your topic than anyone else in the room.  So now you have the added task of imagining what it’s like to be back in a state of ignorance. You have to pitch your talk from that less informed point of view.


Bad Chart
5 things wrong with this chart

I have a friend who was asked to show 2014 gross sales figures to his executive committee as part of a year-end review.  (Obviously, I’ve disguised his chart.)  After doing his Excel spreadsheet, he played with several options and finally settled on this one because he thought it “jazzed up” the information.


What a chart should do is communicate clearly, and this one does not. Where did he go wrong?

 1. He used 3D.

The 3D effect actually obscures the information.  Can you tell the true value of sales for each division?  Can you see the data points? Not easily.

 2. He reversed the type (used a dark background with light type).

Whenever possible (which should be about 99% of the time), use dark type on a light background for legibility. It makes it easy for people to read.

 3. He did not start his Y axis (the vertical axis) at zero.

If you set the baseline at anything other than zero, you skew the visual representation of the differences between the columns. Skewed data doesn’t give you credibility.

 4. He indulged himself in chart junk.

Simplify, simplify, simplify.  If it is not absolutely essential to conveying the information accurately, eliminate it.  For example, direct labeling of your columns enables you to get rid of the legend, the grid lines, and the Y axis.

5. He used different colors to show simple data.

This chart doesn’t need different colors for each of its bars—the bars themselves tell the story through their respective lengths. Now, if each bar itself included additional values—if for example, you wanted to show how much each product contributed toward sales in a given quarter—you could show those additional values by stacking the products, each represented by a different color, to make up each bar. And if you chose to colorize the bars like that, you would use bold colors. Pastels are hardly worth the effort.

Here is the same chart after a makeover:

Good Chart



Far less dramatic. Far more informative. by conveying the information at a glance, this is a much more successful chart.

How to Make an Impression That Wins New Business

The most important presentation you ever do may be the one that lands you important new business. New business can launch your organization. It can keep your bottom line secure. It can signal the world that you’ve arrived.

But first, you have to win it.

Whether it’s private business or a public agency whose business you’re seeking, there will probably be a Request for Proposal (RFP) that outlines its expectations. Some RFPs are complex and demanding. The important thing is that you fulfill all the requirements, no matter how involved or troublesome. This is the price of securing a new client.

But there’s more, and here’s where a good presentation comes in—you also have to establish a point of differentiation. Every good business does this, but it’s especially important when you’re seeking new business. Your audience must understand and remember what sets you apart. No one ever got a new client by saying, “Me, too!”

Are you more efficient? Better equipped? More experienced? Do you offer more expertise? Have you found a new approach? Find something you have that no one else does, and make sure your presentation stresses this differentiator. Keep coming back to it as you present so that the audience remembers it when the presentation is over.

And while you’re at it, you must do one other vital thing with your presentation—you must form a warm connection with your audience. You’re not just presenting numbers here; you’re presenting yourself. You need to make those people want to work with you. If you don’t, they will cool to your presentation soon after it’s over, however qualified you seem to be. People go where they want to go. Make sure they want to go to you.

A stellar presentation can make the difference. So don’t leave it until the last minute! Don’t concentrate on the RFP requirements and think you’re done when every taxing detail in them has been fulfilled. The truth is that your would-be client doesn’t like reading those details any more than you liked writing them. That’s not what will push you over the line. What your audience remembers about you will push you over the line.

Get a coach. Gather your materials and create a presentation. Rehearse it over and over until it comes naturally. Scout the location and see how large a room you have. Find where the electrical outlets are. Determine where the sun will be at the time you present, and if it will be on the screen, know how to work the blinds. When you appear, everything you do will look effortless to your audience because you took this part seriously.

And that’s the kind of impression that wins new business.

3 Ways to Handle Platform Fear

I spoke not long ago with a group of caseworkers from a government social services agency. These are the people who do the hard and often thankless job of seeing that children in difficult circumstances get the financial support they need.

But some of them told me they were most stressed out when they had to get up in front of an audience. One said she broke out in hives every time. She asked what could be done about that.

I told her I’d never been schooled on how to treat stress rashes (though I’m told that moisturizer and hydration help), but I know some ways to reduce the stress that leads to them. It begins with realizing what’s going on in your body.

There are those who believe stage fright stems from our evolutionary heritage. When we get up to speak, we face a sea of eyes looking back at us. We humans all have pretty strong threat detection radar, and those eyes seem threatening.

Why is that? The audience is just sitting there.

Well, some anthropologists have a theory about that. They believe that down through human history, everyone looking at you at the same time has pretty much meant bad news. It could mean you’re about to be hunted. Or attacked. Or accused. So your body prepares you to fight or outrun those you’re facing. It gives you a nice shot of adrenaline to help ensure your survival. That’s why, just when you want to be calm and in control, your body makes your hands shake, your palms sweat, and your voice break.

There are a couple of ways to handle this. One is to work off the adrenaline.

Before you speak, go someplace you can’t be seen and do something strenuous. Do pushups against the sink in the restroom. Shadowbox. Run in place. If you can’t get off alone, grip the arms of your chair or the rim of the podium or the chalk holder behind you. You’ll find your jitters are reduced, placing you in better physical control of yourself. That alone will calm you down a little.

A second technique is to focus on just one person in the audience at a time.

If you go from face to face when you get up to speak, you’ll get another shot of adrenaline each time you assess those faces for signs of a threat. This isn’t the rational part of your brain talking, of course. But we’re human beings, and when we’re nervous all we can see are more reasons to stay nervous.

When you focus on a single face you have to perform only one threat assessment. Once that’s behind you, you can just talk with that person as though you were the only two in the room. When you’ve made your point, move on to the next person and talk to her for a while. Do this again and again, covering all parts of the room as you move along. People will feel engaged even when you’re not looking at them, and they will relax. Once you see that, you’ll probably relax, too.

The best and longest-lasting technique takes a while to perfect. That’s to stop thinking about yourself and start thinking what your audience needs from you. After all, that’s the reason you’re up there, or should be. If you think, “What can I do for them?” you’ve made them into a group you will act upon, not a group ready to act upon you. You begin thinking more about your message. You begin looking for feedback, for signs of understanding. You put yourself in the right frame of mind to speak.

Now, none of this is likely to keep you from getting at least a little nervous before speaking. I’ve been speaking for more than 40 years and I still get nervous before each talk. But I’ve found that nerves aren’t really my enemy. They keep me alert and on my toes. I speak best when I’m a little on edge.

When you can think, “This isn’t hurting me; it’s making me better,” you’ll have mastered the art of handling platform fear.

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