Confidence is one of those words that we use to mean different things without even realizing it.
One is what psychologists call “epistemic confidence,” or certainty. How sure you are about what’s true? If you say, “I’m 99% positive he’s lying” or “I guarantee this will work,” you’re displaying epistemic confidence.
Then there’s “social confidence,” or self-assuredness. When you’re in a group setting, do you act like you deserve to be there like you’re secure in yourself and in your role? If you speak as if you’re worth listening to, you’re displaying social confidence.
Why social confidence is more valuable
We tend to conflate both types of confidence. It’s easy to picture, for example, a leader pumping up his team with an inspiring pep talk about how there’s no doubt in his mind that they’re going to succeed. It’s also easy to picture someone lacking in both types, stammering nervously, “Uh, I’m not really sure what we should do here.”
But epistemic confidence and social confidence don’t have to be a package deal. In fact, some of the most successful — and likable — people have more of the latter.
Just look at Jeff Bezos. In a 2012 blog post, Jason Fried, co-founder of Basecamp, recounts a time when the Amazon founder stopped by his company’s headquarters to do a Q&A session.
In one of his answers, Bezos shared an interesting insight: “People who are right a lot change their minds often.”
Individuals who embrace this type of thinking are often remarkably self-assured. Like Bezos, they are not afraid to express uncertainty, and they can hold a crowd’s attention when they speak.
Social confidence also involves how you carry yourself. Bezos’ big break came in the spring of 1996 when he received a visit from John Doerr, a partner at Kleiner Perkins — one of the most prestigious venture capital firms in Silicon Valley. Doerr left that meeting wowed by Amazon and ready to invest.
What exactly sold Doerr on Amazon?
“I walked into the door and this guy with a boisterous laugh who was just exuding energy comes bounding down the steps. At that moment, I wanted to be in business with Jeff,” Doerr said in an interview with Brad Stone, author of “The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon.”
Doerr was also impressed with the ease of movement in Bezos’ technical proficiency. When he was asked about Amazon’s volume of daily transactions, and Bezos was able to pull up the answer with a few keystrokes, Doerr “swooned.”
Benjamin Franklin is another example. He was brimming with social confidence — famously charming, witty, and ebullient. Yet he paired his abundance of social confidence with an intentional lack of epistemic confidence. It was a practice he had started when he was young, according to several of his biographies.
After noticing that people were more likely to reject his arguments when he used firm language like “certainly” and “undoubtedly,” Franklin trained himself to avoid these expressions, prefacing his statements instead with caveats like “I think…” or “If I’m not mistaken…”
Over time, Franklin became one of the most influential people in American history.
People judge you based on your social confidence
Franklin and Bezos’ experiences suggest that when it comes to the impression you make on people, being more self-assured is better than expressing certainty — and research agrees.
In a 2012 study, university students worked together in small groups while researchers videotaped their interactions. The researchers then showed the video to a separate group of people and asked them to rate how confident and capable each of the students seemed.
The ratings given to each student were predominantly based on how much social confidence they displayed. So the more a student participated in the conversation and had a relaxed demeanor, the more competent they appeared to the viewer. By comparison, the students’ epistemic confidence (e.g., how sure they said they were about their estimate on something) hardly mattered.
Another study investigated the same question using actors trained to display combinations of the two types of confidence. The results were similar. Whether or not participants judged an actor to be confident and likable depended largely on social cues, such as making eye contact, speaking evenly, and using decisive hand gestures.
How to be more socially confident
Some people bemoan the fact that “superficial” things like posture and voice make such a difference in how we judge each other.
But projecting competence doesn’t require self-deception. You can boost your social confidence by practicing to speak up in groups, hiring a speech coach, dressing better, improving your posture — all without compromising your vision and values.
Lastly, seek to inspire without overpromising. There are a lot of ways to get people psyched about an idea or opinion without having to lie to them or be overconfident about the chances of success.
You can paint a vivid picture of the world you want to create. You can speak from the heart about why you personally care about an issue. You can share real stories of people who have benefitted from your product. All of these techniques make a difference in how people see you, and none of them require you to make unrealistic claims.
On YouTube, there’s an early video interview with Bezos from 1997. As he enthuses about his vision for the future of internet commerce, it’s easy to see why investors found his excitement contagious:
“I mean, it’s just incredible,” he says in the video. “This is day one. This is the very beginning. This is the Kitty Hawk stage of electronic commerce. We’re moving forward in so many different areas, and lots of different compare are as well, in the late 20th century! It’s a great time to be alive, you know? […] I think millennia from now, people are doing to look back and say, ‘Wow, the late 20th century was really a great time to be alive on this planet!’”
It’s a speech that communicated vision, conviction, and compassion — and it didn’t require Bezos to pretend that his startup would be a sure bet.