These days, change is so fast it should come with a health warning. So it’s a relief to find a principle that will never become obsolete. Here it is.

What convinces is conviction

“What convinces is conviction. You simply must believe the argument you are advancing, otherwise you are lost. No chain of reasoning, no matter how logical or elegant or brilliant, will win the case, if your audience senses that belief is missing.” - that from Marcus Cicero, one of Rome’s greatest orators, more than two thousand years ago.

That’s especially so today, when so many of today’s speakers deliver their message with dull eyes and flat tones, thinking that the face value of their argument is enough to carry the day. In my training workshops I operate on this rough guide: the content alone (the argument) accounts for just 10% of your ability to influence the audience. The rest, 90%, is in how you deliver it. And most of that is in your willingness to show that you are convinced by your own content.

How does conviction show itself? It’s carried in a combination of energy, enthusiasm, and intensity. But keep in mind that it may be (and often should be) as subtle as the glint in your eye.

Why presenters avoid showing conviction

Do you agree with Cicero? I meet with several objections:

I just don’t like showing off.
I’m not a show pony.
Overacted performance would be totally inappropriate in my workplace.
If I speak with confidence people will think I’m arrogant or have too high an opinion of myself.
It will seem false.
It’s better to show a little humility/modesty than too much confidence/ego.

All of those are arguments we use on ourselves to avoid the risk of showing our conviction. And it is a risk. It puts us on the line. It feels dangerous: if my argument fails after putting my heart and soul into it, I’m going to look stupid. So, yes, I agree that it’s safer not to show your conviction. It’s also safer to stay in bed all day with the covers up, and about as useful.

Go easy on the modesty and humility

Be careful. Humility and modesty are supposedly a virtue. But if it means I am worthless, you’ll convey the subliminal message that your opinions don’t matter. In other words you’ll pull the stuffing right out of your own argument.

But will they like me?

Do you want or do you need people to like you?  It’s completely normal to want to be liked. You can want to be liked without denting your personal authority at all. But if you squelch your display of conviction because you might not be liked, then the word is 'need'. That need comes across as a display of fear. Yes, a display, because you can’t hide it—the audience picks it up as if you were a walking x-ray. They know. And by association your argument loses strength.

The tall poppy syndrome

In our laid back, egalitarian culture, we hear a lot about the tall poppy syndrome—how anyone who raises their head above the other poppies will be cut down by others. But the worst offenders are ourselves. Out of fear, we cut ourselves down so others won’t have the opportunity. We squelch the strengths we have.

Take the risks. Put yourself on the line. If only for your own wellbeing, convince your audiences by showing your conviction.

This from Helen Keller: “Life is either a daring adventure or it is nothing.”



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