"You sound like you know what you're talking about. That alone is enough to make me want to work with you. You just have an impressive sense of confidence."
That's what one of my clients told me when I asked him why he decided to work with me instead of the many other communications and career authorities out there. I've heard this time and again, whether it's speaking at conferences and events, doing one-on-one office hours and coaching, or working directly with my weekly clients.
Possessing a strong sense of authority does wonders for my communication abilities and my business.
So much so that one of my recent intern applicants took me up on an offer to do a free one-on-one coaching call and used the time to ask me how I developed this sense of authority. By that, he means the ability to authoritatively and confidently communicate ideas, strategies, and tactics for how to help the people I work with.
This isn't something I set out to develop. I never bought a course on "confidence" or told myself, "I'm going to be authoritative!" It was developed over years of working with authoritative people and carving out my own realm of knowledge where I have experience and data points I can turn to. Still, when asked, I distilled the process down to three steps.
What Authoritative Confidence is Not
I use the phrase "authoritative confidence" instead of just "confidence" because "confidence" is often portrayed as either happy-go-lucky bullshit, Stuart Smalley self-help, false self-esteem.
Just like how getting a trophy for failing undermines real self-esteem, this sense of false confidence undermines your ability to communicate yourself as a serious expert. "Fake it till you make it" is one of the worst piece of advice I've encountered for developing a sense of authoritative confidence.
Sometimes people don't like you and you need to learn how to deal with that. Sometimes you're not smart enough and you need to learn more. Sometimes you're not good enough and you need to communicate your ability to learn and grow quickly and effectively.
Authoritative confidence is also not blustery. It's not the ability to make prescriptive commandments from up on high and to regularly tear people down. It's not being a hothead or being needlessly overbearing. It's not being needlessly aggressive or aggressive in contexts that don't call for aggression.
Some of the most authoritative people I know are the least blustery.
People you deal with are not stupid. Pattern recognition is a human being's strongest complex skill and people can recognize fake authoritative confidence from a mile away. There's a reason why the overbearing car salesman feels sleazy or why the false self-confidence Stuart Smalley type feels pathetic.
It's also not just pure knowledge. There are plenty of people who know a lot about their topics and areas of expertise but can't communicate them well. Knowledge of the are you're talking about is a great foundation for authoritative confidence but not enough.
This is one reason why I like Bryan Caplan (linked above) as an example of non-blustery authoritative confidence. Caplan is one of the most knowledgable people in the world on a number of subjects (e.g., the economics of education, the economics of families, the economics of voting, the economics of immigration) but his ability to effectively communicate goes beyond transmitting pure knowledge.
The inverse also applies. Somebody who is ridiculously blustery may use that bluster as a way to hide their lack of complex knowledge and understanding on a topic. These people may try to emulate Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the author and risk specialist with a complex understanding of probability theory, but when you dig into them, they use the bluster as a way to hide their own lack of deep knowledge and experience.
What Authoritative Confidence Is
Authoritative confidence, then, is your ability to communicate congruently (i.e., do you believe what you're saying?) and clearly (i.e., do others understand what you're saying?) your own pattern recognition skills. It's your ability to make others feel at ease with their own decision to listen to you and still present new and challenging information to them.
Any time somebody chooses to listen to you, they are making a choice to spend time listening to you rather than to somebody else. Don't make them regret that choice.
A good chunk of expertise in any area is pattern recognition. Pattern recognition isn't something that can always be broken down into "first do this, then do this." Becoming an expert, and developing the authority that comes with that, is a process of exposing yourself to a large enough sample size to 1. escape survivorship bias and 2. develop that pattern recognition that works quickly enough for you to communicate your expertise.
That's authoritative confidence.
1. Work Around Authoritative People
You can probably guess that my first recommended action step is to expose yourself to people who have already developed that pattern recognition and can communicate it. Work with people who are authoritatively confident. Experienced salespeople, fundraisers, entrepreneurs, and those who have to communicate their knowledge and expertise in order to get buy-in from others are all great choices.
This doesn't mean you need to go get a job in sales. If you want to develop authoritative confidence about wine, go work around experienced and busy sommeliers. If you want to develop authoritative confidence about food, go work around a rising chef in charge of a restaurant. If you want to develop authoritative confidence about music, go work with the head of an up-and-coming band. All of these people have to command respect and buy-in from others. They're all doing sales of some kind.
Early in my career, I had the opportunity to work closely with a number of authoritative people. Meeting with investors, entrepreneurs, and communicators allowed me to develop my own sense of pattern recognition. Quickly I could tell when somebody actually knew what they were talking about versus putting on a front that fell apart quickly under investigation.
Specifically, I worked closely with two people with experience in nonprofit fundraising, Isaac Morehouse and Alexander McCobin. Both Isaac and Alexander were relatively young fundraisers who raised millions from nonprofit donors. They both learned from experienced fundraisers before them. I got to see how they communicated, how they got people to buy into crazy ideas (Isaac, later, starting a company that got people jobs without degrees, McCobin starting a global nonprofit from scratch).
A lot of communication develops by an osmosis-like process. You develop the mannerisms of the people you watch, read, and listen to. Writing is notorious for this. Your writing style reflects the authors you read.
Speaking, too, reflects the people you watch and spend time around. Working around authoritative individuals helps you see how to healthily counter objections, how to frame new ideas, and how to develop your own gestures and speaking patterns.
2. Put Yourself Under Healthy Pressure
Just spending time around people who know what they're talking about and can communicate that isn't enough. You have to have incentive to apply your new pattern recognition in the real world. You can stand in front of a mirror and practice a speech or a pitch all you want but it isn't until you get up on a stage or in front of a prospect or a VIP that you really start developing authoritative confidence.
Performance follows an inverted-U chart.
This means that if you don't challenge yourself enough, you won't perform as well at a given task (here, communicating authoritatively and confidently). If you put yourself under too much stress, you start to break down and fumble over yourself.
You want to put yourself in positions that are challenging for you but not too challenging. Find where these are by testing yourself with more challenging increments.
A simple challenge that Tim Ferriss recommends that I've applied to some of my clients is going to a coffeeshop and asking 5 people of the opposite sex for their phone numbers, even if you're married. The point here isn't to get dates. The point is to put yourself in a challenging and stressful situation with relatively low stakes.
For me, this came early in my career, especially when I was Business Development Director for Praxis. On my first business development trip, I met with 12+ business owners and executives to discuss becoming partners with the program. Most of these meetings went well, even for my first trip. The executives I met with were friendly and many were warm introductions from an investor.
Then I got to the last meeting.
The meeting quickly went from my pitch to the gentleman I was sitting across from telling me how I was pitching poorly, how the idea wasn't differentiated from anything else, and that he wouldn't be interested in working with us even if I had done a better job on the pitch.
I felt like I was hit by a train immediately following the meeting. I could feel myself slump down in my seat during his unsolicited feedback and, for the first time in my career, I felt cold sweat on my palms.
But I'm glad I had that meeting. It forced me to refine my pitch and to better understand my audience. It made me realize that there was a lot more that I could do to become better at pitching and that I would need to communicate our value proposition more authoritatively.
3. Carve Out Your Niche
Actually knowing what you're talking about lends itself to authoritative confidence. Carving out a niche of knowledge and, eventually, expertise isn't ridiculously difficult but does take time and focus. Most people give up before they get started because they think being an "expert" in any area means dominating an entire field like "careers" or "education" or "economics."
Carving out a niche means exactly that, carving out a small niche. I don't know anything about navigating your career as a marine biology professor and I don't pretend to. My experience allows me to carve out specific knowledge about specific early career information, B2B sales and business development, and education. And it's taken me years to develop that.
But you can get started today. What's the field you work in or want to work in? Who can you interview who is an established expert in part of that field? What technical material can you expose yourself to? How can you get more experience than most people in your field?
Start small and dominate your area. If you can write, start writing. If you can't write, learn how to write. As you get better in your area, you can branch out into tangential fields.
I started in education (specifically, alternative approaches and the history of K-12) (a good chunk of the old posts still on this blog come from that area), moved into early career, right-out-of-college knowledge and the communication skills that come with it. If I had tried to start where I am today, I would have never carved out any niche at all.
My old friend and mentor Josh Blackman is a great example of how mastering a complex subject matter leads quickly to authoritative confidence. Josh is a law professor and author but I first met him when he was clerking on a federal district court near my hometown. He spent years carving out his niche in constitutional law (and later contract law), allowing him to navigate areas where others grasp at straws because they don't know what they're talking about.
Just Get Started
The other day, while doing coaching and office hours with some ambitious young people, I was asked which books I like for sales, business development, and outreach. While I've read voraciously in these areas (SPIN Selling, You Can't Teach a Kid to Ride a Bike at a Seminar, Ready, Fire, Aim all being a few that came to mind) and I think that learning from experts is a must-do, it's only useful if you apply it.
Similarly, if you want to develop a sense of authoritative confidence, start putting yourself in situations where you have to do that and where you can learn from people who already have that confidence. Books, courses, and lectures are great but personal experience will pay off even more at the end of the day.