If You Want to Be More Confident and Fascinating, Stop Trying to Be the Best at Everything

“There are predictable patterns in how people communicate and the kind of impression that makes on others.”

David Burkus in an award-winning podcaster and author of Under New Management: How Leading Organizations Are Upending Business As UsualHe recently hosted Sally Hogshead, author of Fascinate and How the World Sees You, for a conversation on the patterns of communication, the necessity of perception, and what makes us fascinating to others.

This conversation has been edited and condensed. To listen to the full conversation, click here

David: Let’s talk about fascination. When Fascinate first came out, I positioned it in my mind as a marketing book about what itch brands scratch in people to get them to buy. The new book, [How the World Sees You], is not a pivot, it’s like saying, “These same things that work for consumers work for followers and organizational members—the tribe.” Am I onto something?

Sally: You are onto something. I spent the first half of my career as a creative director in advertising. I loved working with brands that didn’t have a high budget—they had to be more aggressive and find ways to capture people’s attention. I was looking into attention spans and why we pay attention to certain things and not others, and I found this phrase in an old medical journal that said, “One of the oldest words in written language is the word fascinare.” It means, “to bewitch or hold captive so your listener is powerless to resist.” The more I began looking into this concept, the more I found that fascination was a deep, instinctive force.

This period of time about three months after you turn the manuscript into the publisher is nail-biting for me, because I love to keep tweaking things and when a book is being printed onto paper, you can’t go in and change a concept. During that time I began thinking, “What if we took all that focus group research, all the market research, and started applying it to individuals?”

“There are predictable patterns in how people communicate and the kind of impression that makes on others.”

We found that, just as you can measure a brand, you can also measure a personal brand. What if we took the principles that world-class brands use and began applying it to people, not to look at how you see the world—which is what DISC and Strengths Finder are built on—what if we flipped it around and started measuring how the world sees you? Specifically, how the world sees you at your best, like an advertising agency would. There are predictable patterns in how people communicate and the kind of impression that makes on others. That’s what led to the book.

David: It’s fascinating that these same principles apply. I come from a psychology background, and those of us that had to go through grad school in psychology don’t have high opinions of Myers Briggs and DISC. Even the Big Five, the gold standard of personality inventory, is more about how you see yourself and the world around you. It’s not attempting to figure out it from that other perspective—which, if I’m trying to grow as a leader or trying to build a following as an expert, is arguably more useful.

Sally: Yes, and how does the world see you at your best? 80% of people think they’re a better driver than the average person. People grossly overestimate their ability to drive. But when we ask them, “Are you more fascinating than the average person?”—in other words, when you communicate, do people listen and remember, take action?—people do not think that they’re fascinating. In fact, they feel really insecure when they’re forced to make a first impression. You’ve probably experienced this when you’re trying to write a LinkedIn bio. You type and delete and type and delete, you don’t know which words to use. Only 39% of people think they’re more fascinating than average.

Even though we overestimate how good we are at many things, we don’t feel confident about how we’re perceived by others. But if you can say to somebody, “Here’s what you’re doing right. Here’s your highest value. Here’s why other people love you, befriend you, and evangelize about you. These are the exact adjectives. If you do more of this, you’re going to be able to make more money, have a bigger impact on the world, and make a bigger difference for your business and for the people in your life,” then suddenly their confidence skyrockets. After people do the assessment, they’re up to 200% more confident in themselves.

“Even though we overestimate how good we are at many things, we don’t feel confident about how we’re perceived by others. Only 39% of people think they’re more fascinating than average.”

David: Can we talk briefly about those seven triggers? Those advantages—what those are and how they work in how the world sees you.

Sally: When I started researching this concept of fascination, I was trying to organize it into different buckets or modes of communication. I looked at political speeches, TED speeches, famous advertising campaigns, celebrities. It took two years to find a list of different modes of communication that’s comprehensive but doesn’t overlap. The seven different ways that people communicate are power, passion, mystique, prestige, alert, innovation, and trust.

Power is confidence, a sense of strength, brands that move through the world in a very authoritative way, like TSA or Google.

Passion personalities love to be able to connect with each other. I speak the language of passion—I love to communicate with people in a way that is emotionally engaging. I like to tell stories, to use adjectives. I used to hire people that were like me, with high passion, real enthusiasm, very spirited. I had a bunch of people who were good at being enthusiastic and not good about doing things like sending out invoices. I had to start hiring people with other advantages, like mystique, the language of listening, thinking things through very carefully. Or trust, which is stability, dependability, sticking to a schedule.

David: You take these seven [modes of communication] and they break down into your primary, secondary, and dormant, and create these different archetypes. I love being called the archetype of a Victor because I lose so often. I love to think of myself as a strong leader, and I sometimes get paid to be in the front of the room, so that one makes sense. But this idea of results-oriented and competitive… I see myself most days as drowning, as I’ve got so much to do I have no idea how I’m going to do any of it. It’s all going to be terrible. Do you think that’s what I see, so the opposite is what others see? Why don’t they see me drowning?

Sally: That’s a wonderful question. Why is it that I feel a certain way, and the results of the assessment are something different? The answer is because it’s not measuring how you see yourself or how you feel. It’s measuring how people see you at your best. In other words, you’re a phenomenal speaker.

You know when you’re on stage and it’s clicking? You’re in the zone, the audience is taking notes, nobody’s on their iPhone, and you can tell that your words are sinking in and making a difference? You have that feeling of confidence where you don’t even have to think about what you’re saying, it just flows perfectly.

David: When I saw that part around confidence, my mind went back to when I was 17. My older brother’s a huge music fan and we were obsessed with esoteric music. In the ’90s, most music in the United States was awful—in Canada, though, there were a lot of really good rock bands. We went to see one band in this small club and waited until afterwards to hang out with them. [My brother] was Mr. Fanboy, and he was yelling at me afterwards because I was talking to them like an equal. I kept thinking, “Well, we’re both humans. Why are you not thinking you’re an equal to these people?”

“Confidence is picked up by your listener. They don’t realize why they’re uncomfortable if you’re uncomfortable, but it makes them want to back away and not listen to you.”

Sally: That’s a great example of feeling confidence. A linguist described to me that when you’re confident, not only does your body language shift, but your mouth produces more saliva. In linguistics, this is actually called “wet mouth.” It’s the opposite of dry mouth, what you experience when you don’t feel confident and the meeting goes south, your self-confidence plummets, and your mouth gets dry because you have a blast of epinephrine in your brain. When you’re confident, your voice sounds different, and unconsciously people pick up on this. It’s one of the reasons why Marilyn Monroe had the ability to draw people in and captivate, because she had what this linguist described as wet mouth, and when she spoke it was almost like pillow talk. She had a way of projecting her voice—it sounded like she was whispering in your ear even when she was standing in front of a room.

Confidence is picked up by your listener. They don’t realize why they’re uncomfortable if you’re uncomfortable, but it makes them want to back away and not listen to you. That’s why, if somebody can identify for you those traits that are most likely for you to be seen at your most attractive or capable, then it makes you feel confident so that you’re not second-guessing yourself.

David: So where do I go from here? How do I develop that? I feel like there are probably potholes that this archetype creates, as well. You can’t have it all, right?

Sally: Absolutely. To explain, let me describe somebody who’s different than both you and me, but would be very compatible with us in a business scenario—the Detective. Detectives are great at details. They like to be able to find every little piece of a complex puzzle. When this very detailed, analytical, strategic, skillful, focused person reads, “I find precise answers to the most complex problems,” suddenly they can sit up a little straighter and cut and paste that phrase into their LinkedIn bio or their resume or that section on the website where you have to describe yourself and it feels kind of awkward.

The Victor is different. Victors are respected, competitive, and results-oriented, but here’s how I want you to frame that: it’s not that you would literally say to a client, “I’m competitive,” but, “I have a competitive spirit,” or, “I’m going to be competitive for you within a crowded category.” You might use your other adjectives: “I’m going to be results-oriented in your goals. I want to bring you a specific outcome so we’re not just meandering, and I’m not going to ask for handholding because I’m going to be ambitious about how we get this done. We’re going to go for the goal, and I’m gonna make sure that my standards are as high, if not higher, than yours.” By having those three words, it’s almost like it’s your personal brand positioning.

David: Are you a Victor, too? Is that what I picked up on?

Sally: I am not. My archetype is The Catalyst—we’re very good at starting things. I love to be able to start projects and have creative ideas, and that’s why professionally I focus on brainstorming sessions. I’m not good at implementation and execution, and I don’t try to be. That’s not my highest value. In fact, I’m drained by execution. That’s why I know that I need to partner with somebody who’s good at execution. My three adjectives are: out of the box, social, and energizing. If I’m going to be working with a client, if they don’t want to work with someone who is out of the box, social, and energizing, I need to be careful or outsource the project because I’m probably not going to make a good impression and become demoralized.

David: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

“It’s good to be better, but it’s better to be different. If you’re going to try to be better than somebody, you’re only going to be incrementally better, and it’s going to be expensive to try to outdo somebody else at their own game.”

Sally: When I was growing up my mother said, “Mistakes are tuition.” I would screw up at school or have a project that failed, and even early on in my career when I would try something and fall on my face, she would always look at me and smile her wry Iowan smile and say, “Well, mistakes are tuition.” That has given me a lot of permission, especially as a creative person, to know that I’m going to have a 20% failure rate.

David: What are you reading right now?

Sally: I have always read business books and I just recently started reading fiction. What I finally realized about myself is that when I read business books, I start getting stressed because it puts me in a business mindset and it’s not relaxing, even though it can be inspiring. I just read The Circle by Dave Eggers. [It’s] this dystopian future of what it would look like if Facebook and Google started running the world.

David: Wait, they don’t run the world now?

Sally: Yeah. But imagine that we all wear cameras literally 24 hours a day. Every single person, no matter what you’re doing, including when you’re in the restroom. What would that culture be like and that society, and who would revolt against that?

David: What do you believe that most people don’t?

Sally: I believe that different is better than better. I grew up in a very high achieving family—everybody in my family was a superstar in their field, and I was the youngest by quite a bit. I always tried to be better. I’d be like, “I want to be as good at academics as my brother who graduated from Harvard,” or, “I want to be as good at my sister who was a world class swimmer.” Finally I realized it’s good to be better, but it’s better to be different. If you’re going to try to be better than somebody, you’re only going to be incrementally better, and it’s going to be expensive to try to outdo somebody else at their own game. The market leader can be better, but for everybody else, unless you have the biggest budget or you’re the most fascinating, it’s far easier and more authentic to be different.