My quest to project Undeniable Competence

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Photo by David Sola

A couple of months ago, I asked Kent Beck to give me one piece of feedback about my leadership style. Kent is a colleague from Gusto and coaches many of us in the engineering organization.

Kent huffed and hesitated. He clarified that he recognized the level of bias I face in a work environment is very different from what he faces. Finally he said, ‘undeniable competence’.

‘What? ‘

‘You don’t project undeniable competence.’

Not going to lie, it stung. We talked more and he gave me examples of women who project undeniable competence. It was the idea that a person is and projects that they are an expert on a topic. I thought about it for a few days. I discussed it with close friends and my coach, turning it all around and examining it from different angles.

Finally, I landed on a revelation — something about how I speak or present in certain settings does not project undeniable competence. Since then, I’ve been discussing and researching undeniable competence and have discovered some interesting ideas that I want to share.

Undeniable Competence is when you speak on a topic you leave your listener with no doubt that you are an expert on said topic. The opposite of this is that despite your knowledge, your presentation of a topic signals a lack of competence. Typically it manifests through unconscious body language and nervous habits.

In this post I will discuss four things that you are unconsciously doing, that affect your perceived competence:

  • Uptalk
  • Your voice
  • Body language basics
  • Posture

Good news — these are easy to fix! Becoming aware is the first and critical step.

Gender can play a large part in how much these traits affect you. For example, most men have deeper voices than women and this can help them to appear competent. While uptalk affects both men and women, the impact of it can be more severe for women.

Uptalk (also hilariously known as high rising terminal) is a way of speaking in which a person ends their sentences with an upward inflection. Many of us are not aware that we do this. Uptalk makes the statement sound like a question or that you are unsure.

For example when introducing yourself, the upward inflection of Uptalk could make you sound like this:

“Hi, I’m Upeka and I’m a senior engineering manager on Payroll..?”

How your audience infers this introduction:

“Oh, she’s Upeka. She seems nice. Very likeable. And seems like she’s unsure of her name and maybe even her role. She’s nice though. Does not seem that she’s an expert in Payroll. Like her a lot though.”

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I found this amazing image on the internet. Credit to Magnetic Speaking.

Our childhood environments can impact whether we develop uptalk. I grew up in Sri Lanka, where uptalk is a feature of the local language (Sinhalese). In general, younger speakers, especially women, tend to do this a lot.

If Uptalk comes easily to you — good news — it does have some benefits. It helps create connection, safety and build trust, especially when you speak with folks with whom you have a power advantage. If you are trying to make teams collaborate, uptalk can enhance trust by making you seem nonthreatening.

But as you become more senior, Uptalk works against you. It will undermine you as a leader. Hilary Wicht discusses uptalk in her excellent TED Talk (here).

Hilary discusses competence vs. authenticity in speaking styles

Deeper voices are associated with competence. In his book about negotiations, Never Split the Difference, Chris Voss highlights the ‘late night DJ voice’, as a means to project trust and authority in negotiations.

I recently took a class with Melanie Espland, who is a voice coach, and it blew my mind open to this particular topic. There is so much that goes into a voice that projects competence:

  • Use your belly to produce sound: To make your voice deeper, sound and breath should come from your belly as opposed to your mouth. There are breathing techniques that will allow you to make this change.
  • Exercise your mouth to produce a stronger voice: Did you know, there are muscles in your mouth that you can work out! Practice speech while holding a pen in your teeth to strengthen them.
  • Emphasize words: By speaking every word like you would say “the”. And be ok with spit flying around a bit.

Touching your face or twirling your hair or saying ‘um’. It’s likely you’ve heard of these. In the moment, however, these occur without us realizing.

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I am routinely flabbergasted to learn the number of times I said “um” while speaking

What’s the fix? Record, and watch yourself!

Awareness will get you most of the way to not doing it anymore. Warning! This will make you cringe. Rinse and repeat periodically because over time you will regress or pick up other nervous ticks.

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Avoid touching your face or biting your nails while speaking. Photo by Ricards Zalmezs on Unsplash
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And please don’t apologize excessively!

Pre-pandemic, I had a series of lessons on speaking with Gitta Sivander. One of the first things she did was to record me “walking onto stage” (i.e., my living room). It was startlingly bad.

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In our new world of all-day-video-calls, projecting confidence with posture is even trickier.

If you are presenting on video, you might consider using a small lumbar pillow for your chair. Or sitting forward in your chair. The goal is to open your shoulders and chest more when speaking.

It is important for us to understand how some of these struggles predominantly affect certain groups — i.e., bias. If you are reading this and you are in a position of leadership I hope you will start to get an inkling about the level and types of bias some of your reports and coworkers might be facing.

As leaders, we have a responsibility to learn and be aware of this. It is our responsibility to iterate on workplace processes and culture to create an environment where everyone can thrive. It is your responsibility to separate the content from the projected competence of a person.

While there is much more depth to this topic, my goal was to give you a high level introduction to projecting undeniable competence and why you should care about it. If you face this problem or you want to help reduce bias from this in your workplace, this article is for you.

In this article I intend to make you aware of habits that are undermining you including uptalk, your voice, body language basics and posture, and also touch on considerations for bias. You will find links to resources and coaches that I have used to practice and overcome some of these myself.

Finally, if you consider yourself introverted or hate public speaking, this may all feel overwhelming. STOP! The techniques listed here are easy. None of this is rocket science and that’s the beauty of it. You’ve done things that are way harder- like pairing bluetooth headphones to your laptop or aligning things in CSS.

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You got this! And please tweet me or comment here if you want to chat, vent or teach me something new on this topic. I’d love to hear from you!

Many thanks to Kent, Dilan, Padmini and Daveena for edits and encouragement.

Written by

crazy plant lady 🌱 senior eng manager @gustohq

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