Skip
Current Issue
This Month's Print Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

How To Talk (Not Brag) About Yourself Like The Best Public Speakers

There's a fine line between sharing and boasting, but people who talk for a living know how to walk it.

[Photo: Flickr user Ted Eytan]

"I’m not the greatest; I’m the double greatest. Not only do I knock 'em out, I pick the round!"

Muhammad Ali wasn’t just one of the best boxers of all time; he was also one of the best braggers. Bragging worked well for Ali’s career, but for most people it's a different story. You already know that. And you also already know not to boast around the office.

But that may mean you err too much on the other side and, like many people, fear that sharing your accomplishments amounts to bragging about them. So you keep quiet, even when you shouldn't—like on job interviews and during performance reviews. Sometimes getting better at talking (tactfully) about yourself in work settings starts by knowing the difference between a few key behaviors you're afraid of confusing.

Here's a look at four of them that the best public speakers, tasked with talking about themselves all the time, have mastered.

1. Announcing Versus Revealing

When you boast about an accomplishment, you announce it. You simply state what you've achieved, usually in bright, shining terms. But great speakers know that these displays of brilliance are often a little too bright for an audience—they pull back, shielding themselves.

When you share, on the other hand, you invite your audience to take a closer look. Think of pulling back the curtain and letting people see for themselves. Just as fiction writers are taught to "show, don’t tell," you need to describe your accomplishments instead of just stating them.

For example, if you met a significant sales goal, bragging about it would sound like this:

I sold more than any other salesperson in the company. We have over 150 salespeople, and I sold the most.

Sharing, on the other hand, might sound like this:

Some people have dreams of being doctors, lawyers, or scientists. My dream has been to be a great salesperson. Today, I realized that dream.

One is approach is declarative, the other narrative. The most effective speakers favor the latter.

2. Highlight Commonalities

When you brag, you emphasize the differences between you and your audience. Your goal is to show how special your life is—you’re up here, they’re down there. You were the one who worked harder than everyone else. You were smarter, more cunning. You had more courage. Like shooting a video with a wide-angle lens, you drive your audience toward the margins of the frame.

But when you share, you still talk about your achievements, but you add comments that connect your audience to them. Sharing means you want whoever you're speaking with to feel included, like they're a part of your success. Like a zoom lens, you bring your audience closer to you.

For example, if you’re talking about your academic credentials, bragging would sound like this:

I graduated from Harvard Law—top of my class, too!

Sharing, on the other hand, would sound like this:

Like many of you, I’ve had the benefit of receiving a great education. And like you, when the door of opportunity opens, I rush in and push harder. I like to win. I worked hard to graduate from Harvard, and even harder to graduate at the top of my class.

3. Offer Insight, Don't Just Seek Admiration

When your goal is simply to boast, you're trying to get others to appreciate what you've done. So you center your comments on your feelings and your experience—it’s all about you. This often backfires. But when you share, your goal is to give others a window into an experience that was powerful for you but offers some insight for them, too.

I recently attended an event where I sat with the new CEO of a Fortune 50 company. If I was bragging, I might say something like this:

I sat next to [CEO], and he spent the entire event talking to me! Imagine that—everybody in the room wanted to talk to him, but he chose to talk to me.

Kind of makes your skin crawl, right? But if I was sharing, I'd approach it very differently:

I had the opportunity to sit next to [CEO]. I asked him, "What’s changed now that you’re CEO?" He told me, "Now, every move I make is a big deal. Everything gets scrutinized." It made me think about how critical self-awareness is for all leaders and the shift in mind-set it takes to maintain it once you're pushed further into the spotlight.

Now it's not about me hobnobbing with high-level execs, it's about a common challenge that lots of people experience, which that interaction illustrates. Great speakers know to connect their personal stories with an idea that others can relate to—even if they haven't experienced the exact same thing.

4. Don't Be The Hero, Be One Of Many Heroes

When you brag, you’re telling the story of how you became Superman or Superwoman. You’re the protagonist, and every detail of the account is meant to make sure your audience understands that.

When you share, on the other hand, you’re still an important part of the story, but you’re not the only hero worth talking about. You’re more like Frodo in The Lord of the Rings—he’s the main character, sure, but you can’t tell his story without Sam and Gandalf and a supporting cast of other key players.

So single-hero bragging might sound like this:

I’m a turnaround expert. I can go into a store and instantly know what’s broken. I see the signs of dysfunction. I know how to pull the levers to fix the problems.

Sharing would sound more like this:

I’m a turnaround expert. When I walk into a store, I focus on listening to the people. Fixing a store is not about turning screws; it’s about understanding what the team has been going through and getting to the root of their ideas.

That doesn't mean being patronizing—just paying lip service to others—or adopting false modesty. It's about knowing your place in the bigger story, where others unavoidably factor in already. In order to boast, you've got to exclude them from what you say. As the most effective speakers know, being inclusive—connecting with others—is the only real way to deliver a message.

loading