Moving mountains is typically seen as an impossible feat – which is why we talk of needing faith or a great belief from within in order to move the “proverbial mountains” of life. The same could be said for climbing and conquering those massive “mountains” that we encounter. It’s this faith and belief that propels us forward and helps us accomplish great things- things we didn’t think possible. I liken these powerful tools to conviction.
It’s sent men to the moon; won gold medals; changed the course of wars.
What is so great about conviction? To know that, we need to understand what conviction is. The dictionary defines it as a “strong persuasion or belief;” I would build on that by adding it’s the ability to communicate with certainty. This is what differentiates effective leaders from the rest. But, how is certainty and conviction possible when the world around is so unpredictable?
As humans, we typically default to fear when facing the unknown. Forbes contributor, leadership expert and co-author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0., Travis Bradberry, spoke to this very thing, “Conviction in a leader is an incredibly valuable yet increasingly rare trait. It’s in short supply because our brains are wired to overreact to uncertainty with fear. As uncertainty increases, the brain shifts control over to the limbic system, the place where emotions, such as anxiety and panic, are generated…This brain quirk worked well eons ago, when cavemen entered an unfamiliar area and didn’t know who or what might be lurking behind the bushes. Overwhelming caution and fear ensured survival, but that’s not the case today.”
Even still, we are constantly at battle with our fears and how to navigate what lies ahead. Leaders face this in spades as they are expected to make decisions each day for the team to follow and execute on. As a leader, confidence in your ideas allows others to choose to have confidence in those ideas as well. Your conviction is an invitation for those around you to “buy-in” and get on board. This is an invaluable asset in the business world. Bradberry again spoke to this, “In business, things change so quickly that there’s a great deal of uncertainty about what’s going to happen next month, let alone next year. Leaders with conviction create an environment of certainty for everyone.”
This confidence and conviction have the seemingly “magical” power to make others believe anything is possible. Consider the 1980 Olympic Men’s Ice Hockey final game in New York. Before the match, things looked bleak for Team USA. It would prove to be quite the mountain to move. Having lost to the Soviets ten to three in a previous exhibition, the Americans were given zero chance of winning by the media and hockey pundits. The Soviets were the most dominant team in the history of Olympic sports. With a win-loss record of sixty-two to six, they arrived at Lake Placid having won four straight Olympic gold medals.
The oddsmakers had them easily skating their way to a fifth. They practiced eleven months of the year and played with a remarkable unity of effort. The Americans were amateur college athletes, cobbled together by a combination of opportunity and circumstance. Luckily, Team USA felt that this time they had an advantage; their coach was an inspiring leader named Herb Brooks. He had conviction – a conviction that they could and would win gold.
Fifteen minutes before the big game, Brooks walked into the locker room and came face to face with a team that looked as if it had conceded victory. Yet, he had a keen sense of situational awareness— an ability to take the pulse of his players by reading nonverbal cues. His players looked defeated, nothing more than a collection of slumped shoulders and vacant stares.
Knowing he had to capture their attention, he then did what great communicators do. He gave his team a call to action: win this game. However, he did it in a way that relied more on conviction and emotion than reason. You can watch Brooks’ speech depicted brilliantly by Kurt Russell in the movie Miracle.
In the film, the actor walks into the locker room, pauses for several moments and then says with tremendous confidence and conviction:
Great moments are born from great opportunity. And that’s what you have here tonight, boys. That’s what you’ve earned here tonight. One game.
If we played them ten times, they might win nine. But not this game; not tonight. Tonight, we skate with them. Tonight we stay with them, and we shut them down because we can.
Tonight, WE are the greatest hockey team in the world.
You were born to be hockey players—every one of you, and you were meant to be here tonight. This is your time. Their time is done. It’s over. I’m sick and tired of hearing about what a great hockey team the Soviets have. Screw ‘em. This is your time. Now go out there and take it!
That’s all he needed—just those 124 words delivered with passion and intensity. In that moment, Brooks gave birth to a locker room full of believers. That team went on to take gold. That’s the power of conviction. When individuals feel at ease and confident about what they are doing, they perform better – exceed expectations even.
So How Do We Speak with Conviction?
Watch any powerful leader speak and if you pay close enough attention, you’ll find that even though they may be one of the smartest in the room, they don’t communicate in facts and figures. Instead, they communicate with simplicity, energy and above all, conviction. Take inventory of how you currently approach your communication with those around you. Consider the following when working on speaking with greater confidence and conviction:
- Know how you truly feel about an idea or position. An article in Nature Neuroscience led by Benedetto De Martino, a cognitive neuroscientist in the field of decision-making and neuroeconomics, states that the brain has direct links between knowing what you want and the ability to express it. His research demonstrated that the more confident a person was in his or her ideas, the more likely they were to maintain those beliefs over time. These deep-seated principles led to a capacity to speak with greater conviction.
Take the time to work through different concepts before presenting those ideas to those around you. Do your research and really understand why you feel the way you do. Your position may not always be the popular view or the right approach. However, conviction implies a certain level of thought and passion. Conviction won’t necessarily guarantee success; however, the lack of it almost always guarantees failure. It’s a personal and deep-seated belief that compels companies to move forward in spite of doubt and cynicism. Conviction drives decision making, promises action, tolerates risk, and overcomes doubt.
- Avoid “filler” or empty words that don’t communicate anything. Filler words distract from messages and cause uncertainty. “Ums,” “uhs,” “likes”…they distract and detract – all while making us look less than intelligent. They do nothing for us and yet, so many of us are attached to using them! The best way to avoid these empty words is to be prepared. When you know how you feel about a topic and know how to articulate those thoughts and feelings, you’ll be less likely to fall victim to nerves, stress, or distractions.
- Always consider your audience. What’s motivating them? What are they most likely concerned with? The more you seek to understand those you are communicating with, the more successful you’ll be in crafting how to deliver your thoughts. Ask yourself, “what is the result I want?” You can only truly achieve this if you consider who your audience is. Before you engage, consider, what do you want your audience to think, feel and do? How can you expect a certain outcome to occur without doing what is necessary to help achieve that outcome? Another way to think about this is: what will be different after the communication has taken place? If you go into a meeting and nothing changes, it’s just been wasted time – for everyone.
- Don’t be afraid to incorporate emotion. We are not only thinking beings, but first and foremost feeling beings who need connection. Those you are speaking are often experiencing a tug-of-war that is fought between their intelligence and their hearts. They feel one thing, but their minds tell them to do another. Most speakers start with the mind and try to get to people’s hearts. I encourage my clients to do the opposite. Reach people’s hearts first, and their minds will inevitably follow. Using a variation of Maya Angelou’s wise words, people aren’t necessarily going to recall the exact words you deliver or the exact way you present your ideas, but they will remember the way you make them feel. Emotion is what has inspired some of the greatest accomplishments in history.
- When you speak, choose your words carefully. Imagine you say something and immediately want to take it back. But it’s too late. The damage has been done. This is any speaker’s worst nightmare and can happen to even the most successful businesspeople anytime, anywhere. Our words won’t always be interpreted as we intend – a reality that has resulted in disastrous results for some. Anything that can go wrong with a given set of spoken words will often go wrong. You can bet on that. If you never want people to think your product is crap, for example, don’t say it’s crap, even in jest…especially in a presentation! Try your best to pick your words wisely.
Conviction is an essential ingredient to build a thriving organization capable of disrupting the status quo. Don’t fear it. Use it as a tool for self-improvement and professional development. If you find yourself in a situation unsure of what to say, listen to the commands of Taylor Mali: “I entreat you, I implore you, I exhort you, I challenge you: To speak with conviction.” Mali is a slam-poet who travels the country speaking in poetic rhyme, teaching workshops, and doing commercial voiceover work. His work is incredibly inspiring. I, on the other hand, work as a professional speaker and leadership coach in the corporate world. Very different worlds. But we both share an unwavering commitment to helping people speak and lead with clarity and conviction in every arena of their lives.
Regardless of the industry, forum, end-result – “mountain” – conviction is a key variable to success. I’d love to come speak to your group of professionals face-to-face and unlock their leadership potential through increased conviction in their ideas and communication. Learn more here.