Part of managing an escalating career is mastering the ability to talk about yourself. For women, this can be challenging, as studies have shown that women are less likely to talk about their accomplishments and aren’t as comfortable doing so. And it’s easy to see why—if women act too self-assured, it’s often perceived negatively, whereas men are praised for it.
Modesty isn’t wrong, mind you; it’s just not recognized as “powerful” behavior in a man’s world. Unfortunately, these ways of thinking have driven workplace dynamics for years.
Often when these things are on our minds, it’s easy to overcorrect. We think—Okay, right, I should be more aggressive and straightforward about how awesome I am. What comes out to fix the problem may actually sound like we’re overselling ourselves or that we’re even a little conceited.
So how do we find the right balance? How do we become more confident about talking about our top selling points, while still keeping our humility?
Why elevator pitches aren’t the easiest for women
Understanding the why behind this behavior may not exactly change anything, but it’s helpful to have context before trying to alter patterns.
Jessi L. Smith, a professor of psychology at Montana State University, has conducted research that shows women aren’t comfortable bragging about their accomplishments, yet they have no issue talking about a friend in that way. This is a way we’ve taken the focus off of ourselves for generations—we’re taught from childhood not to focus too much on our own good qualities.
Better to look at all the great things this other person is doing, rather than experience backlash from celebrating our accomplishments, or even opening ourselves up to criticism. Right?
In general, men aren’t as negatively affected by modesty norms as women. This is why it’s commonplace for men to “exaggerate or inflate things like their grade point average or how big that fish was that they caught,” as Smith told The Washington Post.
Another explanation could be that it’s just bad form to brag. Women have historically been encouraged to be more concerned with keeping up appearances, so it makes sense that we wouldn’t want to do anything tacky, like talking about how great we are.
As women now make up half of the workforce and are still fighting for income equality and fair treatment, it’s important that we level the playing field any way we can. We don’t have to “think like men” because overconfidence isn’t necessarily the right way to shine, but we can become better at self-promotion.
How to master the elevator pitch
So, what does a balanced approach look like in real life? First, understand what the elevator pitch really is. An elevator pitch starts a conversation about you and sets the tone for an interview or meeting. Mastering the elevator pitch starts with the following:
1. Cater to your audience
Obviously you don’t have to list all of your accomplishments in an elevator pitch—that you ran a marathon five years ago or recently had your first child. Make sure what you focus on is directly related to who you’re talking to and the job you’re talking about.
2. Be specific
It’s important that a manager or recruiter has a clear picture of who you are after you speak. Focus on relevant details that paint a holistic picture of your experience, background, and interests. Instead of only telling a recruiter that you’re “adept in database management,” actually talk about a database you managed and how you revamped a process for your current company.
Come up with details that back up what you’re claiming you’re good at. And keep your pitch pretty simple and brief—don’t overwhelm a recruiter with information about your first internship 10 years ago.
3. Emphasize how you’re unique
Part of selling yourself is showing someone how they won’t find what you bring to the table anywhere else. It’s your job to convince them that you are the right person for the job, and this takes setting yourself apart from other candidates. This could be something pretty simple: Maybe you studied creative writing in college alongside your business degree, and that makes you an excellent communicator and a creative problem-solver.
4. Be clear about what you want
Remember that an interview is more than you trying to impress the person on the other side of the table. Just as important is your ability to clearly state what you are looking for and the career path that you envision for yourself. Discuss why both the position and the organization align with your goals and desires. This shows that you’ve done the research and you know what you want.
Confidence vs. modesty: finding the right balance
First, try to focus on what you’ve done, not yourself. Judith Humphrey, author and founder of the premier leadership communications firm the Humphrey Group, wrote for Fast Company that good self-promotion “is understanding that it is not brazen self-centeredness.” Instead of focusing on yourself, you should focus on your accomplishments and experience. Convince them of your value as an employee.
Especially when we’re nervous, it’s easy to approach a situation with a certain mindset that we have to have confidence. I can do this, I can do this, I can do this, we think, and we build the interview or meeting up way too much in our heads. When this happens, that overcorrection loves to kick in. To make up for our nervousness, we act overly confident and kind of go off the rails (true for men and women).
To avoid this, actually practice talking about yourself. Talk to friends or family and try out discussing your successes. These are much less stressful situations to get out exactly what you want to say and how. Then, write down key points you want to touch on and practice what you’ll say several times through.
One final thought on women and confidence
As reported in the Atlantic, Forbes, Harvard Business Review, and elsewhere, Hewlett-Packard published an internal report that showed women only applied for a promotion when they thought they met 100 percent of the qualifications, and men applied even if they only met 60 percent of the qualifications. This supports the claim that men are just generally more confident about their abilities, even their ability to wow an interviewer with charm over experience.
So, even if women start to act overly confident and come off as shameless self-promoters… maybe that’s OK for now. Maybe it’s even necessary to level things out.
Men have had the luxury of confidence for years, and you rarely hear someone calling them “too confident,” especially in workplace scenarios.