How to sound confident when speaking about yourself, without being arrogant

SF Money Musings of “Thoughts from a SF renter” (a great blog, that’s very well written and real), asked the following question:

“How do you talk about yourself without coming off as boastful?”

Well, that’s a great question. Something I hadn’t thought about consciously, but I suppose I try and practice when it’s needed – such as for interviews.

Resist the urge to elaborate and exaggerate

If you’re going to talk about yourself, make sure you say what it is you want them to know, and don’t elaborate on it.


A) I led a team of 15 people, and my team and I worked hard to finish the project on budget, and a short timeline and most importantly, to client satisfaction, as evidenced by my letters of reference.

B) I led a team of 15 people, and they loved working with me so much, and were so loyal, that they worked 60 hours a week and even on weekends without complaint. I think I was the BEST project manager the team could’ve ever had, and the client said that they wanted to hire me right on the spot, but I love working for this company so much, I didn’t want to.

Both sentences started out strong. Then the second, petered off into a self-worshipping spiel that had some very good points in there, but were so peppered with exaggeration (c’mon would YOU love someone who made you work 60 hours a week?) that the interviewer would have to be as dumber than a rock not to have picked up on it.

Be objective and back it up with facts

This ties in with what I mentioned above.

If you’re going to say something. Say it, but make sure you just tell it like it is, and back it up with credible numbers.

A) The last project I managed was executed on time, on budget to the tune of half a million, and to client satisfaction. My team and I had approximately 6 months to develop and implement a strategy, as well as to gather company buy-in from approximately 600 employees to come on board with our recommendations. To do so, I implemented a process and asked for feedback from each department to ensure we were on the right track to creating a strategy that benefitted the company as a whole.

B) My last project was great, I was an awesome project leader. We had a good time, it was under budget of more than $100k, and we basically came up with a plan on time to benefit the company while making sure everyone knew what was happening. I think it was all my doing as a project manager that made everyone realize we meant business. They gave us lots of feedback, and we used it all.

Which one sounds better?

First, the one with the numbers in A, at least tells you the budget was $500,000 instead of “more than $100k” which is quite ambiguous. I say this, because if you say $100,000, you’re immediately putting a number in the person’s mind and they’ll always remembe the project to have been $100k instead of $500k, even if you correct them later.

Second, the first paragraph told you how long you had to implement – 6 months. The other just said it was “on time”.

Third, the second person is talking about their lovability or popularity as a project manager. I hate to be harsh, but no one cares. This just (again) sounds like you’re stroking your own ego. Whereas while first person didn’t say anything about who liked her, she did start off with an active sentence “The last project I managed“.. and she mentions later WHAT she did to enlist feedback from the clients’ employees, and attributed the sucess of the project as a whole to her team, but with a subtle, special highlight on her skills as a PM to have led and guided them to success.

You don’t need to state the obvious.

Clearly, if it was under budget, on time, and you don’t need to repeat that it was a success, and you definitely don’t need to say the entire project hinged on you and your brain.

Don’t talk too much about yourself

This ties in with the point above. Talk about yourself, and your skills objectively, with facts, and less ambiguity, but also don’t forget to credit that you had a solid team. You aren’t losing any face by telling them that you had a team to work with you (note I said WITH you not FOR you), because clearly you could not have done the entire project on your own.

It’s a sign of humility to graciously remind whoever you’re talking to that you had a solid team backing you. And the fact that you had a solid team that didn’t mutiny and turn on you, speaks volumes to the other person about your abilities to be a leader and a team player, who had managed to encourage and support their team, who in turn, was dedicated to the project.

Admit to your shortcomings

Not every project was a success. There were some bad ones of course. You don’t want to bring up the bad ones if you can, but if you cannot avoid it, don’t exaggerate, don’t lie, don’t deny it, and don’t try to blame it on anything else.

Example: “I heard your team tanked. You had about 6 members leave the team, and it was about 6 months before you could actually get the job done, when it was supposed to be only 3 months”.

A) Are you kidding? Those team members were NOT real team players. Oh my god, let me tell you the stories about them. They were rude, they didn’t want to do any work, they were lazy, and don’t even get me started on the people I had to work with in other departments. They never returned my calls, they didn’t seem to care, and it was just chaos because no one wanted to do anything. It was totally not my fault at all, I was a good leader for the project, but they just kept f*cking everything up. It was all THEM. NOT ME.

B) That is true that we had some problems. And with 6 members leaving the team, it was quite a significant drain to our resources, and ultimately, I knew I had made a mistake in ___________, which caused them to leave. I regret that decision, and in retrospect, I wish I had taken more time to think about what I was doing before I made that decision. However, I’ve learned from that mistake, and with my new team in place, we managed to get underway and finish the project in a solid 6 months instead of the 8 months I had originally anticipated when I heard they were leaving.

See what happened? The second person admitted the mistakes. Admitted they knew it happened, regretted it, and said they learned from it and turned it around into a positive light at the end, talking about finishing it before they had expected to.

Much better than blaming others.

Sometimes it’s better to eat crow than it is to try and lie and bluff your way out of it.

Actively listen and respond, with your body and your language

This is the hardest for some people. I don’t know if it’d be in an interviewing situation that you’re asking about, SF, but even at cocktail parties or networking parties, listen to what they’re saying. They took the time to listen to you. So listen to them, and respond to what they’re saying, by asking them a question back.

So if they said: I managed to motivate my team into being the best they could be.

Answer back with: That’s great. How did you do that?

This gives them a chance to brighten up, and shine a bit. People LOVE talking about themselves. They are their own favourite subject. No joke. Everyone loves telling you what they did, how they did things (look at me, I have a BLOG! :P) and soliciting advice and praise from others. It’s what we do as humans.

I also mention to actively listen with your body because I was just at a networking session the other day, and this guy I was trying to talk to about his work (we coincidentally were working at the same company), ended up coming off to me as very lacklustre and rude. He kept spinning his pen in his hand, swirling his glass, looking off to the left, then to the right (anywhere but my face), and shifting from side to side, lazily, and stepping backwards, then forwards, and generally being VERY distracted.

Maybe he was just nervous, maybe he wanted to find the right words (he didn’t speak very good English I guess) and find the right topic to speak about, but his language just screamed: RUDE, to me.

I didn’t know if it was because I didn’t speak French that he snubbed me like that (because I saw him talking to another girl from another company and he seemed very animated), but I just got a general distaste for his attitude towards me, even though I was trying very hard to be focused on him as an individual and to learn more about him (I was genuinely interested).

Now, he will never get a chance to ever have me as someone who will be willing to help him and go out of my way for him, because of the way he treated me.

And that’s unfortunate, because what if I had the business contacts with his manager or the head of his department? What if they were a close family friend? Or even a professional friend or mentor?

His reputation, is forever tarnished in my mind now, and if anyone asked me confidentially to recommend him, or work with him, or ask me what I thought of him, I’d say that I’d prefer not to deal with him if I can help it. And this affects others’ opinions of him as well, and so on.

I suppose I should’ve said something along the lines of: “Am I keeping you from something? You seem to be very anxious to leave.” And if that didn’t make him straighten his backbone and realize he was being disrespectful, that would just have confirmed my opinion of him.

Moral of the story: You can be boastful, rude and arrogant just in your body actions alone. The lack of respect and ability to actively listen to someone, and be genuinely interested in anyone (even people you think are “below” you), is another way of telling someone you’re too good to talk to them.

Ways to counteract it, would be to stand up tall, don’t slouch, don’t fidget very often, and keep your eyes on their face, and actively listen. Nod as well. Smile a bit. 🙂

Relate with an experience, and weave it in your response

If you’re DYING to tell someone about this great project you were just on, and how amazing you were but not sure how to bring it up, listen to what they’re saying, actively respond and interact. Nearing the end of talking about their accomplishment, say : “Oh, I also had a similar experience. This project I was on…..” And segue that way. But be sure NOT to try and form your answer in your head while they’re talking, just so you can blurt it out and not listen to what they’re saying first.

Remember. Actively listen and respond.

Mind your tone and the way you say it

As Meg‘s mama said: “It’s not the what you say, it’s how you say it!

I’m sure Meg’s mama meant with words themselves as well, but tone can mean a lot to a person.

Words and the way you say it will speak volumes, even if you don’t. While someone might think they’re coming off as confident and sure of themselves, firing out one word answers, and being clipped with your responses, is NOT a sign of confidence. Trying to talk like a harsh, barking busy Wall Street trader is NOT the way to go. It’s more of a sign of insecurity rather tha nconfidence, in my opinion.

To be confident, yet without appearing boastful or egotistical, try saying: “My team and I”, instead of only “I”, but as long as they know your role was a PM, if you started off with “As their project manager, I… team and I” – they will know it was YOUR team, and YOU led them. No need to keep hogging all of the credit to just your name alone.

Same goes for the other way. If you have a naturally soft voice, and are naturally a quiet person, try and put a little backbone into your voice, and talk with active verbs.

Also, mind your tone, and the way you’re saying things.

Try to modify your tone to be a bit deeper, more modulated, and slower rather than high, fast and punchy and have your sentence tones drop down in tone/pitch when they are near the end to give it some finality, instead of always going up in sort of a questioning tone, or being too clipped (sign of arrogance in people’s minds because it seems like you can’t be bothered to spare the time to answer them with more than the necessary words).

Hard to explain without sounding it out… LOL

Don’t badmouth others

This is the last one. Don’t blame others. If someone asks you in confidence, and you can trust them, let ‘er rip. But in all other instances, try and be diplomatic.

Being boastful and arrogant, would be to badmouth others and compare their shortcomings to yourself.

“Oh she doesn’t have a CLUE what she’s doing or saying. She’s not the brightest in the box, but *I* know what *I* am doing all the time”.

See the difference?

The key is to remember not to exaggerate, and make it sound like you’re a know-it-all who is the best in the world, and that you have no one who can live up to who you are.

If you have truly accomplished something great, and you back it up with hard facts, it WILL be evident to others that it was a great accomplishment. But you need to be sure to phrase it properly, and remember that body language also counts.

Oh and if you don’t boast or brag, others will respect your accomplishments more than someone who’s constantly bragging about their skills and how perfect they are. The quiet, silent types are the ones people respect and look up to because they don’t need to hear constant feedback and praise from others (like the braggarts) to feel validated and to boost their confidence.

Hope that helps!

Can any other readers offer SF their own tips on how to talk about yourself without coming off as arrogant?

About the Author

Just a girl trying to find a balance between being a Shopaholic and a Saver. I cleared $60,000 in 18 months earning $65,000 gross/year. Now I am self-employed, and you can read more about my story here, or visit my other blog: The Everyday Minimalist.