The Art of the Pitch: To Brag or Not to Brag
The Art of the Pitch: To Brag or Not to Brag
Research finds that entrepreneurs and interviewees should openly tout their strengths rather than tailoring their pitches to what they think prospective investors or managers want to hear.
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27 Oct 2015   Christian Camerota

If you want to make a good impression, your best bet might be to start bragging.

So says research from Professor of Business Administration Francesca Gino. Along with Harvard Business School colleagues Michael Norton and Ovul Sezer, Gino conducted a series of studies analyzing the effects of “humblebragging,” or couching confidence and professional accomplishments in false modesty. Though intuition often leads people to believe any kind of modesty is a good thing, it turns out we aren’t always the best judges of how we come across.

“Our ideas of what we need to do to manage impressions are often wrong,” Gino said. “What we’ve found is that the balancing act that humblebragging requires makes people feel anxious and inauthentic.”

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The findings are surprising, given how often humblebragging is employed as both a professional and interpersonal tactic, and they display a stark gap between what most believe is effective and what actually is. Asked about their biggest weakness, an interviewee may comment that they “care too much” or are “too organized” so as to avoid bragging but still advance their candidacy. Gino can now empirically say that is a flawed approach.

“People appreciate honesty much more than we might think,” Gino said. “So far, we haven’t found that humblebrags produce any positive effects, even in cases where you might think you’d get credit for being clever. Instead, it’s a little bit like giving a backhanded compliment— people perceive you as deceptive or disingenuous. At least when you brag, you have the courage to say things directly that you really want to say.”

“PEOPLE APPRECIATE HONESTY MUCH MORE THAN WE MIGHT THINK.”

Gino and her colleagues have also trained their critical gaze on the startup world, where entrepreneurs often face heavy pressure (both real and perceived) to tailor their pitches to what they believe venture capitalists want to hear, or to what has the most chance of being funded. Here, too, Gino indicates that honesty may be the best policy; what little may be gained from tailoring a pitch is negatively offset by the mental toll it takes to craft a new message in real-time. Instead, Gino argues, the challenge is finding a way to stay true to your own company’s goals and strengths and state them in the most compelling, assured way.

“Reading other people’s minds is difficult and it stresses people out,” Gino said. “Putting on a mask leads to greater anxiety, which seems to be the emotional mechanism than explains our effect. As long as you’re able to capture something that makes your pitch persuasive, and you use your own style in presenting it, that puts you in the right emotional state to be as convincing as possible.”

The research comes following another study Gino conducted in 2014 that looked at impression management in the context of networking events. In lab and field studies at a large North American law firm, Gino found that when most people network for professional purposes, they feel inauthentic and even “dirty” about their behavior. This in turn means they are less likely to network down the line, and can negatively impact their career performance. Meanwhile, more senior firm members in the study felt better about their networking efforts and noticed positive effects because of it. As with the humblebragging findings, Gino wasn’t just interested in why this was occurring, but what could be done to counteract it.

“I’m interested not in just noticing these behaviors but in helping people better them,” Gino said. “In terms of networking, we wanted to change the subjects’ motives while they networked. When people think about their career goals and aspirations, rather than what they’re immediately obligated to do, they feel more comfortable about the process.”

“WHEN PEOPLE THINK ABOUT THEIR CAREER GOALS AND ASPIRATIONS, RATHER THAN WHAT THEY'RE IMMEDIATELY OBLIGATED TO DO, THEY FEEL MORE COMFORTABLE ABOUT THE PROCESS.”

This correlates with how Gino brings such findings to bear on the classes she teaches in both the MBA and Executive Education programs at HBS, and how she pursues her own career. In both cases, she is interested in investigating and learning to think differently about self-expression and authenticity.

“People feel weird and vulnerable when they go to others to ask for advice in professional settings,” she said. “They think that by asking for advice, they are admitting they don’t know things. The truth is that the people who are asked for advice feel very flattered and, as a result, feel much more committed to the person they are helping. The actual reality is very different than people’s perceptions of that reality.”

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