The thin line between confidence and arrogance

“If you can’t advertise yourself, what hope do you have of advertising anything else?”
-David Ogilvy

As marketers, copywriters and entrepreneurs, it is critically important to never lose our confidence…and to be able to talk about our passions, expertise and accomplishments in a way that conveys trust so that people will buy from us (or at least want to “play with us”).

But where do we cross the line from confidence to simply bragging?

And since bragging can lead to a perception of arrogance (where we can lose our audience forever), this is an important topic for all marketers and copywriters to spend time contemplating.

Once that line gets crossed, all bets are off if anyone you are communicating with will ever want to have a “play date” with you, much less buy anything from you.

I found this quote from Walt Whitman and this should always be our starting point:

“If you done it, it ain’t bragging.”

But of course it’s how you tell everyone about what you’ve done that’s the key…and it all starts with coming from a sense of humility first…well before you begin talking about your accomplishments.

It’s not all that hard to do this as long as you are originating in the right place…that is, everything works best when you are sincerely humble about all that has been bestowed upon you …which of course starts with gratefulness that you are even in a position to be so accomplished.

While it’s critical to never lose sight of the fact that we are personally responsible for all the good that comes to us, it’s also critical to never underestimate all of the situations and conditions that had to be just right to make all of that good stuff happen.

It may not be dumb luck but you didn’t get here with just your smarts and good looks.

It is a constant battle to be an effective teacher or mentor and share all of your genius without coming off as a pretentious ass.

I’m convinced that you win that battle with a deep sense of humility which originates with even a deeper sense of gratefulness.

And no matter how much you teach and mentor with humility and gratefulness, you won’t please everyone.

I have felt this first hand…from readers like you in my online family…who got tired of me talking about my direct marketing exploits, seeing it as a way for me to brag rather than to teach.

That interpretation by some readers only makes me more sensitive to this issue.

In fact, when I get feedback like this, I begin by agreeing with them (and of course giving them an extra link to unsubscribe). 

Seriously, one of the keys to staying grounded is to see everything as constructive criticism rather than to jump to “I am an awful human being” or “they don’t get me” when someone calls you on what they see as “just bragging.”

And it’s why I implore you to keep this notion front and center so you never get caught up in “reading your own press clippings” at the expense of forgetting where you started.

In “The biggest mistakes if my career part one” I talk about some painful (yet useful) lessons around my lack of humility that have stayed with me my entire career…and will stay with me forever.

There are lots of ways to check your humility meter–I have had some of my best friends…some of them copywriters…slap me around about how many “I’s” are in my copy vs. “You’s.”

That’s a decent first step. Check the meter for how you write and how you speak. Make it about “them” first whenever possible.

Another good exercise is to look for extreme cases of confidence running amuck…where you see confidence crossing that line into arrogance…and it’s the perfect reality check.

Examples are easy to find everywhere.

Just hop on Facebook right now (after you finish reading this of course)!

Here’s one not from Facebook:

Not long ago, a copywriter wrote to me looking to write a promotion for Boardroom.

The opening line of his email to me:

“I can assure you that I will be the best copywriter who has ever come through the door at Boardroom.”

I could have gotten angry…or at least snippy…since this seemed to cross the line from confidence to arrogance without even reading the second sentence of his email.

My ego said, “Does this guy know that every great copywriter over the last 50 years has written for Boardroom and it may be the most competitive environment in all of direct marketing to write a winner?”

But that is not how I responded since I wanted his hubris to be a learning opportunity for me…and for him too (if he chose to see it that way).

I had never heard of him–which again, if I let my ego take hold, I could have dismissed him outright just because of that (i.e. “If I never heard of him how good could he be?”).

Instead I went to his site to look at his writing…just to make sure he wasn’t the next Jim Rutz or Gary Bencivenga and I needed to tell him “shame on me!” for not hiring him yet.

That didn’t happen. I can safely say that he was not very good at all and he would be way too risky to give an assignment to.

Then I was ready to respond to him:

“I have to admit that you got my attention when you said you would be the best copywriter to ever write for Boardroom…and since I have never heard of you, I immediately thought I must have missed the boat on you all of these years…so thank you for introducing yourself to me.”

From there I let him down easy…saying that we only use copywriters who are very experienced in our various niches (which he was not)…and I also sent him a few pieces I have written about hiring the best of the best and my experience working with some of the greatest copywriters (who I hope he had heard of)–without trying to show him up and without bragging.

The subtle teaching moment hopefully occurred when he read, “You may not know it when you see it.”

In that piece, I outline the seven (7) attributes that were present in every great copywriter I have ever worked with…with one of the seven being “humility.”

I think he got the message…and frankly, if he ever does become an “A List” copywriter someday, I don’t think he will remember me as an arrogant jerk (although that is still entirely possible I guess).

However, I slept well knowing that I simply told him to lower his expectations and work harder…nicely.

My bigger fear with this guy is that he will never become an “A Lister” without a huge attitude adjustment and understanding the real difference between confidence and arrogance.

I have this fear not only in terms of his personality but also in terms of how it will creep into his copy.

And he is not the only one I fear for in today’s marketing and copywriting community…a little less arrogance could be a good thing for many more folks in our world…and lead to more powerful and effective promotions too.

I love this quote from the legendary John Caples:

“The most frequent reason for unsuccessful advertising is advertisers who are so full of their own accomplishments (the world’s best seed!) that they forget to tell us why we should buy (the world’s best lawn!).”

I began with a quote from David Ogilvy today and I found two other Ogilvy quotes to bookend this message …remember, David Ogilvy is considered by many to be the father of modern advertising and a true pioneer in all things marketing and creative.

And here’s what he once said:

“I am a lousy copywriter”

And to further show that his accomplishments never overshadowed his humble pursuit of excellence despite being an industry icon and having a ton of confidence in his abilities:

“If you ever find a man who is better than you are—hire him.
If necessary pay him more than you pay yourself.”

Warmly (and with humility and gratefulness),

Brian

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