How to Talk Yourself Down

President Obama did it quite effectively. President Reagan did it quite effectively. President Bush even did it quite effectively. President Trump doesn’t do it all. To the British it’s almost a national sport although Michael Gove should definitely give it a rest. What am I talking about? Self-deprecation – the act (and sometimes the art) of talking yourself down.

‘Self-deprecation’ is one of those curious English terms which has become mixed up, over time, with ‘self- depreciation’, a point of contention for language pedants, although both give the same sense of gist.

Long ago, we Brits realised the benefits of setting a low bar – coming across as modest, humble and fallibly gallant – in order to win friends and influence people. In the 1990s Hugh Grant’s multiple acts of self deprecation in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral were interpreted as British ‘charm’ and opened the doors to Hollywood and celebrity in the USA.

Done effectively, a well measured dose of self-deprecation can slice through the most formidable block of ice, which can be particularly useful in a networking situation. It diffuses tension, puts people at ease and creates an opportunity to build empathy. In one fell swoop you can remove yourself as a threat, yet position yourself strategically.

In many ways self-deprecation reproduces the unique power that the jester held over a court in mediaeval times. A figure of fun and foolery, the jester was nevertheless privy to all the goings-on in court and, with the ear of the king, often yielded influence that was disproportionate to the job description!

I recently wrote on here about authenticity, and self-deprecation can certainly provide a jolt of this for a politician. Not taking yourself too seriously plays well with voters who are fed up with Westminster ‘elites’ that are perceived to live in a bubble (and a very large and expensive one at that for anyone who has spent time in Portcullis House).

Jeremy Corbyn has done very well out of playing it down. Was it just coincidence that his self-deprecating turn on Channel 4’s The Last Leg (replete with a pimp’s intro and some banter about trains and drain covers) came as his General Election campaign began to soar?

Presidents Obama and Clinton realised the opportunities that self-deprecation can offer. It is telling that flagship comedy show Saturday Night Live laughed with Obama all the way through his tenure as president. The same could not be said for Donald Trump, whose irritation at being satirised only precipitates more satire. As a result, SNL is currently turning out some of its best material in years!

However, the danger with playing the SD card is that overplaying your hand just makes you look unconfident and unappealing. And so to Michael Gove, who made a tasteless joke name checking a disgraced Hollywood executive before a live Radio 4 audience last week. He responded to criticism by apologising for his ‘clumsy attempt at humour’ (you could almost hear the smirk).

He may have got off the hook with this one, but his reliance on public self-deprecation is wearing a little thin. Let us not forget this is the man who launched his Tory party leadership bid last year by saying; “Whatever charisma is I don’t have it, whatever glamour may be I don’t think anyone could ever associate me with it.” There’s just something about Mr Gove’s delivery that is too contrived – a bit like the geography teacher who tries too hard to be mates but just comes across as cringeworthy.

My advice regarding the use of the self-deprecation device is to retain it in the armoury for deployment when the occasion demands. However, use it sparingly and use it with care. And be warned! Across large swathes of the world, where machismo is ingrained in the national culture, such a display will be regarded with disdain and suspicion, or they simply just won’t get it…

Luan de Burgh

November 2017

Luan de Burgh is a speaker, writer and founder of de Burgh Training – a specialist business communication training provider dedicated to helping people perform at their highest potential.