The Art of Bragging

The Art of Bragging

Bad bragging has a bad rap and rightly so –
but good bragging is good for you!

By John Spaith, ACS

The Toastmasters party line goes something like this: We’re a supportive group where members are guaranteed to have listeners who always give their undivided attention. Um...not always. And if you can’t hold the attention of a bunch of supportive public speaking devotees, what happens when you’re in the real world? You can lose an audience fast with a boring opening. But there’s another problem that often goes undiagnosed: failing to brag about yourself.

I’ve given the speech this article is based on many times and always receive nasty glares when I say the “b-word.” Bad bragging has a bad rap and rightly so. But bragging done right establishes credibility and creates an audience connection. I once visited a club where the speaker told us about the need for vitamin supplements. Two thirds into her speech she said as an aside, “This reminds me of back when I was finishing medical school...” Huh? Because the woman didn’t do any bragging, I’d thought she was an amateur rehashing the encyclopedia, not a trained expert on the subject.

Professional speakers don’t make this mistake. Pros appreciate they have competition and so should you. You’re competing for the audience’s attention – against their stray thoughts if nothing else. By bragging about your internship at the Mayo Clinic or that you’ve seen every Golden Girls episode 15 times, your audience is more likely to pay attention to you and, more importantly, your message. If you’re absolutely awesome at something – even if it’s only Golden Girls trivia – let the audience know by telling them early and directly.

The principle I follow when bragging is DBAJ – “Don’t Be a Jerk.” Most of us are so afraid of violating DBAJ that we go to the other extreme of not bragging at all. You probably understand intellectually the need for self-promotion, but at a gut level you may be terrified you’ll look snotty. DBAJ helps serve as a self-check.

First, is what you’re saying relevant? Consider a speaker starting with: “Hello everyone! I can speak six languages, am a French chef and a concert pianist. Today I’m going to talk about improving your tennis game.” None of Mr. Perfect’s skills is related in any way to teaching me tennis. Instead it feels like he wants to teach me how great he is.

The next check is whether the audience can possibly relate to any aspect of the achievements you’re bragging about. Consider tennis great Andre Agassi. He has a lot of God-given talent and I can’t relate to the level at which he plays the game. But I can relate to the fact that Andre has overcome a lot to get where he is. That’s enough. Even if you’re talking about the time you won Wimbledon, a reasonable audience won’t resent your success if you talk about how you screwed up along the way – how you’re human like them. What an audience won’t put up with is a jerk who says, “I’m a natural at tennis, I’ve won too many tournaments to count, and I don’t remember learning, so it’s always interesting trying to teach people.”

The final DBAJ check is to make sure you don’t spend too long bragging. No matter how good you are at it, you need to get it over with quickly. How long you should spend bragging is analogous to how long a mini-skirt should be: short enough to be interesting, but long enough to cover the essentials.

Implementation Details
When I give the “Art of Bragging” talk, I have the audience act as a speaking coach for a hypothetical tennis player on the lecture circuit. In Intro A, he very dramatically tells how he was losing a match badly until his competitor made a vulgar remark that inspired him to come back, even though it almost killed him. Intro B has some decent bragging (no DBAJ violations) that’s a bit dry about various tennis tournaments he won. No one ever has said that Intro B is better. You should brag sooner in your speech rather than later, but it doesn’t have to be your lead.

                    "A great way to brag is to have the Toastmaster,
                    emcee or printed agenda do it for you."

It’s important to put as much thought into your bragging as you would the opening and conclusion of your speech, even if you skimp on the body. Your bragging can’t be off-the-cuff like Table Topics or you’ll risk getting into trouble some day. Either you’ll be too self-deprecating, a la “I have a DTM but, well, you know that’s not so big a deal really, oh never mind.” Or you’ll say something that makes you look like a jerk, catch yourself, and then lamely back-track. Your bragging needs to be rehearsed to the point that it’s like pushing the play button on your DVD machine.

A great way to brag is to have the Toastmaster, emcee or printed agenda do it for you. Even though you’re still the one writing nice things about yourself, seeing it on the page or hearing it from someone else gives the audience a degree of removal from your bragging. This also saves you from problems with impromptu bragging. The same general rules of DBAJ apply regardless of who is praising you, though it’s easier to get away with the “I’m your French chef/tennis instructor/…” bullet point list on paper than it is coming out of your mouth. 

Don’t Establish Credibility
Why am I saying “brag” all over the place rather than something more palatable, like “establish your credibility”? It’s because I’ve found it’s much easier to think up ways to brag about myself and then root out the jerk parts rather than start out with “establishing my credibility” and try to build it up so it’s not wishy-washy.

I’m sure someone is angry at dumb John Spaith right now. You’ll complain that your speech content should do all the bragging for you. Fine. In a fair world, you’d be guaranteed to have everyone always listen to your speech too. Just think about the doctor and the vitamins. Take a bragging pill – not for yourself, but for your audience. 

John Spaith, ACS, is a French chef, concert pianist, tennis pro... Never mind. John is just a member of Redmond Toastmasters in Redmond, Washington, who tries real hard. Visit his blog at