Everyone wants to look confident when they are presenting. We also want to feel confident – but most people can handle feeling a bit nervous as long as they can hide it from others!
This in itself is interesting and I touched on it in a previous blog article (“Public speaking and the shame of looking nervous”). But this article is about how you can employ some techniques to look confident even if you don’t initially feel it. Or to put it another way, how to ‘fake it until you feel it.’
Before we look at the five tips there is some good news. You probably already look more confident than you feel. Surveys indicate that over 70% of people have some level of fear of public speaking. But most people look reasonably confident when they speak. So how can this be? Either fewer than 30% of the people are doing all the talking (unlikely) or most people don’t show their nerves (more likely).
Watching a video of yourself presenting can help reassure you that your nervousness is not on full display. You may feel your stomach churning, your palms sweating, your heart pounding – but these symptoms are not visible to your audience.
Recognising that your nerves are not as visible as you imagine can be a huge relief in itself. But there are additional things you can do to look more confident.
1. Eliminate distracting habits
Hand clasping, crossing your legs, fidgeting, and rocking, are all signs that you feel uncomfortable and they can undermine your credibility as a speaker. Watching yourself on video is also a great way to identify distracting habits. I suggest watching with the sound off initially as this will help you focus on body language (rather than the fact that you hate your voice!).
The first step to stopping distracting habits is to become aware of them. It might take a bit of work to eliminate them but eventually you won’t have to think about it.
2. Learn to pause and make eye contact
Confident speakers have stage presence. There are many factors that contribute to this, but two of the most powerful and easy to learn are pausing effectively and making eye contact.
You don’t need to overdo the pause – but a few well-timed pauses can do wonders for your presentation. Pause to create suspense, give the audience time to reflect on something you have said, or to signal a shift in mood. The right length for a pause is usually just a little longer than you feel comfortable with!
Similarly, hold your eye contact for a little longer than you feel comfortable with. You might feel like you are staring but it won’t feel like this to your audience as long as you shift your gaze every few seconds.
Pausing and eye contact make you look in control and consequently more confident. An added bonus is that this will also help you feel in control and more confident!
3. Don’t apologise (unless there is something real to apologise for)
Don’t start your presentation by telling people you are not prepared, that you won’t talk for long, that your presentation would be better with pictures but you don’t have the right technology or any of the other excuses or apologies that we are often tempted to use. While you might be trying to dampen expectations, you are really undermining your own credibility.
Having said this, if there has been a mistake or a stuff up that needs acknowledging then do so.
“Morning tea was scheduled for now but is not quite ready. We apologise as its been a long morning. But we have adjusted the schedule slightly and it will be coming in half an hour – directly after my presentation.”
Sounds much better than:
“Sorry, I know you are ready for a break and would rather have morning tea before listening to me but you will have to bear with me as its not quite ready.”
4. Remember it’s not all about you
This is easy to say but hard to do. Confident presenters are not worried about what people are thinking of them. They are focused on serving their audience by sharing something of benefit.
And it really is not all about you! 95% of the time, your audience is not judging you. They are listening and evaluating what you have to say and how it is relevant to them but they are thinking more about themselves than about you!
Try to adopt a ‘service’ mentality by thinking about how you can benefit your audience rather worrying about how your audience is judging you.
5. Try Power Poses
While the other tips are about presenting, this tip is about something you can do before you present. There is a popular TED talk by Amy Cuddy who suggests an effective way of faking confidence is through utilising ‘Power Poses’.
Her advice is this – practice two minutes or more of ‘Power Poses’ before you speak. This means open and spread out body language – e.g. extending your arms and legs or pumping your fist. You can be sitting or standing. Apparently, by holding a Power Pose, your testosterone will rise and your cortisol (stress hormone) should fall. These changes should make you feel more powerful.
A word of caution - the science behind it has been disputed. The advice was based on research conducted by Amy but her research partner but there have been claims that the results have not been replicated in other studies.
Amy has recently published a new scientific study that validates most of her earlier findings. The research backs the claim that open body postures make people feel more powerful. But it is less clear how this works as the study did not show a noticeable effect on hormone levels.
Overall it appears there is evidence to suggest that Power Poses work even if we don’t understand how. There is certainly no harm in including them in your preparation.
With a little practice and employing some deliberate techniques, you can make yourself look confident even when you are quivering inside!
Some people feel uncomfortable with this idea of faking it as it seems to go against other advice that they have had to ‘just be yourself’. But I don’t believe there is a contradiction. Faking confidence is not the same as being fake. By acting more confident than you feel, you are simply showing yourself at your best. You can still appear natural and authentic while seeking to cover up some of your nerves.
The best news is that acting confidently will eventually make you feel more confident as well. You will get to a point where you are no longer FAKING it because you finally FEEL it!
Article by Catherine Syme
I strongly believe that anyone can manage their nerves and become a better public speaker with the right support.