Wednesday, August 10, 2011

From the vault: Confidence--how to fake it until you make it

You can't buy confidence as a public speaker--you can only build it up, like a muscle, over time. So what do you do until you've worked out your fears and gained enough experience to feel confident as a speaker? My advice as a public speaking and presentation coach can be summed up in two words:

Fake it.

I think many of us create a mythical view of the Ideal Speaker Experience, a perfect vision of What It Should Be Like. You know what I mean: The audience loves you and begs you to keep talking. You look fantastic. Your voice projects well and modulates effortlessly to fit the emotions and facts in your speech. You don't have to look at notes. Your words inspire, persuade, convince. Heads nod approvingly. No ums, ers and ahs pass your lips, and there's no question you can't answer. The lighting's perfect, everyone can hear you, the room is quiet enough that you could hear a pin drop. All the technology works perfectly, with no effort on your part. After you speak, the crowd rushes forward to offer you roses, champagne, lucrative book deals, and a ride to the airport. Unicorns and a magic genie accompany you home.

This has never happened to me, or I'd have shown you video of the unicorn by now.

What has happened: I've given some of my best speeches under conditions that don't fit nicely into that Ideal Speaker Experience. Some of my best lines have been unscripted and in the moment. One of my best talks was one for which I had almost no time to prepare; another had every kind of room and technology problem, all last-minute, that you could imagine.

My goal in coaching any public speaker or presenter is to help you avoid letting that Ideal Speaking Experience vision--the bar you are setting for yourself--keep you from trying. Thousands of would-be speakers fail to step forward every day because they think they have to be perfect. And that's a shame, because no one's perfect. But here's a wondeful secret. Your vision of perfection has something in common with your lack of confidence or fears about speaking: No one knows about it but you. And that will allow you to fake it.

With that, here are 12 ways you can fake it--that is, look confident and even feel more confident--until you get enough experience to feel you can handle any situation. Most of these also will help you reduce the stress you're feeling about speaking, which contributes to your lack of confidence:
  1. Banish that perfect vision. Just stop thinking and talking about it, even to yourself. Better: Spend time focusing on what might go wrong--and brainstorm one or two ways you can deal with those problems, in case they happen.
  2. Don't tell the audience. I've met fearful speakers who've decided to overcome their fear by telling the audience all about it, and they feel it's an asset to their speaking. I disagree. Most audiences are hoping you'll do well--you can almost always assume that, unless you're dealing with a confrontational issue. Alerting the audience that you are nervous is like waving a signal flag. From then on, they won't be paying as much attention to your content as they will to wondering when you're going to freeze up. And remember: They can't tell you're nervous, most of the time. Why share?
  3. Don't keep telling yourself. The mind is a powerful thing, and it's entirely possible to sabotage yourself by repeating over and over in your mind that you're nervous or that things might go wrong.
  4. Watch yourself on video. Better yet, get a pal to watch your video with you, and task her with sharing a few things she noticed and a few things she might suggest to improve. If you feel nervous while you're making the video, ask her whether she could see it. Use this handy tipsheet as you evaluate your video.
  5. Take charge of your introduction. Sometimes, all it takes is a lame introduction to get a speaker off on the wrong foot. Take charge of that situation with these tips.
  6. Smile. Smiling actually releases endorphins, a chemical response that makes you feel better. (Same with exercise.) Audiences love a smiling speaker, and you'll be counteracting the natural tendency of most mouths to turn down. Bonus: You'll feel better, they'll feel better.
  7. Breathe, before, during and after. Deep breaths before your speech will help moderate your blood pressure and calm you physically and mentally. Practicing the "relaxation response" breathing exercises also will help you master the art of calming yourself when you get into stressful situations, like speaking. Bonus: Breathing isn't just essential, it's invisible. So do it.
  8. Stand up straight. Great posture will help you feel better and make you look very confident to your audience. (What slouch ever looked confident?) A bonus: It'll help your breathing and ability to project.
  9. Don't overdo. Often, speakers get in trouble here, so seek to avoid overdoing. Especially when you are beginning as a speaker, keep it short and focused. Don't aim for the longest sentences--or the longest speech. Don't use elaborate props or technology until you feel more confident.
  10. Don't overprepare. Over-preparation is an agitated way of setting yourself up to fail--you'll never need all the facts you're trying to master in advance, and you can set some parameters for what you'll talk about. Again, better you should spend your prep time working on your message or practicing your talk.
  11. Wait quietly until the group is quiet. If you have a talkative, fidgety group and you're the first person to speak, just wait for them to settle down--it's the most powerful, confident-looking start, far better than repeatedly trying to call them to attention. Keeps you calmer, too.
  12. Plan your message. Knowing what you want to say with a structured three-point message can help you feel more confident. Plus, this type of message will help you find your way back to your points easily if you get off track. Just knowing you have a plan to follow will help reinforce your confidence.
Related posts: When you have to give an impromptu speech

When the speech hands you lemons...

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