Supercompetent Speaking: Projecting Confidence as You Speak

No matter how knowledgeable you are, you’ll undermine your reputation if you look anxious or nervous on stage. Here are some tips to help project confidence as you speak and not buckle or freeze.

No matter how critical or useful your presentation topic, you’ll have trouble getting through to your audience if your presentation lacks energy. Enthusiasm, a lively, upbeat delivery, and an unshakable confidence in yourself, your abilities, and your knowledge all contribute to maximizing your impact.

How do you gain this confidence? Let’s assume you’re an expert in your field. Your clients think of you when looking for help in that area. Great—you’ve jumped over the most important hurdle. However, no matter how knowledgeable you are, you’ll undermine your reputation if you look anxious or nervous on stage. So it’s crucial to constantly project confidence as you speak and not buckle or freeze.

Confidence is hard to fake; it works best when it’s real. You can try to “fake it ‘til you make it,” but that only goes so far. Here are a few simple ways to boost your confidence:

  1. Make a good first impression. As comedian Billy Crystal used to say on Saturday Night Live, “It is better to look good than to feel good. And, dahling, you look mahvelous!” There’s an element of truth to Crystal’s observation. Craft your appearance to appeal to a wide range of people, and spruce yourself up just before your talk; you don’t want to have to worry about how you look. When you look your best—dressed well, hair in place, obviously healthy—and you know it, then you naturally feel more confident.
  2. Speak authoritatively. Lower tones and louder volume project authority. Don’t just speak louder; speak from the chest rather than just the throat, and put some passion into it. Make your voice vibrant and resonant; you can develop this through practice. Say it with meaning and intention, and always be both authoritative and genuine. You’re the expert, after all.
  3. Don’t rush. Take your time to do the job right. People may need a moment or two to absorb what you’ve said. It’s actually hard to speak too slowly for them. In fact, deliberately add pauses to your speaking flow so people can catch up and absorb your message, as well as to emphasize specific points. Two seconds is sufficient to highlight or end a thought. Speaking slowly or pausing won’t make you look unintelligent; quite the opposite. If you need to finish your speech early for some reason, cut some of your content rather than accelerate your talking speed. Modulate your voice appropriately, and avoid vocal fillers such as um, er, and uh, which can undermine your authority.
  4. Use the right body language. Stand with your feet at least shoulder-width apart, taking up room on the stage or at the podium. Confident people fill up space with their posture. Be relaxed, but not sloppy; if you move around, do so with purpose, not just to move. Your body language and posture must be relentlessly positive; few people will take a person who slumps or seems terribly uncomfortable very seriously. It’s also a poor idea to put your hands in your pockets, especially if you’ve left change or other items to jiggle in them. So be sure to empty your pockets before you go on stage—and use your hands to gesture, to take up space, to expand upon your ideas with the audience.
  5. Have a good time. While we all have our down days, happiness and optimism can be infectious, tipping over an ambivalent audience to positivity. If you’re not passionate about your message, they won’t be, either. Show your enthusiasm for your topic when you explain how it can serve them. Watch them closely and listen attentively to what they have to say, providing the benefits they expect in terms they understand.

The Zen of Confidence

Confidence isn’t about deliberately attracting attention to yourself. Confident people direct their focus and attention on others, which makes them attractive to others. So go out there certain in the knowledge that you’re helping others.

Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, is an expert in productivity. For more than 20 years, Stack has worked with business leaders to execute more efficiently, boost performance, and accelerate results in the workplace. Her company, The Productivity Pro, Inc., provides productivity workshops around the globe to help attendees achieve Maximum Results in Minimum Time. Stack is the bestselling author of six books, with more than 20 foreign editions, published by Random House, Wiley, and Berrett-Koehler, including her newest work, “Execution IS the Strategy” (March 2014). An expert in the field of performance and workplace issues, Stack has been featured on the CBS Early Show, CNN, the Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times. Connect via her website, Facebook, or Twitter.