During a discussion of anxiety on my Facebook Page, someone asked for advice on how to speak with confidence, especially when feeling nervous or intimidated. This caused me to reflect how I (a rather anxious introvert who used to be easily intimidated) have gotten to the point where I feel calm, centered and even joyful while speaking to a crowd of thousands. I’m also much, much better at dealing with bullies.
Here are five keys to help you communicate with more confidence, poise and impact. These apply to almost any high stakes situation, be it a formal public speaking event or a difficult conversation:
1) Carry yourself with confidence
Stand tall. Shoulders back, head up, eyes up and forward. Plant your feet firmly on the floor, with strongly engaged legs (if you’re standing). Same thing goes if you’re sitting: adopt a posture that indicates that you're present, focused and worthy of respect.
As you enter a room or walk onto a stage, do so with a confident stride and a smile. Even if you’re not feeling confident, maintaining a confident posture will help you believe that you're capable and ready for the situation. Others will believe it, too!
2) Be prepared
Know your stuff, whenever you enter any important conversation, speech or meeting. Don’t be tempted to wing it. Being unprepared puts you at a disadvantage from the start; your confidence will instantly be shaken by the fact that you could get caught at a disadvantage (if someone starts asking questions, for example).
Know more than just the superficial facts that you're communicating. Prepare by going several layers deeper, if possible. It feels so good to be thrown a question, or challenged, and be able to display that you really know what you’re talking about.
Practice is also key to good preparation. After sixteen years of speaking professionally, I won’t give a speech without practicing it, over and over. Even if I’ve given a very similar speech, recently. Practicing before each appearance keeps me in top form. Knowing my content inside out also gives me lots of confidence (and makes me less reliant on slides, which can glitch!).
3) Speak clearly and avoid “umms”
Have you ever watched a speech, that would be much more effective if they didn’t keep saying “umm” or doing some awkward thing? It agonizes me. I want to run up there, pull them backstage and give them some coaching, before sending them back out!
Discipline yourself to avoid sloppy vocal habits like those “umms” and repetitive empty phrasing. If you ever speak publicly, ask someone to record you. Watch it after (it’s painful, I know!), noting any sloppy or ineffective vocal or physical habits.
I’m pretty good about avoiding “umms” when giving a speech (not so good on the phone, though, sigh). My footage shows me that I sometimes overuse favorite phrases or words. I wouldn't have noticed this, otherwise.
Practice this at every opportunity: clean up your speech when on the phone, in a meeting, or any conversation.
4) Don’t fill silence with nervous chatter
Years ago, a brilliant mentor taught me how to negotiate business deals. “Present your terms, and then be quiet. Don’t say anything, until they’ve responded.” A sales expert once told me this in less eloquent terms: “Say it, then SHUT UP.”
This applies to so many situations. If you’ve said something important, but are nervous about standing up for yourself (especially when the other person doesn’t respond right away and/or is staring you down), it’s easy to reveal your insecurity through self-deprecation, apologies, backing down, offering alternatives etc. Don’t do it. When you stand on what you’ve said, it will help to win respect. If you find this really hard, try counting back from ten or twenty in your head, while you allow the silence to sit there.
In important situations, avoid nervous or meaningless chatter, period. That same mentor instructed me to avoid making small talk with an audience upon taking the stage. I walk confidently onto the stage, turn to face the audience, and launch into my first story.
Just once, a few years ago, I thought I had something spontaneously funny to say to a group, before starting my speech. I broke the rule. Big mistake, it fell flat. Start strong and you’ll stay strong.
You can also use silence as a tool during a presentation. Pause, after you say something particularly important. Pause, if you can tell that something is really landing. It’s the mark of a pro.
5) Visualize it ahead of time
According to brain scans, your brain can’t distinguish between what you visualize and real life. Convince your brain of your capacity for top performance, by imagining that perfect speech or conversation. It increases the probability that things will go well. Athletes have used this technique for decades.
A few years ago, I was preparing to speak in front of a very large crowd. I came upon a “Public Speaking” guided visualization exercise in my Mindshift app (a free app that many doctors in my region, including yours truly, recommend to anxious patients; this four-minute exercise is in the app’s “Chill Zone”). I used this recording a couple of times, to help me confidently imagine the event. Things went exceptionally well on the big day. I believe that the visualization exercise contributed to that success.
Get out there. You can do it! Say what needs to be said, and say it well.
© Copyright 2019 Dr. Susan Biali Haas