• How to have confidence in public speaking

Importance of confidence

Confidence is a hugely powerful quality to harness when public speaking. The ability to appear charismatic and fully in control can put the audience in the palm of our hand. They are much more willing to trust us and, in turn, we feed off their trust to become even more confident.

So we want to be more confident.

Everyone can be confident

Confidence can sometimes feel elusive. It may appear from the outside that some people instinctively have confidence – that they’re born with it – but in actual fact confidence is something that we all have inside us and we can bring out with the right understanding.

Confidence is a set of behaviours and beliefs that can be learnt and turned on whenever we need them. By looking at confidence building in this way we can energise ourselves. Suddenly it doesn’t seem so out of our reach. It becomes exciting and liberating!

So how do we become more confident?

The easiest way to learning these behaviours is to divide them into two categories

  1. The psychological (mental)
  2. The physiological (physical)

Both work off each other to create the perfect confident performer.

Gaining confidence through our mental outlook

  1. Understand that a fear of public speaking is perfectly normal

Being scared of public speaking is completely natural and something that everyone feels at one time or another.

It is a legacy of our primitive part of our brains, dubbed our ‘lizard brain’. We’ve evolved to not want to look silly in front of crowds. It goes back to our early days on the African Savannah. If we got thrown out of the tribe we’d starve and die. And so we’ll do anything to not stick our head above the parapet and risk causing a ruckus.

The trouble is that this ‘lizard brain’ stops us doing things that we need to do in the modern world. It produces a coherent but ridiculous fantasy in our heads about the consequences of speaking up in front of a group of people. Something far divorced from the reality of the situation. After all, a rational analysis would show that there is virtually no risk attached! No significant, long-term real-life consequences.

  1. Priming our brains

Psychological studies have shown that our thoughts, feelings and behaviours can be ‘primed’ by various stimuli, and that this happens all the time beneath the level of our awareness.

So we are being primed all the time whether we like it or not.

But we can take control of this process and prime ourselves in a positive way to help achieve the outcomes we want. In this way we can overcome our lizard brain and access confidence. We can do this by deliberately asking ourselves helpful questions and running mental movies through our heads. Questions we can ask include:

  • When did I do a great job at a performance?
  • Why am I excited by this opportunity?
  • What are they going to love about my presentation?

Your emotional state is created by what you focus on. So help yourself by interrupting your pattern of negative thoughts by asking yourself better questions.

  1. Using language

Our lizard brain will often throw out thoughts designed to get you us to flee a stressful situation like public speaking:

  • I hate doing this
  • I know I’m going to fumble my words
  • I’m going to make a fool of myself

But with priming we can use affirmations to fight back against these negative thoughts, in other words, positive sentences that cue the thoughts we want to have. Here are some useful ones:

  • I will have fun. I will be myself.
  • I am brilliantly prepared.
  • I am excited to show the audience what I have to say
  • The audience want me to do well.
  • I am grateful for this opportunity.
  • On stage I am happy, relaxed, inspired, and bursting with energy. I am a beacon of confidence. I glow with huge charisma.
  1. Controlling our anxiety

We will have butterflies. But remember, it’s not the butterflies that are the problem. Butterflies comes from adrenaline, which is a positive hormone: it is preparing you for the battle.

  1. Use our priming technique to cope with increased fear

When people experience elevated mental anxiety, they are usually worrying about three things:

  • The demands of the situation
  • Their ability to cope with the demands
  • The consequences of not meeting those demands

We need to reappraise this with a positive state of mind:

  • Focus on the process not the outcome. That is, what can we control?
  • Focus on a positive experience
  • Visualise success

Remember that ‘pressure’ or ‘performance anxiety’ isn’t real. It doesn’t exist outside our head.

Gaining confidence through our body

As well as psychology we can also gain confidence through our physicality.

There are five core elements of gaining confidence in public speaking:

  1. Body language

An audience will make conclusions about you on the basis of our body language.

But our physical behaviour doesn’t just affect perceptions of us; it also influences how we perceive ourselves. We can take control of this to make us feel more fearless. We do this through using physical primers.

When we feel confident and powerful, we naturally expand our body; when we feel insecure and powerless, we slump. We achieve greater confidence by taking up more space; this can be done through;

  • Welcoming posture; opening our shoulders out
  • Strong gait with a straight back
  • Taking a wider standing stance with firm placing of the feet
  • Head held high
  • Warm engaging smile
  • Try not to fold your arms or cover your body – it closes you off from the audience and reduces your confidence

So by mimicking a powerful stance, such as standing tall with our hands raised above our head in a victory pose for two minutes before our public speaking, we can alter our hormone levels and feel more powerful. Positive postures like these help condition our brain to being in a confident mind set

Exercise: Before public speaking, employ this two-minute ‘power pose’ to help us configure our brains to feeling positive.

  1. Eye contact

Making eye contact is a very simple and very powerful tool for appearing confident. Often when we’re out in public we get used to avoiding eye contact with people, as this can make us appear too direct. But when speaking in public we want to harness that – we want to train ourselves to hold people’s gaze.

Keep our eye contact focussed. Tip: We must think of our eyes as lasers – by the end of the pitch everyone’s retinas should be burned off.

Remember to play all corners of the room, and make direct eye contact with individuals as much as possible. We want to treat the audience as one single group but also make that personal eye contact with separate people.

  1. Warmth

Warmth is very important for developing a connection with an audience and appearing confident. If we come across as arrogant, nervous or dismissive then the connection is much harder to make. Warmth makes us appear much more comfortable in our own skin.

What does warmth look like?

This can include smiling, laughing, open body language, and engaged eye contact.

It’s important to note is that you can’t fake warmth. Human beings are very good at spotting inauthentic warmth. When you aren’t feeling warm towards an audience you cannot help but show that in micro-expressions in your face – particularly your body language and general demeanour.

So, if we want to be warm towards someone, we must think thoughts that underlie that warmth.

We want to think in our heads: the audience want me to do well. They are my friends. They are interested in what I’ve got to say, and I can’t wait to share my brilliant work with them.

  1. Energy

Confident performers change the emotional state of the audience they are performing to. And they do that by injecting energy into the room. This makes an audience sit up and take notice off a performer. We feel them lean into what we’re talking about.

How do we create energy?

Firstly through the performance onstage, but we can also get the audience to do something physical and/or verbal. We must ask ourselves these questions:

Can we break the fourth wall and engage the audience directly? Change it from a one way travel, to a dynamic conversation?

  1. Voice

Voice is so important when appearing confident to an audience. Here are a few simple tips to having a confident sound:

Be careful not to rush
Remember to speak clearly. Often when we’re nervous in public speaking we rush through our words. Instead we want to speak calmly and at a pace we’re in control of.

Vary the pace
We must try to use light and shade in our voice, and avoid talking in monotone. Be animated – make sure that energy comes through in our voice. By directing it upwards through our chest and outwards towards the audience we’ll have more authority.

Control our breathing
Breath from the diaphragm at the bottom of our chest cavity rather than the top of our lungs. That will allow us to take the maximum amount of oxygen into our body, which will help energise us and calm any nerves.

We can use silence and pausing
Silence isn’t just the absence of saying anything. Silence and pauses are powerful tools for boosting your material and ultimately appearing more confident.

Ultimately we are in control of your voice – we can go fast, slow, loud or quiet but we must be in control of it, just like everything else. If the audience feel we are in control then we can appear more confident.

Just as we include body warms-ups before public speaking, we can also use vocal and breathing warm-ups.

Exercise 1: Use the out breath to sound each of the vowels in turn. Let each go without force, flowing smoothly from your relaxed throat. For example:

  • ‘A’ is going to become ahhhhhhh… as in ‘are’
  • ‘E’ is Eeeeeeeeeeeee… as in ‘easy’
  • ‘I’ is Iiiiiiii… as in ‘eye’
  • ‘O’ is Ooooooo…as in ‘Oh’

Now try the consonants. Go through the alphabet.

Exercise 2: Hum on one note on one out breath feeling the resonance vibrate. Extend the hum to sliding up and down a scale without strain.

Exercise 3: This will help focus on your breathing. Breathing exercises help achieve a state of calm and focus.

  • Stand with your feet a comfortable shoulder width apart.
  • Consciously release and relax your shoulders.
  • If you’re holding your stomach in, let it go. Place your hands on your stomach.
  • Breathe in through your nose to the count of five. Count slowly. As you inhale feel your belly expand as your diaphragm moves downwards to make space in your lungs for air.
  • Breathe out through your mouth to the count of five and now feel your belly move inward as your diaphragm moves upwards to expel the breath.
  • Do several rounds of inhale and exhale while making sure you keep your shoulders, stomach and legs relaxed. Increase the count to six or eight if you wish.

Exercise 4: Pull a variety of over the top funny faces in the mirror. You might feel silly but it relaxes your facial muscles and allows you to sell your genuine self in front of others.

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