As a speaker on communication and reputation I often get asked how to have more confidence during important conversations or when speaking in front of others.
There’s nothing new in this question; people over the centuries have struggled with nerves and anxiety when they have to get up and speak. There’s also no magic solution; it starts with self-belief and I could write an entire series on how to kill off those negative thoughts that sabotage our attempts to speak confidently. In this post, I’m focusing on three quick, practical tips to help you boost confidence straight away (the self-belief part might well be a work in progress!)
It’s all in the preparation
Abraham Lincoln is quoted as saying, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” That man knew what he was about. As well being a lesson on life, those wide words apply to communication situations where we feel nervous or stressed.
Sometimes our nerves stem from not doing the right preparation. Now, I can hear you saying, “I don’t have enough hours in the day as it is – now you’re telling me to allow for preparation time every time I want to communicate?” but I’m suggesting you will actually save time in the long run. A small amount of preparation will get you a better result. You’ll get your message across the first time; those you’re speaking to will understand you clearly and there will be less misunderstanding, frustration, confusion and unnecessary questions.
Preparation starts with thinking about your audience (by audience I mean the individual or group you’re speaking to. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be up on a stage). Really think about them; what do you know about them, what do they need from you from this communication, what to you need them to take away, how do you want them to feel, how do you want them to act as a result of the communication?
Often, we plough in without thinking about the person or people we’re speaking to and wonder why we’re getting inferior results.
Once you’ve considered our audience, it’s time to think about the specific key points you need to communicate. I’m a great believer in the deadly simple but very effective “rule of three”, where you simply group your information under three key headings. Put simply, our brains enjoy receiving information in three pieces. Four points are a little too many and two aren’t quite enough. Three is just right.
Think to yourself; if my audience could walk away with three key pieces of information and nothing more, what would those points be?
This approach works well if you’ve delivering a presentation, and it’s also great for important conversations. Having a simple framework to hang your information on make it easier for the other person to follow you, and takes the pressure off you to know what to say.
I use this myself when presenting proposals to clients; I go into the meeting with three very clear points and a desired outcome. During the meeting, I’m then able to say to the client, “I’ve been giving your issue some thought and here are some ideas I’d like to suggest.” Rather than taking part in a meandering conversation that you hope will get the outcome you’re seeking, going in with a firm structure gives direction to the meeting and leads quickly to the outcome. At the same time, you’ll come across as professional, proactive and well organised.
Of course, in a conversation the other person will probably respond and ask questions throughout, its not like you’re delivering a monologue. However, knowing your three points up front will increase your confidence, and you’ll be able to address their question or comment knowing where you want the conversation to go next.
Once you’ve got the structure and key points sorted, it’s time to get your head space right. I said earlier that self-belief is a long-term project, but in the short term you can at least manage your immediate attitude.
Before you go into an important meeting or presentation, listen to music you enjoy, tell yourself positive messages and spend a few minutes thinking about times when you’ve succeeded at something (which could be anything, it doesn’t have to be related to communicating!) Think about the result you want to achieve and imagine yourself achieving exactly that. Say the word confidence to yourself, as an instruction to your brain. This will influence you’re body language; you’ll stand taller and convey more confidence (even if your insides are doing a jelly roll). Doing this for just a few minutes before a conversation or presentation can make a huge difference to the way you come across, and your audience will pick up your cues and respond accordingly.
Focus on them
People will forgive you for a few ums and ahs if they feel a part of the conversation. Rather than focusing on yourself (which will only make you feel self-conscious and zap your confidence), put your attention on your audience - whether that’s one individual or a group of people.
Make sure you’re using lots of eye contact and “you” focused language. Try not to communicate just from your own point of view. If you can hear yourself using a lot of “I” and “me” statements, it’s time to do a quick adjustment. Focus on your audience and try to see the communication from their point of view.
This works really well if you can feel your nerves or anxiety rising during the discussion or presentation. Shift your attention outward; think about your audience, ask yourself “what do they need from me and how can I best serve them?” That stops you worrying about whether your voice sounds funny or you’re hair’s not right, because you’re now genuinely thinking about what the others in the interaction need.
Use whatever techniques you can to keep your audience engaged; ask questions, get feedback, use open hand gestures, make sure you’re not turning your body away from the audience, smile, keep your tone warm and friendly. One of my favourite quotes from Hugh Mackay is this:
“It’s the message people take away not the message we send, that determines our success as a communicator.” Another very wise man.
Our job isn’t done until our audience walks away with a clear impression of our key points and what action they need to take next.
Shift your perspective upwards
This is the part that many people neglect, and it’s all about your higher reason for doing what you do.
Many people are focused on the day to day grind and don’t stop to think about the bigger picture; why they do their job or why they’re undertaking a particular activity. If you think about it long enough, you’ll come up with an overarching reason. Usually it will have more to do with others, and less to do with you, than you think.
I did an exercise recently with a group of early childhood teachers where I asked them what they did in their roles. Their answers sounded much like a short job description; they told me the tasks they performed rather than the results they actually achieved. When we looked into it more deeply they were able to see that, in fact, they were making a huge difference to children at a very critical stage of their development. While they initially gave answers like “I teach pre-schoolers”, in fact they were shaping the leaders of tomorrow.
When they started to really get this concept, there was a dramatic change in their body language. Shoulders went back and they collectively sat up taller. Suddenly they were seeking their role in a whole new light.
I encouraged them to take this feeling into all of their communications, including when speaking to parents of the children in their care. That injected a whole lot more confidence and presence into their conversations - previously many had reported feeling intimidated and inadequate when liaising with parents, many of whom were corporate high-flyers.
Interestingly, I received feedback that the parents in their child care centre noticed a positive difference in the way the staff were communicating. This came about just from changing their perspective of their role from a low-level task-driven view to an over-arching, powerful vision.
Think about your higher role – what you’re bringing to your clients, your community or even the world as a whole - and align your communication to that. Shifting your perspective upward will inspire you with confidence, which in turn will be conveyed in everything you do.
So, there are some quick tips for more confident communication. Be prepared, focus on engaging your audience, and think of yourself from a higher standpoint and communicate from that space.
Confidence is one of those rare elements that you can fake a little as you learn and grow. The more of these principles you put into practice, the more confident you will actually feel and you'll be on your way to being a genuinely confident communicator.