Confidence: How to look confident even when you’re not

Confidence: How to look confident even when you're not. The good sophist guide to faking confidence

If you’re lacking in confidence, a bit of advice you might hear is to “fake it till you make it,” when you’re feeling nervous. That is good advice, particularly in public speaking. It is advice I give on this website. What might be less clear, is how to act confident if you are not. When you are confident, you probably do not stop to take account of how you are acting. Dr. Amy Cuddy, in her famous TED talk, makes a compelling argument for why fake confidence creates real confidence. However, you might not know how to do this in public speaking or daily conversations. To fake confidence, you need to know the attributes of confident and unconfident communication. That is the subject of this entry.

I’m going to use the word “tells” to describe actions that demonstrate confidence or the lack thereof. In other words, tells are the things you do or say that communicate confidence or, its opposite, anxiety. Your strategy for faking confidence should be to minimize anxiety tells and maximize confidence tells.

Don’ts: Anxiety Tells

The most obvious physical manifestation of communication anxiety you will feel is an increase in heart rate. You may feel your heart beating in your chest. This is caused by the activation of your adrenal gland. The extra energy released via adrenalin is a significant source of anxiety tells. Fortunately, the audience cannot hear your heartbeat. You can control the visible signs of the anxiety energy release.

Excessive movements

Nervous speakers may exhibit repetitive movements. A speaker that paces about looks nervous. Playing with your clothes, hair, a pen, notes, or the podium are all physical tells of anxiety. Clutching or rubbing hands together is another manifestation of anxiety. You have a lot of energy, and your body releases them through these nervous ticks. Take care that you are not engaged in distracting or repetitive motions.

Trembling Voice

The extra energy created by adrenaline can also cause distracting elements within your voice. The most common manifestation is a trembling voice. You have most likely experienced a slight shake in your voice when you were in trouble as a child. Another vocal problem is rate and pitch. People tend to speak faster when they are nervous. You should also consider this when preparing a timed speech, as the actual delivery time is usually less than when you practice.

A trembling voice is the hardest anxiety tell to deal with. The only way to effectively stifle the problem is to release energy in a way that looks confident. I will cover exactly how to do the below in the section about confident movements.

Closed Gestures

The second type of anxiety tells stem from evolution. When we lived in caves and ran around in animal skins and spears, there were a lot more sources of fear. While early humans might not have had to worry about giving the perfect wedding toast, they did have to worry about being eaten by saber-tooth tigers or stomped by a woolly mammoth. We needed survival instincts, and the vestiges of those survival instincts resurface today when we engage in closed gestures.

The most common of these tells is how you touch yourself. Our instinct, when threatened is to cover ourselves or retreat. Touching your neck is a tell of anxiety or nervousness. I suggest always avoid touching your neck or head. Closed gestures, like crossing arms or leaning back, are also indicative of the cover-up tells. You are creating a barrier between you and the danger – in this case, the audience.

Submission Pose

The final group of anxiety tells result from a desire to surrender. Perhaps that other tribe will not spear me if I submit. Submission is mostly manifest by casting your eyes and head towards the ground. You are bowing to the enemy. Slumped shoulders and pulling yourself inward – to make yourself as small as possible – are indicative of submission poses that demonstrate anxiety.

Vocal Distractions

The psychological component of anxiety results in verbal tells of anxiety. Vocal pauses are the primary symptom of anxiety. A speech full of “uhs” and “ahhs” reflect lack of preparation, nervousness, or both. Repetitions can also reflect anxiety. Using a single word or phrase over and again is sometimes anxiety and always distracting. People often have words and phrases they sprinkle throughout their speech (“like” or “so”) and these become amplified with anxiety.

Do’s: Confidence Tells

At a bare minimum, you should try to minimize anxiety tells. That alone will make you look somewhat confident. However, it is always better to add on confidence tells or use them to offset uncontrollable anxiety tells. The following confidence tells are based on the study of human nonverbal communication research.

Strong Eye Contact

Establishing eye contact is a strong indicator of confidence. Looking away or down is a sign of submission, when we are confident we maintain eye contact as an expression of dominance. This comes across as confidence in public speaking. Speakers dealing with anxiety will often be coached to decrease eye contact, but I discourage avoiding eye contact because it makes you look more nervous than you might be.

Open Gestures

Anxiety will bring an excess of energy described above. To deal with that excess energy, train your hands to move productively. Gesturing is an effective way to do this and is seen positively by the audience. Be careful not to overdo it, but you can and should be expressive in how you use your hands. Good gesturing can also help you avoid closed gestures.

What is good gesturing? Good gesturing has three attributes: it is natural, it is expressive, and it is open. Practice by beginning with your hands naturally at your sides. Avoid holding your hands together because you will end up clutching your hands more than gestures. Keep your palms open and move your arms and hands between your hips and shoulders. Use gestures that illustrate what you are saying whenever you can. Observe how you and others gesture in normal conversation. These natural gestures can be enhanced and used in presentations. Check out this great TED talk for a great example of gesturing.

Another great way to deal with excess energy is to walk. If you are not trapped behind a podium, work in movements around the speaking area. If you are prone to pacing, you can lay out a specific route with planned stopping points. This will release energy and help you connect with the audience.

Dominant Posture

“Keep your chin up” is more than just an expression. We already discussed how covering your neck is a sign of fear. The inverse is also true. Exposing your neck demonstrates confidence. Make sure your shoulders are back and square with the audience. These open gestures illustrate a lack of fear.

Powerful Voice

The key to a confident voice is fluency. Your voice should be loud and clear. I’ve noticed that very nervous speakers will lower the volume of their voice, perhaps as a method to minimize mistakes. Confident speakers speak loudly without yelling. Look for the person furthest away from you and speak to them. Your brain will automatically regulate your volume to reach them.

Expressive Face

Your face is the most expressive part of your body. We are wired to respond to fearful facial expressions. Try to smile as much as possible when appropriate. Don’t be afraid to be expressive with your face. Confident people have nothing to hide. One trick I use to soften my facial expressions is to remember someone that I love.

Be Prepared

You can look as confident as James Bond, but if your words don’t make sense, it won’t make a bit of difference. You must prepare as much as possible for the speech. You should choose a strong topic, research relentlessly, write a well-organized speech, and practice your delivery.

But what if you are speaking on a controversial topic? What if it is the content that is making you nervous? I know, when I speak to a group of experts in my field, I sometimes get nervous about being adversely judged. There are three steps to help you with this. First, have a clear understanding of the points of contention. Second, as you practice imagine a question and answer period where you answer criticisms. Finally, use a Jedi mind trick.

The Jedi mind trick

When I was a debater, we borrowed the phrase “Jedi mind trick” to describe an unabashed denial of doubt. Keep in mind, it is not a denial of facts or reality, it is confidence that you have considered all alternate points of view, all probabilities, all shortcomings of your arguments, but you have still come to the same conclusion. It is a Jedi mind trick because, when executed properly, your lack of doubt can cause doubt in the minds of others.

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

The “con” in con man means confidence. Keep in mind people will believe you just because you are confident. You should never fake confidence to trick or mislead people. As the comic book says, with great power comes great responsibility. Confidence is a powerful thing for any communicator, and you should always use it responsibly.


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