How to Increase your Self-confidence in Public Speaking (and Life)Sarah Denholm
Imagine that you’re looking for advice on how to increase your self-confidence in public speaking. You want to build self-worth in that part of your life, so you come to see me as a client. You tell me that you’re afraid of failure (aren’t most of us?); that your confidence fluctuates – or is totally absent. Whichever applies, you can’t rely on any confidence being there when you most need it during presentations. And you tell me that you have to tackle this problem, as it’s holding you back professionally (and sometimes personally).
I could suggest that you:
- stop comparing yourself to others; we’ll always perceive that there are people higher or lower than us in our world
- change your thinking: when you catch yourself thinking negatively, change to more positive thoughts
- focus regularly on your strengths, abilities and achievements
But…what do these three suggestions involve? Changing your thinking.
Don’t get me wrong, these are great ideas, and I often discuss them with my clients. They all help you to focus in the right direction, and they all work to build your confidence. The ideas are simple – but not easy – and take time and attention.
So what’s the problem with them?
Well one of the reasons why they take time and attention is this: they involve going against brains’ natural tendencies. Take the first example, stop comparing: we’re actually ‘wired’ to compare ourselves to others as a survival mechanism. This goes back to primitive times where we survived by being part of a tribe, and compared ourselves to other tribe members to make sure that we fitted in and were accepted. Exclusion meant almost certain death. So comparison is wired into us.
What about the second example: change your thinking patterns when you’re being negative? The same issue of our brain’s natural tendencies kicks in around negativity: our brains tend to to focus on the negative than the positive, again for survival reasons. Rick Hanson, neuropsychologist and author, describes the brain as “like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones” (His article is here). Although some people are better than others at seeing the bright side of life – either through conditioning themselves or because their personality is naturally more positive – it’s not the norm.
And the third idea – focus on your strengths? Personally, I’ve certainly found that if I try to focus on strengths or previous ‘wins’ if I’m feeling numb or disconnected from them, I can start a real internal fight which doesn’t end well! So focusing on the positive usually doesn’t help me in that moment. In fact I usually start to have a go at myself for ‘failing’ at the task of acknowledging my strengths…and that’s not helpful. This might sound familiar to you too.
Here’s my second, alternative list: what if I suggested these confidence-boosting ideas to you instead?
- Do something you’ve been avoiding, whether it’s around your next presentation or your life in general: clear up a messy section of your desk, or spend five minutes jotting down notes about how you might open your next talk
- Change a small daily habit: have a glass of water first thing in the morning, or go to bed 10 minutes earlier. Research one of your presentation topics for 10 minutes every weekday for 2 weeks
- Exercise more: do five minutes of yoga poses or stretches when you get in from work instead of collapsing on the sofa. Walk round the block while you practise running through the opening and close of your presentation
Action is the key. A huge part of building your self-confidence.
Think about times in your own life when you’ve got moving on projects, or successfully changed a habit: how good did you feel about yourself? You’re not just grappling with changing your thought patterns – useful and even essential though that is – you’re doing something differently too. It’s usually easier to behave your way into a new way of being, than try to think your way into it. We can sit around for a long time waiting for our thoughts to change and it doesn’t happen. Whereas taking action? It’s usually easier, and here’s why.
Some reasons why taking action works so well:
- As soon as you take action in your outer world, you’ll feel more in control of yourself and your life
- When you act, you tend over time to build competence. Everything we consistently do builds skill and improvement (assuming we’re learning/working with it correctly in the first place). Building competence is a vital key to building self-confidence
- When you commit to changing something and actually do it consistently, you begin to trust yourself. When you trust yourself to follow through on your word, your self-confidence and self-esteem will lift enormously. How many times have you promised yourself to do something differently and then not done it? It’s happened to all of us! But if promising and not delivering – even with little things in daily life – happens over a long period of time, it chips away at our self-esteem. In fact it’s the little things which we don’t do, despite promising ourselves we will, which can have the biggest impact on wearing down our levels of self-esteem and self-belief. So don’t gloss over this one, it’s huge in terms of building confidence and self-worth
- If you’re practising something specific, like your presentation opening or your golf swing, you get into what psychologists call the confidence/competence loop – as you become more competent at something, you feel more confident about it. And so the positive loop continues – unlike the downwards spiral I mentioned before, where you try to force yourself to think differently but don’t take action in the outer world
And here’s something which surprised me about direction:
When I first started to take real action in my life and speaking business, this slowly dawned on me: even if I’m moving in the wrong direction, it’s better to do that than to stand still. Because momentum is far more powerful than inertia in changing our world: and when we’re moving, we can change course if we need to. Whereas if we’re stuck, we’re stuck. We’re not going anywhere, and we’re not increasing our confidence. The problem then becomes not the lack of self-confidence. The problem becomes the lack of action.
Action leads to more action. It’s so powerful. Seriously. We can change ourselves one action at a time. We are what we do, and when we change what we do we change who we are. Taking consistent action changed my life, and continues to do so.
Let me give you a current personal example – and of course I realise that because I work for myself, I’m able to organise a lot of my time as I choose. I’m also aware that you’re busy, and your week is probably very different to mine. I just know these ideas can be worked with, even with a heavy schedule; many action steps take only a few minutes.
So, my example: I’ve been working recently on creating new products and offerings in my business. Some of these are big projects, and it’s been easy in the past for me to get overwhelmed and procrastinate about getting going. But then I had this lightbulb moment when I recognised that if I just kept starting, I’d inevitably finish – sounds a bit dumb perhaps, but it helped me!
I work for three 50 minute time-slots per day at least five days a week (boosting to four sessions if I have the day relatively free). I’ve also scheduled breaks where I have to go outside and walk or do some yoga/stretching on the deck. And this break has to be 10 minutes minimum if I do two sessions back-to-back.
This plan is working, and has become a habit. I’ve been powering along, and have done at least one 50 minute chunk of work by 8am. Sometimes two chunks! That’s pretty exciting for me as I tend to procrastinate. Maybe that sounds familiar?
Feeling pride in our actions
‘Chunking’ our work and project time into clear segments is common time-management advice, but have I ever run with it before? Yes – but not properly – and certainly not over a consistent period of time. I get there in the end, but not by the shortest route! This time is different, and I’m feeling so good about myself as a result. I feel my self-confidence lifting higher – basically, I’m proud of myself. As adults, we often don’t allow ourselves to feel proud of our actions: it’s just on to the next thing. Especially if you’re a perfectionist or have a strong internal ‘pusher’ personality. So feeling pride in what you’re achieving, that’s big. And it will lift your daily self-confidence. Sometimes I hear people say that pride is an unattractive quality – not for what I’m talking about. When it’s about building self-confidence, bring it on!
That’s the power of taking action. And stringing days and weeks of action together. That’s where you make real progress, big shifts towards your goals.
Final thoughts – just do it! Specific ideas for action
So if you want to increase your self-confidence in public speaking and improve your presentation skills, make a commitment and start. You could start small: anything from spending 5 minutes on your slides or practising a tricky part of your presentation out loud…right up a bold step, like signing up for a speaking course (shameless plug if you’re in Melbourne: the Complete Presentation Skills 5 week course is a good one!). I mentioned consistency earlier: this is one reason why my courses have a high satisfaction rate. Participants learn the power of taking consistent weekly action on their speaking skills. Regular, consistent action: this is where the power lies. Not taking big bold steps – though this can work some of the time. The power is in small, regular steps.
Remember that the hardest part is usually getting started. Once you’re up and running (or moving quite slowly!), you build on the momentum, and so your confidence builds as your competence increases. That confidence is also more likely to stick, as it’s not been a one-off burst which you then largely forget about.
My final wish for you right now: that you’ll add time in your diary for self-confidence building. You can increase your public speaking confidence. Or leap into action – in the spirit of the article – and start right now!