How to appear confident in 10 steps

Even if you don’t believe in yourself (yet), you can get others to believe in you.

I’m going to tell you a secret.

At the start of my career, I had a pretty senior role. I had to go around communicating big and unpopular changes to police officers. There I was, young and scrawny, standing in front of large, mostly male audiences, none of whom wanted to be there (or wanted me there), trying to present unfavourable things in a credible way. Also, they had guns.

I was nervous as shit.

I was also rubbish. I wasn’t convincing, I was trembling, I was cringing (and so was everyone else).

But guess what?

  1. It got easier. Not only did I become good at standing in front of a crowd, I started to enjoy it.
  2. Before long, it didn’t matter that I used to suck. Less than a year later I was leading a team, a year after that I was running high-profile initiatives, a year after that my salary had doubled, and so on.

No one who has met me would think that I lack confidence. In fact, they’re more likely to draw the opposite conclusion. But not a day goes by where I don’t second-guess myself, worry I sounded stupid, or worry that people will think I know nothing and don’t belong on the grown-up table.

These feelings are normal. It’s the fear of not being good enough that keeps us humble, relatable, coachable … and ultimately, what makes us strive to do better than yesterday.

Confidence is a strange attribute, in that you have to feel it on the inside to believe you have it, and yet for the most part, whether or not you have it is assessed from the outside.

Which is good news, because if you can accept that your self-evaluation may be a little unfair to yourself, or too harsh, or not quite accurate … then all you need to focus on is appearing confident. If you know how to behave in order to portray confidence, then you’ll panic less about how you actually feel, because you’ll know you’re being perceived in the right way. Then you just need to repeat it – do something enough times and it stops being such a big deal.

So how can you appear more confident?

Here are 10 tactics that have worked for me:

1. Have a firm handshake

Might seem like an obvious one but in many cases, this is the first impression you’re going to give someone, so make it a strong one.

Handshakes are important! I can’t help but jump to conclusions about someone with a limp handshake … it makes me assume they’re passive, unenthusiastic, uncertain.

Practise having a firm, short, deliberate shake, and most importantly, practise being the one to lean in and initiate. There’s always that split second in a meeting where both parties are thinking “Are we going to shake hands? Are we going to kiss?”. Don’t hesitate. Step forward and offer your hand.

Also, don’t kiss. Ew.

2. Start the meeting

I love this one. It’s very effective in a live demonstration, but I’ll give it a whirl in writing.

There are two scenarios:

  1. It’s someone else’s meeting
  2. It’s your meeting

Scenario 1

At the start of a meeting there’s always a couple minutes of faffing. Use that time to participate (or better yet, start) the small talk (see no. 9). When you sense everyone is there and the meeting is ready to begin, turn to the host and say something like:

“Olivia, should we kick off?”

That doesn’t require much, huh? And in just a few words you’ve subliminally sent the message that you are comfortable in this group, that you are someone that has authority, and that you don’t need to lead but you are a leader.

Scenario 2

This time you’re the host, so you’d say something like:

“Okay everyone let’s get started. I’m first going to give some context as to why we’re meeting today, and then I’ll run through the agenda items I’d like us to cover …”

This is how you begin a meeting properly. People generally dread meetings, unless they’re organised and facilitated well. If you can do that, you’ve immediately made everyone’s day a bit more bearable and they’ll love you for it.

By taking the lead in such a clear and decisive way, not only are you demonstrating who’s in charge, but you’re drawing people to you. Before you know it people will start coming to you for everything …

Note the use of “let’s” “I’m” and “I’ll” over things like “can we”, “should” and “could”.

3. Be comfortable with space and volume

Some people don’t seem to like to take up room. They stand very still, sit very hunched and rarely move from their designated spot. I think deep down many people don’t want to draw attention to themselves.

So when you do the opposite of that, then you’re sending a powerful message. You’re saying, “I’m okay with drawing attention to myself”.

If you’re in a long meeting, try standing up instead of sitting (explain your back is sore or you’ve been sitting all day). If there’s a company all-hands meeting, sit at the front, or stand confident and alert at the back.

Equally, don’t be afraid of being heard. I feel like this is one of those ‘very British problems’ that as an Aussie, I can’t relate to 🙂

I started working at a company where there were about 30 staff. Every Monday at 10am the CEO used to run an all-hands meeting, which took forever to get going. Everyone knew what time it started, but instead of standing up at 10am would just kind of peer over their monitors, waiting for someone else to go first. Without a shepherd, there was no flocking.

In my third week I’d had enough of the faffing and decided to be the shepherd that pulled everyone together. At 9:58am I yelled across the room “OK everyone, let’s get together for the all-hands meeting”. Lo and behold, people stood up, looking very relieved. I did this every week and eventually, over time, it became my meeting. The CEO still gave updates, but everyone looked to me for “what next”.

All because I wasn’t afraid of volume.

Try it. Speak to a colleague across the room, have a call at your desk, gather everyone together. Don’t be that annoying person that won’t shut up – no one is asking you to be loud and obnoxious – but test the waters with volume, because you’ll invariably realise it’s okay to be heard from time to time. It might actually work in your favour.

4. Question and comment

In meetings, I used to challenge myself to always ask at least one question and make at least one comment. I encourage those I coach to do the same.

Firstly, it’s a good way of getting noticed. To be brutally honest, I don’t think much of those I manage who behave like quiet little mice. Not in a meeting. I don’t care how good a listener you are – I don’t pay you to listen, I pay you to contribute. If someone doesn’t say anything in a meeting I’m going to question why they were there, and I’m probably going to decide they’re not needed at the next one. Harsh but true.

Secondly, it’s good practice. The more you force yourself to speak up, the more you’ll start to do it naturally. The fear will fade away. I insist on it being a question and a comment because you need to learn to be comfortable doing both. Confident people are comfortable seeking further information, and they’re comfortable expressing their views.

Now if the meeting is with a bunch of super senior and/or external people, then it might seem really scary. “I worry I’m going to say something stupid!” is what I hear a lot. That’s probably just your self-sabotage talking, but if you’re really worried, here are some sample questions and comments you can run with – only until you trust yourself enough to say things with more substance (remember, you’re in the job you’re in for a reason!):

“Tim, do you have an example of that?”
“Tim, that was an interesting point you made, could you elaborate more?”
“Tim, what’s your view [on what someone else said]?”
“Tim, could you recap the actions?”
“There’s been a lot of valuable points raised today – lots to think about”
“This was a good meeting to have, thanks for organising it”

5. Recap and summarise

This is really an extension of my earlier point about starting the meeting. Meetings need both strong starts and strong endings.

Whether you started the meeting or not, try and draw everyone to a consistent conclusion:

“Okay, let me replay the key takeaways from this meeting and then we can list the actions …”

I use the summarising technique in 1:1 situations as well, particularly if someone is expressing a concern or problem:

“Thanks for explaining. Let me try and summarise what you’ve said …”

Absorbing a lot of information and distilling it into a short and clear summary is a skill in and of itself. People who can do this appear smarter. If you’re considered smart, then you’re considered credible, and if people find you credible then it means they have confidence in you.

It also conveniently buys you time to consider your response, if you need it.

6. Prepare and script

Every single possible situation where you’ll need to speak with confidence fits into one of these two categories:

  1. Known situations you have time to prepare for
  2. Tricky situations where you will need to wing it

For the first situation: prepare by scripting what you’re going to say. I do this all the time. The world’s most influential leaders do this. There is no shame. On the contrary, you’re a fool if you don’t.

Whether I’m giving feedback, dismissing someone, starting a meeting or giving an update, I script what I’m going to say. That way I know I’m communicating effectively.

Earlier in my career, the scripts were more detailed. I wanted to ensure I picked assertive language where appropriate, like “let’s” instead of “should we”. There are so many little words thrown about in sentences and all of them leave an impression whether we realise it or not. Equally, there are occasions where a great deal of tact and sensitivity is required, and scripts ensure you hit the right note, particularly when there’s a risk of emotions getting in the way.

(N.B. This is where I find a coach to be most useful: you don’t know what you sound like unless you have a professional critiquing you, and you don’t get better without practice.)

Now, my scripts are less detailed. If I’m speaking at a company meeting, you’ll nearly always see me holding a Post-It note with a few key words scribbled on it. Or if I’m having a 1:1, I’ll have a couple of points on my Notes app, and I’m always quite open about the fact that I’ve prepared notes and referring to them – the other party is never bothered by this. If anything, people appreciate the fact the exchange warranted such attention from me.

For the second situation (where you need to wing it), preparing isn’t possible. But don’t worry, if you get good at preparing and scripting for the first type of situation, you will eventually become good at winging it. It’s like muscle memory; your mind and voice will know what to do even if you haven’t realised it.

7. Get comfortable with pauses, learn to pause yourself

Imagine you’re having a 1:1 with your CEO. You’ve raised an idea, and they’re silent. You start thinking “oh shit …” and decide to jump in with explanations, caveats and alternative suggestions.

Sound familiar?

Many people feel very uncomfortable with silence. They immediately become paranoid and believe they’ve said something stupid, when really it’s possible (in fact, likely) that the other person is simply thinking. Maybe they won’t agree with what you’ve said, maybe they will. But if you jump in and fill the silence with talking, you’ll have overwritten everything you initially said.

Sit back, don’t fidget, wait politely. What you’ve just said will hold more weight, and demonstrating your comfort with silence is another way to show how confident you are.

Equally, try throwing in some of your own pauses. If someone asks you a question, count to five before answering. I’m not saying this as a means of engaging in some kind of power play, I’m saying this because smart people think before acting. And as we covered earlier, if you’re considered smart, then you’re considered credible, and if people find you credible then it means they have confidence in you.

8. Use body language

This is a tricky one and I might surprise you here by saying there is absolutely no rule. I once tried to coach a team member to use her hands when she spoke, to work the stage a bit more. But the more she tried that, the more it seemed off. Her natural body language was, well, still. She came across stronger when she didn’t move around, so trying to change it didn’t look right.

It’s kind of the same as how you dress. So long as you’re clean and covering all the bits that should be covered, it’s more important that your clothing is on-brand for you than reflecting a particular style.

So why am I including this here? Because there are two things you do need to take into account when it comes to body language:

  1. Eye contact – make it and keep it. Simple.
  2. Your “tells”.

By tells, I mean the gestures/mannerisms that people resort to when nervous, like stroking their hair or shifting in their seat. Highly observant people will be good at spotting these and may use them to read what’s going in your head, and (if they are the cunning sort) gain the upper hand in a situation. If you know your tells, you can practise hiding them. Again, this is where a coach can help in pointing them out and role-playing scenarios enough times with you, so it becomes second nature to hide them.

9. Plan for small talk

Urgh. I HATE small talk with a passion. I like to be efficient, and sometimes niceties get in the way. Alas, I come across as a mild sociopath when I skip the stuff entirely, so I’ve learnt to engage in it 🙂

At the start of my career, I found it helpful to approach small talk in the same way I’d approach an upcoming presentation i.e. by preparing. I would plan out about three conversation starters or things I could ask one or two people in the room, and practise saying them in front of a mirror. Yep, kind of weird, I know. I’d also have a couple of “funny anecdotes” in my pocket, for those awkward quiet moments.

“On Sunday I was on the tube, and there was this couple, who obviously knew each other but didn’t seem to know each other that well, and didn’t appear to be in a relationship or on a date. They had a giant tupperware container of pineapple pieces – at least 50 chunks – and together, they just ate through the whole thing. I spent the entire journey trying to work out where this pineapple came from …”

You’d be surprised how much conversation this anecdote generates.

Also, I still can’t work out why they had so much fucking pineapple.

But I digress. My point here is that not even “chit chat” needs to come naturally. Don’t stress if you feel rubbish at things because many people feel the same. It can all be rehearsed until it starts to feel natural. If you’re prepared, you won’t panic, and you’ll feel more confident. You’ll probably also put other people at ease …

(For those of you who have recently engaged in small talk with me, sorry. If it’s any consolation, I no longer find it necessary to rehearse our conversations the night before.)

10. Own your weaknesses

Don’t think because I’ve tucked this in at number 10 it’s the least important. It’s a very powerful and humbling tactic. Why? Because it’s not so much a tactic as it is honesty.

It is perfectly fine to stand up in front of an audience and make a joke of the fact you’re nervous. If you’re in a meeting with incredibly senior and scary people, you can make a casual remark to that effect, and laugh it off.

You can achieve an awful lot by being honest:

  • Only confident people are comfortable exposing themselves. By showing you’re comfortable admitting a weakness you’re actually appearing very confident.
  • You are breaking the tension. You’ll relax, others will laugh, the environment will become less stiff.
  • You are showing personality and charisma, which will draw people to you.
  • You are setting yourself up to succeed. You’ve said you’re nervous, people will be kind, if you stuff it up, well … you already gave the heads up.

How you feel, how you think you’re perceived, how you’re actually perceived: three different things really, and each important to tackle.

Highly successful people will always be hard on themselves, and that’s what ultimately drives them to success. If you accept that, then you can focus on projecting the image that resonates with your personal brand.

Experiment with some of these tactics and see what works for you. The key is to prepare and practise as much as you can – no one’s a natural at everything.

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