The Confidence Key to Successful Presentations

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September 2014
by Karen Hough

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The reason most people believe they’re bad presenters is that they’re bound by archaic rules that make them stiff and uncomfortable. So, what you need to do is give yourself permission to be who you are and to present in a way that is authentically yours. And if being the real you is “bad” according to the nasty old rules, break the rules.

Here’s one rule to start with. You either have confidence or you don’t.

That’s bogus. You can teach your body confidence. And your body is your most powerful tool.

If I asked you to walk around a room as though you were the most confident person in the world—if I asked you to show me confidence, only with your body and without words—what would it look like? You might stand up straight and walk slowly with long strides and smooth arm gestures. You’d look people in the eye, smile, and hold up your chin. You would breathe deeply, and your shoulders would relax.

If I then asked you to walk around showing me the physical manifestation of fear and nervousness, you would probably close in on yourself. You might hold your arms tightly to your body, duck your head, and move erratically and quickly, as though fearing danger at any moment. Your eyes would dart around, and your breathing would be fast and shallow.

Try it out now. Walk around the room, first in confidence and then in fear. Note how different you feel, and how your body tries to show those emotions.

This exercise has an important purpose. We have a misconception that presentations are about the words that we say and the slides we show. Presentations are actually all about what we do with our bodies. Audiences focus on your body, usually without even realizing it. Much more impact comes from your body than from your words. As a matter of fact, putting your body into expansive, powerful poses can actually create confidence.

Beginning with the Body

We all have attitudes and perspectives within us that come alive from body cues, not from mindsets. People who study the psychology of self-efficacy (your belief in your ability to perform a certain task or skill) have found that one key to unlocking confidence is to talk your body into it, even before your mind. For example, if you show the physical signs of happiness (smiling), you will feel happier. Your face, body, and voice send signals to your brain, informing it that you are experiencing a particular emotion because you are engaging in behaviors that signal happiness. You then feel that emotion.

One study even showed that forcing the body to change can affect mood and attitude. In 2006, ten clinically depressed patients, who had been depressed for between two and ten years and who had not responded to drug therapy, were administered a drug that reduced their frown lines. In other words, researchers used Botox to force the patients’ faces to assume a happier aspect—free of frown lines and down expressions. Two months later, without additional drugs, nine of the ten were no longer depressed.

But wait—there’s more. Dr. Albert Mehrabian, a psychologist and professor at UCLA, was interested in the impact of verbal and nonverbal communication on our impressions of each other—how we decide whether we like another person. He was really curious about the effect of inconsistent messages (like saying yes although your arms are crossed and your body is tight, which nonverbally indicates no). The study found that in deciding whether we like someone, body language (visual and total body picture) is worth 55 percent of our decision.

But what else mattered? Mehrabian also determined that tone of voice is 38 percent of the reason we decide to like someone else. Call-center professionals know this only too well. In a company I work with, they have a phrase called “poor voice.” If someone arrives at work especially stressed after an argument, they might have trouble calming their voice before getting on the phone. That could kill sales. An employee who can’t calm down and control tone might be sent home.

So what about the other 7 percent? What’s left? Words. Only 7 percent of our total decision whether to like someone is based on the words they say. Let’s be clear: This isn’t a generalization about the impact of all communication. Email does not convey only 7 percent of a message, and you can’t watch a person speaking in a foreign language and understand 93 percent of what that person says. But the findings are useful if we think about them in a larger sense.

Put simply, without nonverbal indicators, it’s easier to misunderstand the words. When we feel that a person is not telling the truth, we intuitively check out the alignment among words, voice, and body.

So what does this mean for us as presenters? We have to come to grips with the fact that feeling confident and managing our body is a priority.

Managing Moves

Try thinking of your body as a tool for impact. Is there a particularly important point in your presentation that you want to be sure people remember? Pair the importance of the message with the movement of your body. If you’ve been standing in one place, move all the way across the stage and stand right next to your audience when you hit the key point. If you have been casually moving around during your presentation, when you get to that critical moment, plant your feet, become very still, and deliver very clearly. Surprise your audience by changing the rhythm, location, speed, or power of your movements.

Try experimenting with movement. Just figure that you’re going to feel a bit goofy at first. Using the confidence/fear exercise I described above, find out what it feels like to exaggerate your movements—to act supremely confident, terribly scared, sad, or excited. What happens to your body when you take on those emotions? How is it “speaking?” Then explore options for moving around the stage. If you tend to get stuck in one position, travel the stage from edge to edge. If you’re a mover, see what sort of impact you can create with stillness.

And just do what feels right to you. Stretch your comfort zone a bit, and you’ll be surprised at the wonderful new ways you begin to connect with your audience.

Sometimes people feel safer if they are farther from the audience. Whenever I ask volunteers to join me on stage for a speech or an improvisational game, a drift begins almost immediately. They arrive on stage, excited and smiling, take one look at the audience, and unconsciously begin to step back. I’ve had to hold my hand behind the backs of some volunteers to keep them from smacking into the rear wall.

I understand. The unconscious need for space increases exponentially on stage. Depending on your culture, a certain “personal space” feels right and comfortable for people to stand in to have a conversation. When you encounter someone who has a different unconscious “personal space,” you can feel really uncomfortable.

Over the centuries, there has always been a big space between the people on stage and the audience. But here’s the problem—this space makes it much harder to connect with your audience. You’ve got to learn how it feels to stand close to people, how to move up into the light at the lip of the stage or speaking area.

More to Try

How do you stay relaxed? How can you make the audience feel comfortable with that proximity? How do you make eye contact with people in the back as well as those at the front? How do you find a way to move a bit and alter your total body picture, even if you’ve only got a few square feet to work with? These are the kinds of issues to explore with your body in practice.

Here’s another favorite issue: “What do I do with my hands?” The answer is simple. Just let them hang on the ends of your wrists until you can’t keep them still. In other words, you shouldn’t plan or formalize your gestures. They should flow naturally from your instincts, your topic—from you.

You can also be intentional about building up your confidence in external ways. If you like to feel polished and dressed up, more power to you. A professional speaker once told me that when she speaks, she always wears something given to her by someone who loves her. It gives her courage and reminds her of what matters.

We all have something important to say. We all want to convince people about things that matter to us, and doing that becomes more likely when you realize that you don’t have to come equipped with confidence; you can teach it to your body.


Karen Hough is the CEO of ImprovEdge, an Amazon #1 bestselling author, a contributor to the Huffington Post, an international speaker, and the recipient of the Stevie International Silver Award for Most Innovative Company of the Year and the Athena PowerLink Award for outstanding woman-owned business. Her second book, published by Berrett-Koehler, Be the Best Bad Presenter Ever: Break the Rules, Make Mistakes and Win Them Over, is available via http://tinyurl.com/bestbadpresenter. To learn more: www.ImprovEdge.com

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