Four Tips for Looking Confident When You Don't Feel It

Issue #29: August 31, 2003

To our readers:

The exhortation "Don't ever let them see you sweat" has always made me nervous. I can imagine my sympathetic nervous system getting very excited at precisely the moment it shouldn't and producing a fine sheen of sweat. So what do you do to make sure you look confident when you need to? Especially when you feel remarkably un-confident?

Dr. Albert Mehrabian, a University of California at Los Angeles professor emeritus and highly-regarded researcher, studied the believability of messages and found that 55% depended upon the "visual" component of the message -- attire, grooming, posture, movements, visual aids and hand-outs; 38% on the "vocal" component -- voice pitch and volume, timbre and cadence; and 7% on the words used to convey the message. He cautions that his findings were drawn from experiments dealing with "communications of feelings and attitudes" and that if a communicator is not talking about his/her feelings or attitudes, the findings do not apply. However, they do point to the power of nonverbal factors in communication.

This means we can look more confident than we feel. We don't have to spin a good story, have all the answers, or remember everything we're supposed to in order to appear confident and in control of ourselves. All we have to do is appear confident and in control of ourselves.

1. Be honest.

Some of the most confidence-busting situations are the ones we're not prepared for. Perhaps someone asks for sales figures we didn't know we'd be responsible for, or for our interpretation of market studies we aren't familiar with. Maybe someone wants our opinion of a controversial topic for which we don't have an answer. Be honest about not knowing. Say calmly and matter-of-factly, "You've caught me off guard. Let me get that information and get back to you." If someone tries to shame you for your ignorance, don't let them succeed. Be pragmatic. The confident person doesn't know everything, but is secure in the knowledge that he or she can find out anything he needs to.

If you feel compelled to say more than "let me get back to you," remember that keeping silent is far better than speaking unadvisedly. For Tips on using silence, click here.

2. Relax.

When put on the spot and caught unprepared, your body expresses physically the anxiety you're feeling. According to Randall P. Whatley, president of Cypress Media Group, Inc., an Atlanta-based advertising, public relations, and training firm, "Your heart is beating so fast and loud that you're sure everyone in the room hears your heart pounding. Relax. Only you can hear your heartbeat. It's beating faster than usual because adrenaline and other chemicals are increasing your heart rate. Breathe slowly and deeply." While the rapid heartbeat is an involuntary reaction to the "threat" of looking foolish, breathing slowly and deeply actually forces your body to relax. Further, "you can easily eliminate a shaking or cracking voice by slowing your speaking rate and gaining control of your breathing rate. Intentionally slow your speech, inhale, and lower the pitch of your voice," says Whatley. And check your posture. If you are slumping over in trepidation you'll look and feel anxious. Stand up straight and lift your chin if its drooping.

3. Admit to nothing.

Whatever the situation, don't act surprised or apologize, says Whatley. Gather your thoughts before making any response at all (see Tip #1 above). I once had a boss who would ask me where a report was that he should have had hours ago. The first time he did this I fell all over myself apologizing for not having it ready, and promised to complete it ASAP. After he'd walked away and I thought about it, I realized the report wasn't due for two more days! From then on I allowed myself a few minutes to process everything he said before responding to it, so I could calmly reply, "I can work on it for you today if you like, but it's due the day after tomorrow, remember?"

4. Anticipate the worst and practice your response.

Give yourself the experience of responding thoughtfully to an unexpected or unwelcome demand. Think of a situation you could be thrust into that would set your mind reeling: being called upon to speak to a group of people extemporaneously, or having the president of your company or the board of directors ask you for information you don't have, or being the only person available to handle a disaster. Picture your response: the rapid heart rate and sweaty palms, the pounding in your ears. Practice taking deep breaths while gathering your thoughts. Picture someone, or a group of people, waiting impatiently while you silently prepare. Then practice what you would say, out loud. Listen to yourself say the words calmly, in a satisfyingly deep register: "You've caught me off guard. Let me see what I can find out, and get back to you." Or "let me think about that for a few minutes," while you write down notes for your speech, or "call the fire department while we try to stem the flow of water in here."

Being confident doesn't mean you know how to handle every situation. Being confident means you know you can find out how to handle any situation. All it takes is time, and you are the person who can make sure you have all the time you need.