Tom Salinsky writes...
Many people imagine that what they need to give better presentations is more confidence as if “confidence” were some ineffable substance which some people had in great quantities, while other people had only meagre supplies – and further, as if the surplus or deficit of this substance could be assessed accurately at a glance. That might be true of height or baldness, but it isn’t true of confidence.
What presenters want is for the presentation to be a less nerve-wracking experience. They want less anxiety, rather than more confidence and we’ve discussed already some of the strategies which might help fearful presenters to combat their nerves. But what an audience wants is a presenter who looks confident, comfortable and happy to be there. They want confident behaviour, which isn’t the same thing at all. If it were the case that every flicker of emotion that passed through our minds was written instantly and indelibly on our face, and betrayed itself in our behaviour then, for example, acting would be impossible. But actors like Russell Crowe understand that they don’t have to be Roman gladiators, nor disturbed mathematical geniuses for the audience to accept them as those things. Russell Crowe understands that to make an audience accept him as General Maximus Decimus Meridius, he will have to do different things – behave in a different way – than if the audience is to accept him as John Forbes Nash Jr.
But while it’s true that we can and do keep some of our emotions to ourselves, it’s also true that the guesses which we make about how other people are thinking and feeling (based on the way they behave) are often correct. It’s not that behaviour gives us no information about how people are feeling, it’s that that information is not necessarily reliable. Because we are attuned to unconscious behaviour (which can’t therefore be the product of a conscious effort to deceive) if we hear somebody saying “I’m really happy to be here and excited to tell you about this project” but what we see is somebody who looks desperately uncomfortable and uncertain, we assume that the words are conscious, contrived and not to be trusted, whereas the behaviour is unconscious, unfaked and a genuine expression of that person’s feelings.
But it’s possible to be genuinely happy to be here and excited to tell you about this project, while simultaneously feeling anxiety about the process of communicating this information in this format. If we could more effectively manage the supposedly unconscious cues which we give others, without having to turn ourselves into another person, we could control the verbal and nonverbal flow of communication, and give a more accurate and much more effective account of ourselves to audiences of all kinds.
This is relatively easy to understand, but it takes practice to do it reliably and congruently. Here are a few things to try.
First of all, find a friend or a colleague who will humour you and say to them “Go ahead, make my day” while blinking rather more than usual. Ask them how powerful they found you. They will likely find the spectacle rather comic. Now try it again with a perfectly still head. If they don’t react rather strongly, it’s likely that your head did move a little (try it in front of a mirror). Although subtle, these are very powerful cues. The still head suggests power and confidence (although it’s too strong an effect to use very often or for very long). The high blink rate suggests weakness and nervousness. “Go ahead, make my day” is a perfectly pleasant thing to say. Its status as a famously threatening catch-phrase owes everything to the situation in which it is said, and how still Clint Eastwood’s head is when he says it. The intimidating head makes a bold contrast to the pleasant dialogue.
More interestingly, ask yourself how you felt performing both of those actions. It’s likely that the confident behaviour made you feel confident as well. Our minds and our bodies are intimately connected and usually our emotions and our behaviour are congruent – usually the “guess” mentioned above is accurate. So, generally, our minds tell our bodies “I’m nervous” and our bodies tell the world “I’m nervous”. What I do is to coach confident behaviour. That way, regardless of what the mind is saying, the body tells the world “I’m confident”. Rather wonderfully, the body then also tells the mind “I’m confident” and pretty soon – you are confident.