Executive Presence Post #4: Speaking with Confidence – Overcoming Fears, Fillers, and Forgetting

Woman Speaking Confidently

The #4 post in my series on:

Executive Presence: Insights for Boosting Your Credibility and Influence

Whether you’re presenting to a large audience or speaking at a meeting, you want your message to be clearly heard. You want people to believe in your credibility. Sometimes you just want to get through it without making a fool of yourself.

Public speaking is a greater fear than death for the average person, but fortunately, it is a learnable skill. It is also one of the keys to attaining executive presence and all of the benefits that come with that.

I have experienced “speaking anxiety” and maybe you have too – accelerated heart rate, shortness of breath, sweaty palms, shaky voice, blanking out. In middle school, I gave a speech on the insanity plea at a speech tournament and completely froze, forgot my next points, and couldn’t finish my speech. I remember seeing the disappointing and awkward looks from the judges and my fellow speech team members. I was devastated and feared public speaking, even speaking or reading aloud in my classroom, for years.

Once I entered the business world, I realized how important confident speaking was to influencing others and my own career success. I learned a few tips along the way from many sources including superb speakers like Allan Ackerman and Sarah Victory that today help me and my executive coaching clients speak confidently. These tips can help you as well.

#1: Practice Pause and Pace. When we get nervous, we often speak too quickly. We may also use fillers such as “um,” “like,” and “you know.” These fluency disrupters distract the listener from our real message, deflate our credibility, and get in the way of achieving our goals. We must get comfortable with silence and speaking slowly, let our message marinate, and allow the listener to take in what we are saying. Allan Ackerman recommends extinguishing the “ums” with this method. Whether for emphasis, to encourage a response, or to signal a shift in topic or tone, practice just being quiet for a count of three at least once every two or three minutes. As you gain confidence in using silence and pace as speaking tools, you will find the need to say “um” less.

#2: Become Self-Aware. Another way to eliminate the “ums” and speak more confidently is to become self-aware of your speaking style – how fast you speak, which fillers you use and how often, and how effectively you use your own tools such as eye contact, voice, posture, gestures, and movement. Many things to pay attention to, so you’ll need help. Have your presentation recorded or ask a trusted friend to provide feedback and tally your “ums.” I’ve even had my coaching clients record themselves speaking on a conference call to really listen to how their voice comes across while participating in meetings. Awareness of your specific challenges is key to accelerating improvement.

#3: Relax In the Moment. Moments before you’re about to present, introduce yourself, or make a point at a meeting, just as your heartbeat begins to speed up, use one of these techniques to calm your nerves:

  • Deep Breathing: Use 4-7-8 breathing or square breathing, proven techniques to bring your heart rate down and calm speaking anxiety. The main nuance in these techniques is to hold your breath at the top after inhaling, and either let out a long exhale or hold your breath again at the bottom after exhaling. You can do this during a meeting without anyone noticing.
  • Muscle Relaxation: Discreetly tense up various body parts like making a fist with your hands or curling up your toes for a few seconds and then release and visualize every cell in those parts relaxing. Repeat for more body parts as you have time. Speaking and performance gurus like Sarah Victory and Carey Powell learned this in theatre training.
  • Power Posing: If you have a few extra minutes alone in the restroom or hallway before a big presentation or meeting, try power posing, proven to increase hormones that give you more confidence. In the moment, merely sitting up straight with a strong posture and leaning in can give you a just-in-time confidence boost. If standing, lean in by moving towards the audience (thanks, Dad, for this tip). If sitting at a table, lean in by laying forearms on the table to expand your presence. Keep your shoulders back and chin up.

#4: Prepare Your Nerves for Success. You can also do things well in advance to increase the probability of calmed nerves while speaking. Practice these techniques on a regular basis or at least weeks before a speaking opportunity.

  • Mindfulness Meditation: Practicing mindfulness meditation can enhance executive presence and train your mind to be more in control of your thoughts, enabling you to suppress fears and worries (and resulting physical nervous reactions) generated by speaking anxiety.
  • Visualization: Imagine yourself successfully presenting or speaking like you’re watching yourself in a movie. Visualize the details of a positive experience such as how relaxed and confident you feel, how fluidly and dynamically you speak, and how favorably the audience reacts to you.

Speaking confidently is within reach. Like anything, it takes awareness and focused effort to become a more confident speaker.

If I can do this, I know you can too!



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