The easiest way to show confidence is to feel confidence. Conviction born of a strong case and adequate preparation plays a huge role in confidence; when you thoroughly know your topic and you’re pretty sure the other person agrees with your point of view, how can you help but feel confident? Your voice will be surer, you’ll tend to greater clarity, you’ll carry yourself straighter, and these will go a long way to make up for any other speaking sins.
While conviction is a great start, you can add even more power by paying attention to how you carry yourself.
One of the most famous demonstrations of the power of nonverbal signals took place in September 1960, when Richard Nixon and John Kennedy took part in the first televised presidential debate. Kennedy looked fit, tanned and relaxed, while Nixon looked haggard (partly as a result of recent knee surgery and partly because he disdained makeup). Those who listened to the debate on the radio thought Nixon had won, but those who saw the debate judged Kennedy to be the winner.
Your body language is usually automatic, but it can be controlled if you pay attention to it. You can affect your perceived confidence by focusing on eye contact, posture, and gestures.
Eye contact is probably the most important signal that others pay attention to when assessing your trustworthiness and confidence; on average, a listener’s attention is focused on the speaker’s eyes 43% of the time during a conversation.[i]
A direct—but non-threatening—gaze is perceived as more credible. The common wisdom that people don’t look you directly in the eyes when lying has been disproven by science, but it’s still common wisdom, so you violate it at your peril. Look at your listeners directly—but with a friendly expression. If you are in a conversation with more than one person, try to give equal time to each.
People are rarely aware of their eye contact, so you might find it helpful to ask someone if you have any bad habits. For example, you may look upwards when answering a question. This is normal, and does not indicate deception, but unfortunately it may be perceived that way.
Cultural differences will affect how much eye contact is acceptable. While this is beyond the scope of this article, pay attention to how others interact if you are communicating to those of a different culture, and try to modify your level of eye contact accordingly.
One of the fascinating aspects of posture is that besides making you appear to be more confident, it can actually make you more confident. There’s an article in this week’s Economist citing research that indicates subjects’ posture can affect how they view themselves. In experiments, participants who were placed in more powerful postures tended to take the more active and assertive actions in given scenarios. It seems that the old advice, “fake it ‘til you make it” has research backing.
Bodily movements are an integral part of speaking. (Even people blind from birth use gestures to emphasize and illustrate their words.) There is also research indicating that gestures can make us more fluent, which as we have seen increases the power of our speech.
Take up space: more confident people take up more space. We take up space during a conversation by having expansive gestures, spreading our arms and our legs, moving around, etc.
[i] Janik, Wellens, Goldberg, DeLosse (1978), cited in Successful Nonverbal Communication, by Dale Leathers and Michael H. Eaves, p. 57.