Expression - Presentations

The Foundations of Confident Communication

The level of confidence that you display to others can have a huge impact on your credibility and persuasiveness, but what people see is only the tip of the iceberg. While others only see what’s above the surface, that visible portion is hugely influenced by what’s beneath:

How much of what’s beneath the surface is under your control?

Natural Confidence

Some people are simply born with more confidence than others, a fact which is obvious when you compare your friends and acquaintances. They blithely charge ahead in situations where others may hang back, seemingly sure that they will get what they want regardless of the situation.

It may seem unfair, but often that confidence becomes self-fulfilling and self-reinforcing, for two reasons. First, by daring more, naturally confident people tend to win more (as long as they avoid catastrophic misjudgments), which of course confirms and reinforces their confidence. Second, the positive feedback loop is also fueled by the increased confidence of those who surround them.

It’s also backed by science; a recent study involving twins determined that self-confidence is at least as heritable as IQ, so there is clearly a “nature” component to confidence. Being extraverted also helps; being comfortable around other people and being the center of attention is a head start.

But we’re not going to spend any more time on the natural sources of confidence here, because you don’t get a Mulligan on choosing your parents. We’ll focus instead on what you can do to create and build on whatever you have naturally.

Earned confidence

Earned confidence is the most important factor under you control. It comprises two parts, general and specific. General confidence is that which you develop through your life experience and achievements, your status within the group, and your learning. You can increase your general confidence by continuously learning, building up your general competence, and successfully facing your fears by exposing yourself to stressful situations.

Specific confidence is what you have in a given situation, earned by ensuring that you have sound content and competence for that topic, that audience, and that time. When you thoroughly know your topic and you’re pretty sure you can get the other person to agree with your point of view, how can you help but feel confident? Being also promotes confidence, because the discipline and effort you put into clarifying your message will boost your confidence in that message, and in turn boost your listeners’ perception of your credibility.

Probably the most succinct statement of specific earned confidence is what Davy Crockett wrote on the title page of his autobiography: “Be always sure you’re right, then go ahead.”

Earned confidence is absolutely the most important layer of all, because it is completely in your control and it is the hardest to shake, even in the most stress-filled or intimidating situation. As Elaine Chao said, “Expertise empowers.”

If you are blessed with natural confidence and have prepared extremely well, you can stop reading now. But if you need just a little more of a boost, here goes:

Primed confidence

Even with a clearly-earned right to complete confidence, it’s still possible to be nervous despite yourself. Your conscious mind may know there’s nothing to fear, but your unconscious mind may not have gotten the memo. Besides, you can have a strong conviction that you are right and still feel a lack of confidence in your ability to get others to buy into your point of view, or you may have pre-speech jitters despite your solid grasp of your material.  It’s completely natural to feel anxiety before a high-stakes meeting or big speech, and it’s just as natural to misinterpret that stress as a bad thing.

So, you may also need to get your head straight by priming your confidence level. Priming means getting yourself into the proper frame of mind to increase your felt confidence level. It prepares your unconscious mind to direct your behaviors when you speak to others, which saves you from having to spend your precious mental bandwidth thinking about your outward behavior.

This is where the psychology gets interesting. Your state of mind can influence your bodily behaviors, including posture, movement, gestures and facial expressions. But it also works in the other direction: your bodily behaviors can also influence your state of mind. Your feelings affect your actions, but your actions also affect your feelings. In fact, at any given moment, you are subconsciously reading your own body language to infer how you feel!

So, there are two general ways to boost your confidence before the meeting. You can prime your mind by changing your body, and you can prime your body by changing your mind.

Changing your body. It’s called embodied cognition: your mind takes cues from your body to help it decide how you are feeling. For example, studies have shown that simply clenching a pencil in your teeth, so that your lips are forced upwards, can make cartoons seem funnier.[1]

More importantly, acting confidently, such as taking up space and adopting “power poses”, can make you feel more confident. Doing this before your important talk boosts your confidence and actually carries over into the actual situation. Amy Cuddy and her colleagues found that the mere act of adopting a power pose for just two minutes raised testosterone levels and depressed cortisol in their test subjects. The former is associated with dominance and power and the latter is associated with stress.

They also found in a different study that subjects who adopted power poses before mock interviews were rated more highly and were more likely to be “offered the job” than those who put themselves in a closed, low power position.[2] The subtle part of the study is that there were no observable differences in behavior between the two groups during the interviews – but somehow they projected a more confident and assertive demeanor which translated to more credibility.

A power pose is one in which you open up and take up space. Stand with feet spread and place your hands on your hips with elbows out, or place both hands on a desk, more than shoulder-width apart. You can even do it sitting down; if you can get away with it, place your feet on a desk and lean back with your arms behind your head.

The important point in all of this is that you want to be fully “on” before important communications, and just like an old-fashioned vacuum tube television, you need a short warm-up period to get there.

Changing your mind. Take a minute to think back to a time when you spoke to a room full of people and you really rocked. You were totally on top of your material, you were confident and articulate, and you felt the almost scary power of having every single person tuned carefully into what you were saying. Can you picture the scene, maybe remember what you were wearing, or how you sounded? It felt good, didn’t it? You’re probably sitting up a little straighter and smiling a bit right now.

Now, imagine going through that same thought process before an important meeting or presentation. If you’ve already earned the right to be confident, it will be like lighting the afterburners on your confidence. You will feel much more confident, you will project that to the room, and your credibility will soar.

The process we’ve described is called priming, which means getting your mind into the right state before your performance. Actors do it – the best actors aren’t faking the emotions they show, they are actually feeling those emotions because they have gone through what’s called an “offstage beat”, in which they primed their minds to feel the right emotion for the scene.

There’s another equally important benefit to this. You can only feel one emotion at a time, so focusing on the right emotion will keep you from obsessing on the wrong emotion, the fear you feel before the speech.

What emotions do you want? I personally like to focus on the thrill of giving my listeners useful information that can make their lives better. Jack Welch used to prepare so much for some outside speeches that he would work himself into feeling that he could not wait to share his ideas. Think of a time when you had exciting news that you could not wait to share with someone. (In my case, I recall the time when I called my son at school to tell him that the mailman had just delivered an acceptance packet from his first-choice school.)

The great thing about priming excitement is that it feels very similar to anxiety, so it’s an easy step from one state of mind to the other.

Besides priming your mood, you can also benefit by channeling your focus. Confidence and charisma are closely related, and communication expert Nick Morgan tells us that charisma is simply focused emotion. Emotions are contagious, and someone who clearly feels an intense positive emotion is going to pass that on to anyone listening. If you can achieve that intense focus, you are going to appear supremely confident to others.

In my next post, I will focus on the visible part of the iceberg: the speech patterns and body language that affect your displayed confidence. But, if you haven’t earned and/or primed your confidence before you start, you have probably already lost.

[1] Dave Munger “Just Smile, You’ll Feel Better!” Will You, Really?,

accessed May 16, 2014.

[2] Amy J.C. Cuddy and Caroline A. Wilmuth, The Benefit of Power Posing Before a High-Stakes Social Evaluation, Harvard Business School Working Paper, 2012.

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Envision Success–But Whose?

When I worked my way up the ranks of tae kwon do years ago, one of our tests at every stage was to break a board (or several), with various punches or kicks. We were taught to aim not at the board, but about an inch beyond it. Hitting that target meant that a broken board was a foregone conclusion. It’s the same way with persuasive communication: a small but critical shift of your target can make a world of difference.

One of the most common bits of advice for speakers who are about to make a big presentation is to envision success. Imagine what it would feel like at the end of a successful presentation: walking out of that room knowing that you accomplished what you wanted; you got the agreement you sought, the kudos that came with it, the respect of the listeners—maybe even the financial satisfaction of a big commission from the sale. Think about reporting back to your boss how well it went, and the words of gratitude and praise you would get in return.

It’s a great vision, isn’t it? “Envision success” is great advice because it shifts your focus your fear and onto your excitement, and that can carry over to your entire performance.

But what if there is an even better way to envision success, one that will give you an even more positive focus and increase your chances of achieving the success you seek? I believe there is. Instead of envisioning your own success, envision success for your listeners. Imagine what they will feel like after they leave your presentation. Will they feel excited to tell others about it, because they know they’re grasping an opportunity to improve their situation? Will they feel relieved, knowing they have solved a problem that has bothered them for a long time? Will they feel confident, knowing that they have strengthened their defenses against possible risks?

Envisioning success for your listeners will help you in three ways. It will force you into outside-in thinking, because the only way to envision their success in credible and concrete detail is to truly understand what your listeners will care about and what they are most likely to respond to. If you have trouble doing it, you know you have more work to do. Second, it will take your focus off yourself, off that little bundle of nerves and voice of doubt that nags at the back of your mind; when you’re truly focused on others it’s hard to be worried about your own concerns. Finally, your intentions will show through in your talk; if you’re excited for them, you will communicate that excitement.

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Build it and deliver it from the top down

It’s Not a Presentation, It’s a Plan

In last week’s post about sales call planning, I wrote about how a sales call plan can help those who pride themselves on being able to wing it become even more flexible and creative when the customer changes things on them. In this post, I’ll show how the idea works just as well for sales presentations, which after all are nothing but more formally structured sales calls.

Have you ever prepared for a one-hour presentation only to find out that someone is running late and now you only have fifteen minutes? I’ve seen people respond to this situation either by talking real fast, or by going ahead with their prepared remarks until they run into a hard stop, neither which is very effective.

They are incapable of flexing off their original presentation, because they are more focused on the content than on the plan. They are like the subordinate who encounters something unexpected and can’t improvise without instructions from above. They just have to show that cool graph they worked on for hours, and they have to talk about each one of the seven bullet points on each slide, because presentations are about content. Content is something you create beforehand and deliver faithfully.

A plan is less about content than about intent. An intent is a goal and a strategy to achieve it. In a sales plan, your intent is simple: what do you want the customer to do and why should they do it? During your sales call, your intent does not change, but your content almost always does, because the audience has a vote.

When you see your presentation as a plan, it forces you to have a clear idea of your intent: the what and the why, and a transparent structure for your presentation, which is your general strategy for achieving the intent. This way, it will be like having a map of the terrain in your head, so that if you run into a roadblock you can quickly figure out an alternative route to the same destination. The map is not the terrain, but it does give you situational awareness, so that you can have the confidence to flex and scale your content up and down as necessary.

Here’s a test you should be able to pass before any sales presentation: If I took away your slide deck, could you summarize your main point and supporting arguments in sixty seconds? Could you write down your key points on a whiteboard if the customer asked you to? If you can, it’s because you have a clear conception of the structure of your logic, and that will serve you well when you have to improvise. By having these guidelines clearly in your mind, you’ll be able to ensure that all your critical points are covered, while having the confidence to skip some information or slides that are not integral or important to your argument.

This is one of the benefits of the inverted pyramid presentation structure; journalists have learned to write stories in such a way fully expecting that an editor short on space may cut some out, or a reader with a short attention span will stop reading before the end. They make sure that their entire story is encapsulated in the first paragraph, with additional detail expanding the base of the pyramid. Your sixty-second summary is like the first paragraph of an inverted pyramid story. The great thing about building a pyramid from the to-down is that no matter when you’re stopped, it still looks like a respectable pyramid, instead of a pile of bricks with a flat top.

Take the same idea and apply it to your slide presentations so that they are easily scalable. Have an agenda slide up front, and then a slide containing each of your main points after that. The detailed supporting information goes in your backup slides, and you can always pull them up or leave them out depending on how much time you have. In fact, if you really want to prepare for the possibility of being cut short, have two versions of your slide presentation: the expected and the short one.

Here’s one more small hint: always prepare your presentation for less time than is allotted. If they’re interested, they’ll easily fill the time with their questions, and if they’re not, well, no one ever complained that a presentation was too short.

When you’re hit unexpectedly with a request to shorten your presentation, your attitude is critical. If you view it as an obstacle or an inconvenience, it will color the way you come across to the audience. If instead you view it as an opportunity to demonstrate your command of your message, that will also come across. (Some of my best sales presentations have resulted when things went off the plan, and customers have made a point of complimenting my preparation.)

Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying: I am not telling you to skip the careful preparation of content in detail; don’t use this as an excuse for cutting corners. But do keep the intent and the strategy uppermost in your mind at all times. That way you will be able to combine the wisdom of planning with the wisdom of knowing when and how to change your plan.

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Not dead yet
Persuasive communication - Presentations

Public Speaking and the State of American Democracy

I’ve been very worried about the state of American democracy recently. I see the general quality of the candidates for President and wonder if this is the best we can do. I hear the tone and content of their public speaking, and marvel at how dumbed-down and personal it has become.

But last night, I had a reminder that American democracy doesn’t just take place every four years in a circus side-show; it takes place every day at the state and local level as well, help and I’m happy to say that my experience with it last night makes me feel a bit better about the state of American politics, and the general intelligence and public speaking skill of the average citizen when they talk about things that directly affect their daily lives.

I attended a Fort Lauderdale City Commission meeting specifically to speak against a development proposal that was up for a vote. The meeting room was packed with roughly 200 people, with an overflow crowd accommodated on another floor. Anyone who wanted to speak could register their name and be put into a queue.

And what a queue it was. No exact figures were released, but certainly well above 100 people signed up to speak. Those of us speaking were granted 3 minutes each. My wife got called past midnight, and I finally got my turn past 1am. (In true lean fashion, I only used 2 of my allotted 3 minutes.)

We finally left after almost 8 hours in the meeting, and it still was not over and the room was still substantially filled with people either waiting their turn or listening to the speakers. I can’t believe I spent almost a full work-day equivalent, but it was not a chore at all. I was fascinated by the entire process and came away with a few observations about the state of public speaking and democracy in America:


Although passions ran high—especially among the anti-project side—for the most part every speaker avoided ad hominem attacks or a strident tone. They were able to argue for their own side with both cogency and conviction without explicitly tearing down the other side. The incivility and incoherence at the national level has thankfully not yet trickled down to the local level.

I got the impression that “expert” speakers get paid by the word.

I was pleasantly surprised by the general quality of the ordinary citizen’s public speaking skills. The area of the city under discussion is generally affluent and well-educated, so this may have been a factor, but in general I rated them higher than some of the business audiences I face regularly.

I know a lot of the speakers had stage fright, but it was astounding to see how many confronted their own fear and went ahead anyway.

Although I’m not generally a fan of reading speeches, it’s a good idea if you’re not experienced. Those who read their own prepared remarks had clear messages while still being able to convey their authentic feelings.


One concern I had was how few young people attended. I don’t know if it’s because the topic is not one they care too much about, or a more general lack of interest in the political process.

The most impressive thing to me about last night’s meeting was the fact that so many people signed up to speak. It shows that people in America still believe their voice counts. At least at the retail level of politics, they can speak directly to their elected representatives and sway their opinions. In fact, in the end we did sway their opinions: they did not approve the developer’s plans. It’s an exhilarating feeling to participate and to make a difference, which is why I love public speaking so passionately.

If we can get that spirit to trickle up to the national level, the state of American democracy will be just fine.

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