The most popular phone call we get at MillsWyck Communications

The situations are different but the calls are the same about confidence in public speaking: conference speaker, all-hands meeting, wedding toast, stand before peers speaking in a second language, or asked to give a testimony in a house of worship.  The call request is the same: “I am scared to death.  Can you make me a confident speaker?”  My answer surprises most people: “No, I cannot make you a confident speaker.Confidence in Public Speaking

But I usually ask a follow-up question: “Are you good at public speaking?”  It catches them off guard.  “No!  That’s why I’m calling you!”  I then make an observation that I think they should have made, but I suppose fear clouds rational thinking (that may even be a definition of fear somewhere).  “If you’re not any good at speaking, why would you be confident?

Why would a 43% free throw shooter exhibit positive body language when he is fouled, down two, with three seconds to go?

Why would a person trained as a veterinarian feel confident about performing an appendectomy on a human?

Why would a 16-year-old driver trained in rural America feel good about going into rush hour traffic in Atlanta for his first solo outing?

The answer is, of course: they shouldn’t!  And that tells us that how a speaker FEELS about their speaking engagement is the wrong goal.  Feeling good is not the objective.  Being effective should be the desired outcome.  I draw the line at willingness.  If you are just not willing to speak and are passing up opportunities (that’s what speaking is, an opportunity!) because you are scared, well it’s time to get professional, psychological help (that’s not an indictment or criticism, it’s good advice).  If you are willing to speak but just wish you felt better, then allow me to change your focus.  Work on getting good – really good — at the craft of speaking, then let the feelings fall where they may.

There is a vast difference between feeling confident and appearing confident. 

The former can only come through mind tricks or aptitude.  The latter is relatively simple to show.  When we teach the skills of public speaking, we call these Control skills.  They drive the impression that the speaker is confident.  Inside, the heart rate might be 145 or better. But on the outside, a composed and apparently confident speaker is shown to the listeners.

Three Basic Skills that Drive Confidence in Public Speaking:

  • Posture – balanced, solid, square, no fidgeting or rocking.  There is nothing to distract from the message at hand.
  • Eye Contact – concentrated on one person through a thought, no flitting, at people, not the floor or ceiling or over the audience.  The common mistake is “spraying” or rapidly scanning the audience.  The impression of confidence is generated by lingering with individual audience members.
  • Pause – end sentences (no run-ons or non-words), pause for effect, own the moment.

These are manageable skills that can be replicated across ages, cultures, genders, positions, and experience.  They aren’t easy – it takes practice and a strong desire to get better.  But giving the impression of confidence in public speaking and a fearless demeanor is a strong message to send an audience looking for a leader.  And that’s true no matter the condition of the heart inside the speaker!

For more on how to master the skills of Control, see pages 20-34 in Presentation Sin. Get your copy on

Improving your communication skills gives you more impact and influence. And improving is something anyone can do! Improve your speaking skills by signing up for our Powerful, Persuasive Speaking Workshop.

Communication matters.  What are you saying?

This article was published in the June 2017 edition of our monthly speaking tips email, Communication Matters. Have speaking tips like these delivered straight to your inbox every month. Sign up today and receive our FREE download, “Twelve Tips that will Save You from Making a Bad Presentation.”  You can unsubscribe at any time.

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