There are two ways to increase confidence: by changing how you think, and by changing how you act.
Both approaches are useful, and often you can work on confidence from both directions. To learn more about building confidence from the inside, read How to Develop Confidence From Within.
In this post, I focus on the “outside-in” approach and how new behaviors can help you look (and feel) more confident.
Experience Builds Confidence
It’s a basic truth that experience builds confidence. For most people, the act of doing something repeatedly and building skills boosts confidence over time.
So, if you want to feel more confident in a specific activity—say, speaking in front of a large audience—you might try to do it as often as possible. Even though that may sound painful, it is a fairly sure path to feeling more confident, simply through exposure.
The same applies to taking on a new role. Sometimes leaders make big jumps, like from managing a team of 10 to a team of 25, or from 200 to 1,000, and confidence often dips in those moments. Just having more time and experience in the new role usually helps.
Change Your Posture to Boost Your Confidence
How you sit or stand can actually change how confident you feel on a physiological level. Amy Cuddy has famously discussed how different poses or postures change your body chemistry and boost feelings of confidence.
I’ve experienced this myself, and, I have to say, it works. Often when I take public transit, I stand on the train. If I stand straight with my feet apart, I’ve noticed a surge of energy and positive feelings after several minutes. Try it when you feel a need for more confidence. See Power Posing: Fake It Until You Make It in Harvard Working Knowledge.
Also, having more open body language is usually better for communication and makes you seem less defensive, and more confident. Open body language includes: making eye contact, and being reasonably upright without being overly-stiff. Some people inadvertently put up non-verbal communication blocks by leaving a hand on their face, putting their hands in a prayer position, or crossing their arms. The spirit of open body language is to make yourself more accessible by putting fewer physical barriers between you and others.
For more, read How Body Language Affects Executive Presence.
Some mannerisms give the impression that your energy is scattered: constant hand motions or fiddling with a pencil or a phone, for example. Gravitas and an appearance of confidence come from more composed body language.
Similarly, people whose eyes dart around appear less confident, even less trustworthy compared to people who make more steady eye contact. (Eye contact can also go to the opposite extreme: if you make steady eye contact and never look away, it can be intimidating). And public speakers who walk frantically around on stage also reduce their gravitas.
One way to work on this, particularly when preparing for a speech or crucial meeting, is to work with video. Recording yourself while you rehearse provides a very useful kind of feedback–seeing what you actually do helps you improve it.
Show Confidence in Your Facial Expressions
A genuine smile is a great way to show confidence, if it suits the situation. But if you find yourself smiling all the time, and if your smile is at odds with the emotion you’re actually feeling, it can make you appear more junior, less experienced, and less sure of yourself. So just make sure that your smiles are authentic.
Laughter is the same. Laughter can be used as a nervous habit that exposes your discomfort with a situation. So if you laugh (which is a good thing), make sure that you’re doing it because something is actually funny and not just because you’re feeling uncomfortable.
Tone. The pitch of your voice and how you pace your speech are important factors in conveying confidence. A high, rising pitch at the ends of sentences (as if you’re asking a question) is a common speech pattern that can make you sound less certain.
Volume is also important. Talk a little louder when you’re giving a presentation, making an important point in a meeting, or when somebody tries to interrupt you.
Pausing. Get comfortable with silence, and don’t be afraid to pause between big ideas. That is, unless you’re in a meeting with a lot of interruptions and you need to complete your thought.
For more details on how to approach voice, read Executive Presence and Your Voice.
Word choice. You can convey confidence by using words that suit your context and audience.
For example, if you’re talking to a highly technical audience, use more technical words. If you’re talking to senior executives, avoid in-depth technical discussions that are too detailed.
You have to learn these different languages for different audiences. Doing so will make you appear you appear more credible because you’re speaking the language that people want and expect.
Structure. How you structure your comments can also help you speak with more confidence.
When answering questions, or when raising a point in a meeting, I recommend starting with a one-sentence key message that embodies the most important thing you want to say. After that, you can provide some important details. Starting with a key message may feel more confident because you’re coming right to the main, most impactful point.
Use stories or metaphors. This is a situational skill. Sometimes a good metaphor, story, or analogy can help bring home your point. And this can make you look more confident as storytelling can be very persuasive.
However, judge your audience. If you know you’re in front of a group of people that are very data- and fact-driven, you might want to be cautious about using more colorful language because it may actually reduce your credibility.
For more on this, check out Developing Executive Presence: Why Your Words Matter.
Choose the Approach that Works for You
Overall, if you want to develop more confidence, explore these options and see what you think might be the most helpful. Like any behavior change, progress usually comes from a series of experiments. Try something out for two or three weeks, see what kind of results you have, and then make a decision about whether you want to continue with that experiment or move to a different one.
For even more techniques to improve confidence, check out these five research-backed methods for increasing confidence.