The first presentation I ever gave in my career was as the assistant director of human resources, and my vice president asked me to prepare a presentation for the Board of Directors. I had very little experience presenting—especially to ten successful board members who had decades more work experience than me. The week leading up to the meeting, I felt sick and anxious every day. During the presentation, I could feel my face get flushed and my voice shake as I stood up in the board room to deliver my presentation. I was so relieved when it was over and couldn’t wait to leave the room soon after.
That first presentation was over 20 years ago, and since then, I have presented hundreds of times in my career; first as a credit union vice president, and the last 14 years as a professional speaker and leadership consultant. A few years ago, a woman approached me after I had presented the keynote speech at a conference and commented that speaking seemed so natural for me, and that I was lucky that it was easy for me to present to a room full of executives. She expressed that she wished she could feel comfortable standing on a stage and presenting to hundreds of leaders without getting nervous.
The reality is, I do still feel nervous most times before speaking, and I am not more naturally gifted than others. While my presentation skills and confidence have improved over the years, I often still feel anxiety before walking onto a stage to deliver a speech. What looked easy to this woman in the audience was actually hours of practice and hard work. People are often surprised to learn that a one-hour speech at a conference is between 40 and 60 hours of work on the back end—designing and customizing the speech, building in relevant stories, creating the visuals, and practicing over and over and over again until I can present the main points and stories from memory.
Here is the secret to becoming a better presenter: practice. As with everything in life, the way to master a craft is to do it over and over again. In fact, taking action is the most important principle of success in life. There is a misconception in our society that confidence is an innate quality—that some people are born with natural abilities and confidence, and others aren’t. But confidence comes from building competence in a specific skill or area—repeatedly taking action and increasing your skills over time. As your competence increases, your belief in yourself increases.
Perhaps you want to be a better coach to your employees. You can take a workshop to learn the skills of coaching, but what will make you a better coach is practicing the skills. If you want to become better at handling difficult conversations, practicing the skills will build your confidence.
I believe confidence is situational—you can feel confident in some areas of your life and not as confident in others. I feel confident facilitating a workshop on leadership because I have done it many times. I don’t feel as confident in my tennis skills since I’ve only been playing for a few years. I continue to take lessons and learn more every year, and perhaps in several years I will be a more confident player. Confidence isn’t all-encompassing. Instead of thinking that confidence is something you have or don’t have, think about a few areas where you want to build your confidence and create action steps that will increase your skills.
There is also a fallacy that people who appear confident and successful don’t feel as much anxiety and fear—that they somehow are lucky to have this superpower of belief in themselves. This is simply not true. People who appear confident feel fear and anxiety. The difference is, they take action despite the fear and anxiety. They have become comfortable being uncomfortable and recognize the uneasy feelings as a normal part of developing themselves and working toward their goals. In fact, feeling uncomfortable is usually a good sign—it means you are stretching beyond your current comfort zone and developing to another level.
You can’t control your feelings. Feeling worry and anxiety are normal, and beating yourself up about how you feel is a waste of energy. What you can control are your behaviors and your thoughts. Over the course of my speaking career, I have learned not to feel frustrated that I still feel anxiety before a speech. Instead, I change my belief about the anxiety—instead of telling myself I feel nervous, I tell myself that I feel excited to share awesome information and tools that can help leaders become exceptional. I reframe my “nervous” feelings into excitement, and focus on being of service to the audience. I’m not trying to change my feelings; I am focusing on how I choose to interpret the feelings and consequently the actions I can take.
Here’s the thing—we all have self-doubt. If you are growing and developing in your life, there will always be another level of growth, and that will feel uncomfortable. I believe we never reach our full potential in life—as you develop your skills and get better, you will be called to another level of growth and potential. We each have an inner critic—the voice in our head that feels discouraging and pushes us to stay safe and comfortable. And that’s exactly the job of our inner critic—to keep us safe and comfortable. Yet most times our inner critic is not serving us in becoming who we want to be. We can acknowledge our inner critic and thank if for surfacing our fears and worries, and then we can consciously make the decision to take action anyway in service to our bigger goals and dreams.
During the training I completed to become a certified coach, we learned a powerful tool for not letting our inner critic get in the way of our goals. The tool is to ask your future self how to handle a situation. For example, I might ask my 75-year-old self how she would approach a situation that feels challenging or uncomfortable. My future self is often wiser and more objective than my current self, and encourages me to take more risks in service to my goals, rather than hesitate or stay comfortable. When I was recently asked to speak at a conference in Scotland, my inner critic showed up with all the reasons I should say no—I have a lot on my plate already; there’s only a few months until the conference, maybe that’s not enough time to prepare, etc. I acknowledged my inner critic and then turned to my inner coach—my future self—who told me this is a wonderful opportunity; I should absolutely accept it and there is plenty of time to prepare. I chose to listen to my inner coach and step into what felt a little uncomfortable.
Whatever stage you are in your career, just know that no one is completely confident all the time. Discomfort, anxiety, and self-doubt are a normal part of growing and developing as a leader and a human. The best approach is not to try and eliminate these feelings; you can’t control how you feel. What you can do is focus on your belief about these feelings—that they are natural since you are growing and developing your skills, and that by taking action, you will improve your confidence every day. Turn to your inner coach to guide you to take action toward the leader and person you want to be.
I invite you to join us on June 22nd for the next CUES RealTalk! Panel where we will discuss the topic of confidence, imposter syndrome, and the impact on women.