speaking infront

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The Confidence Trick

Confidence is a tricky word. It has a number of meanings for people and they may not all be that useful for people who are scared of public speaking.

People often write to me and say that they want to “appear” confident. They mean they don’t want to show any weakness or fear. They think that going red will make them seem vulnerable. They also think “confidence” means not feeling any fear when they “perform”.

The dangerous definition? The Confidence Trap?
Many people think that to be confident means having a feeling of certainty, where there is no fear, no inner critic giving us a hard time and no whiff of failure. So confidence becomes defined as an inner feeling of calm and a belief in our success. In contrast to the success equated with confidence, fear is equated with weakness. And we want that feeling of assurance BEFORE we do anything. And that’s where the difficulty is…. It’s an unrealistic wish.

Dr Russ Harris calls this unrealistic desire the Confidence Gap.  People get stuck in that gap “when they hold on tightly to this belief: I have to feel confident before I can achieve my goals, perform at my peak, do the things I want to do, or behave like the person I want to be.”

Why unrealistic?
Well, we haven’t got a switch in the back of our neck to turn our brain off. Our brain has developed over millions of years to be really good at spotting and reacting to threat. Without this sensitivity to threat our ancestors would have been have been killed by another tribe, tigers, snakes, or even a carnivorous kangaroos (yes, they existed).

We have a brain that is designed by the nature of the threats it has to deal with. 99% of our brain was developed BEFORE we got language. So flight and fight has always been part of our survival tools and fear is naturally part of our lives. If we wait for the fear to go away before we do anything we shall wait forever. Nelson Mandela didn’t talk about having no fear. He talked about “triumphing over fear”
Helene Lerner in her book The Confidence Myth urges us to step away from the first definition. “The myth of the highly confident individual without fear must give way to a more realistic assessment of what confidence involves.”

Towards a better definition
I think confidence is better defined as an act of trust in ourselves. As Russ Harris points out, it’s an action rather than a feeling. We can start to do things without everything being ok first. We can start moving towards things we want to do, despite the fear. We have to do the work. We have to take action. And that action is learning to trust ourselves.

Can I trust that it’s ok :
To look at an audience?
To be the centre of attention?
To stand up in front of people?
To think on my feet?

There may be some fear that goes with that action. We might do these actions with a higher heart rate than normal. Through the years I’ve taught public speaking I’ve talked about building confidence by doing small actions of trust.

We are helping the “threat brain” to calm down. We do this by repeatedly stepping to the edge of our comfort zone. As we get used to being there, we may get those feelings of assurance we want. But we need to act first.  (I’d recommend that you find a course or a speaking club to help you do this where you can try things out without anything at stake.)

Russ Harris writes “The actions of confidence come first; the feelings of confidence come later”.

I couldn’t agree more.

We need to learn to take action. That action might be standing in front of a group, learning to look at people with our hearts beating. What do we see? Do we see judgement on their faces or can we trust that blank faces are just listening faces? If you are trusting yourself there, those faces become normal, and you are building confidence by taking action.

One step further
Victor Frankl encourages us to go beyond thinking about the fear: “Courage is the realisation that there is something more important than fear”.
What’s more important than fear to you?
Nelson Mandela could have stayed in his fear. The man on my course who had waited for 15 years to ask his girlfriend to marry him could still be waiting to ask her. But they didn’t let fear win.

So what’s more important than fear for you tomorrow, next week?

Thank you very much for reading this. Let me know what you think.