You Don`t Need Confidence For A Good Presentation


A common phrase that I hear is that if I had more confidence I would give that speech or I would do that presentation. I think that people who say that are sadly mistaken. Let`s take an example, cooking. When was the time last time you heard, “You know, If I were more confident in my cooking ability I would make dinner.” Probably never. I started cooking when I was a college student. I got hungry. I cooked. It was bad, but I ate it anyway.

Now, you’re going to say, “But wait. Cooking is nowhere near as scary as presenting.” Except for those chefs who are cooking against the Iron Chef of the day or it’s their first date, it probably is not scary. Looking at it that way, this seems not to be a confidence problem, but a courage problem.

What is Confidence?

Why do I think this? Simple. Confidence, according to is “belief in oneself and one’s powers or abilities.” Unless you are a self-help guru, confidence doesn’t come out of thin air. It also doesn’t come creating delusions, either. It comes from having experienced successes and trusting your ability and judgment that you can make it through. To get that you need experience. To get the experience you need to do the thing anyway.

That means that you need courage. You need to feel the fear and do it anyway. Then you build up your skills, talents, and successes so that you end up feeling confident. 

Just take look back at your own life experiences.  When you felt confident was it because you could come up with past experiences that as close enough to what was going to occur? Or perhaps the problem at hand was going to require some skill that you have used before? Think about it.

X Confidence => Improved Speaking Ability

O Courage => Improved Speaking Ability => Confidence

How To Build Courage For A Presentation

You might think that is fine and good. Courage doesn’t come out of thin air either. Are some people just born courageous? It is not something that we can easily change, is it? After all, you have seen people who are just more courageous than others.

But on the other hand, if you have seen too many Hollywood movies (like I have) you might get the idea that the reluctant hero faces a lot of dangers and eventually builds up the courage to defeat the big bad villain.  The same can go with speeches.  You can build the courage to face your fears and present well. 

Can confidence be baseless?

Now, it may seem that certain people seem confident with no rationale basis in reality.  This is more an observer problem than an example of confidence with no basis.  Take for example someone who has the cockamamie idea of building a spaceship to carry people to Mars. There is no one on Earth who has ever done that. Why would someone like Elon Musk even have the hutzpah that he could even do such a thing? 

Probably for Elon is it just a matter of money and physics. He has had many successes and failures with PayPal, Tesla, and Space X, etc. He has gotten through all of them. He has based his confidence on his previous record of problem solving. I’d say that if that is the case, his confidence has a firm foundation. But it doesn’t matter what my logic is. All that matters is Elon has his own logic that satisfies him. 

How about transferring different experiences?

To give another example, I spoke in front of a stage with more than 600 seats in downtown Tokyo for the first time in my life in 2017. Before that probably the biggest audience was about 120 or so. Before that was probably 30~60 people.  In any case, how could I be so confident in speaking in such a large auditorium if I had never done it before in my life?  

Actually, it is simple. I felt that there was no real difference between 120 or 600 people.  There is no difference in the pin mic used. There is no difference in the projectors used. There was really no difference in the size of the stage.

I had spoken to large audiences many times. This one was just a little bigger than normal. No big deal. That is how I felt. Sometimes, how you feel is all that matters.

Now you could have imagined something totally different. You could have imagined that we are talking about 5 x the audience, with 5 x the potential of embarrassment. You could have imagined that there could be 5 x the likelihood of hecklers or some other catastrophe. 

Actually, something very inconvenient did occur just before my speech but I will get to that in a different episode later. In any case, confidence or lack of confidence can just come down to how you frame your past experience with respect to the next opportunity. 

Sometimes too much courage is a bad thing

In order to get started, everyone does need a good healthy dose of courage. But, if you go too far, you will land into the reckless category. That is not a good place to be, but sometimes courage and recklessness are in the eye of the beholder.

I tend to look at the situation if you can survive the situation if it all goes south.  In the case of 99.99% of presentations and speeches, even if you totally mess up you are not going to die of a heart attack, lose all your money, or become the most hated person on the planet.  

Actually, the sad realization is that if you are a bad presenter and even if you forget a good part of your speech, probably 99% of the people will forget what you said and even forget that you even exist a few days after the event. The only people who might remember would be your spouse, friends, and family if they attended. 

Good News!: A failed presentation is a forgettable one

Of those, I doubt any of them would nag you about the tremendous failure that you made. If it is the case that one of those people would do that, I think you have bigger problems than a failed speech. 

With that out of the way, let’s get into how to properly build up courage. There are three simple strategies that you could employ. Actually there is more than three if you look around. But, three is easier to remember. 

These are:

  1. Keeping a Courage Journal
  2. Having Symbols of Courage
  3. Burning the Boats

Keep A Courage Journal

Photo by Peter Olexa 

As mentioned previously one way to build courage is to frame past experiences as resources and evidence that you could actually pull it off. This tends to be the easiest and the most effective way if you are starting out with not a whole lot of courage.  The problem is most people’s memories are not so good when you need them. Furthermore, many may not notice the everyday acts of courage that they carry out. So, how can we get this out where it can be useful for you?

I recommend keeping a record in Evernote or some simple text editor.  You need to keep track of a few things:

  • What was the event?
  • What were you scared of?
  • What did you do?
  • What happened as a result? 

Record small everyday courage

What trips people up is when you mention the word “courage,” people think of saving kids from drowning in a river, or saving a cat from a burning building, or something Hollywood-level heroic. But the things in our daily lives don’t need Hollywood heroics.  

Think of a time when you were scared, but mustered the courage to do it anyway.  It could be something like making a cold call or giving some bad news to someone you didn’t want to get yelled at. It could even be doing your first live broadcast in a small Facebook group.  These all take acts of courage.  And for the person doing it, it can seem to be very scary.

Even if it didn’t go well …

In my case, a very scary moment was when I was going to tell my boss that I would quit.  For some people that would seem to be the moment they were waiting for.  That was not the case for me.  My boss was at the time seemed very scary and crafty.  So, it felt very hard to come up with the words to say that I quit. 

Eventually, I did do so.  Let`s just say that things did not go smoothly.  I did eventually quit my job, but what actually happened was a bit more than I had expected. This just goes to show that even when you take courageous steps, you may also find that you have stuck your hand into a lawnmower.

Not all actions immediately turn out well. But, the point is not that the results are great, but that you took the courageous step in the first place. That in and of itself is good enough. Take more actions and you will get better.

Even fighting rejection is courageous

Another example was asking a VIP to be a keynote speaker for an event I was organizing. He was a World Champion of Public Speaking and a very busy guy. I could have felt like ”Well, he is a busy important guy. He doesn’t have that much time to come here,” etc., etc.

But, I did send the email to him and I got a “Yes.” You may think that sending an email would not require courage. But, for some people being rejected by someone they respect can be a very scary thing. If rejection is still a big scary thing for you, there is one more challenge for you a little bit later in this chapter.

So, while small acts of courage may not happen every day, I am sure that they happen enough times that you can keep a record. If you do that week by week, then you will have enough evidence to shove down that negative Nellie voice that you do have what it takes to do it.  Sometimes it doesn`t take much. Just 3 or 4 examples of courage can push you to feel the fear and do it anyway.

Get your symbol of courage

Photo by Ingo Stiller

The next thing is to keep symbols of courage around you as triggers or reminders.  These could be pictures of you doing something.  Maybe you keep a picture of your first speech at Toastmasters. Giving a speech in front of even a small crowd can take a lot of courage.  But keeping a small picture of that as a background on your iPhone or PC can remind you of how courageous you can be.  Each time you take a bigger leap, like the day you quit your job, or the day you scaled that mountain, you can replace the older reminder with a bigger better bolder one. 

Of course not just pictures, but having symbolic items of courage around your desk or with you can also help.  Imagine having a small figure of a lion, tiger, or whatever symbol of courage you prefer. 

Imagine how it feels holding that item. When you are having a tough time when you feel like you are going to give in to your fears, imagine what that item would say to you. Can you imagine the strong words of encouragement and the warm feeling emanated from it? I think I can.  It may seem silly for very rational-oriented people, but the non-rational parts of yourself will be more comfortable with having a few symbols of courage around.  

With that, you can have a few symbolic items of courage to soothe the irrational side of you, and the courage diary to soothe the rational side of your fears. Together these can prove to be powerful weapons.  But there is one more thing that you could do.  The question is would you have the guts and the stamina to do it?

Just burn the boats

If you wan to take the island you have burn the boats

Tony Robbins, Hernan Cortes, and others

Tony Robbins, a world-famous life coach, once said “That if you want to take the island, you have to burn the boats.”  In other words if you really want something, then you have to close all avenues of not doing the thing. Either that or make the choice of not doing it so painful that you have no choice but to do the thing. 

This saying is said to have come from the Spanish Conquistador, Hernan Cortes.  When he arrived to the Americas, the very first thing he did was to burn the boats that brought him there. You would think that his men would have thought Cortes had gone mad, despaired, and refuse to follow him.

But what ended up happening is that they followed him with even firmer resolve. There was no other choice.  If they did not take territory in the Americas then they were very much out of luck. 

“If it works for Conquistadors why not presenters … “

The same works for if you are giving a presentation or a speech.  You can pick a day and a time. You can tell people about it.  I would suggest inviting a few to make it even harder to wiggle out of it.  For some, just imaging the hard time they would have with their friends is enough.

But, if you think that even if that is too easy wiggle out, then set up a punishment that you would rather avoid. You could give your friend a good deal of money, and tell him that he needs to take that money and give it to some cause or political party that you hate.  

Enter the commitment device

The organization where you will put your money needs to cause some significant amount of emotion out of you or it will not have enough pull. If you are an American liberal Democrat, donating to Donald Trump would be the way to go. If you were an American conservative Republican, the Southern Poverty Law Center may do the trick. It all depends on you.  I would generate a list ahead of time.

For some people, instead of getting a friend to do the dirty work of checking in to see if you made the commitment and wiring the money, they would prefer to find an app for that. 

For example, there is a service called stickK.  In that service, you pick your own goal and penalty. You can assign someone who is the referee.  This person would verify that you did what say you.  If you do the thing you avoid the penalty.  The penalty is usually giving money to some anti-charity. 

StickK has set it up so that no matter what your persuasion is there is always going to be one organization that you would rather not give money to. And, since most people prefer to avoid pain instead of going after pleasure, it is something worth checking out.  

A conclusion, sort of

However, you want to build courage it helps to have systems and create environments that encourage it. It has certainly been my personal experience that the “someday I`ll …” never happens. Sometimes you got to force the issue.

By keeping a journal of courageous things you have done, by keeping it a place that you will see every day, like your home screen you will be reminded every day of the small courageous things you have done.

By keeping symbols of courage around you, on your desk, and even on your person, you will be priming your subconscious brain. And if there is some task that seems initially too scary to do or too easy to wiggle out try burning your boats and creating commitment devices to force you in to do it. Your future self will probably thank you. 

One more thing

One thing that many speakers are afraid of is rejection. That could be rejection from parts of the audience to rejection from the person that invited you. The fear of rejection can be tough. This is because, way back in the caveman days, people gathered in small tribes. If you did something that got you thrown out of the tribe, your chances of survival were a lot lower. So, as a survival mechanism we are naturally afraid of rejection, and in turn, crave approval.

However, in our modern society rejection is not a death sentence. It`s not even a big deal. But you have to teach your body and brain that. How would you do that?

How can you be rejection proof?

Actually, it is pretty simple. Go on a thirty-day rejection challenge. Jia Jiang in his book “Rejection Proof” did 100 days for good measure, but you don’t need to go that far. Thirty days is plenty for most people. The point here is that if you get rejected enough time over a variety of things you get used to it. It is the same technique they use to get people over phobias.

In the case of a phobia, they don`t just shove a snake in front of someone and hope that person gets cured. It doesn’t work that way. Instead, they put a snake in a room and you get to look at it from a distance. You repeat that a couple of times until the person gets used to it. You then reduce the distance until the person is OK to be right up to the snake. Further baby steps are taken until the person can hold the snake with no problem.

Dealing with rejection can work the same way. So, what should you do? Just be polite and calm. Then ask for something. Usually something slightly unreasonable. Then do that once every day. I start off by writing a list. It can start with asking for a discount at Starbucks ending in asking a stranger for money to invest in your new startup. It doesn’t really matter what you pick. Just be nice.

After that you should have courage and the resilience you need to face any tough audience. Please give it a try. You future self will thank you.

Matthew Ownby

Previously worked at NASA, Cisco Japan, and other large IT Corporation. Spent more than 15 years training businessmen and women to be better presenters. Good enough at Japanese help native Japanese speakers win speaking contests. Was fortunate enough to give a TEDx Talk in Kyoto also in Japanese ;). Also aims to build the toughest communication contest ever. That will not only include being good at business presentation skills, but debate, meeting facilitation, negotiation, coaching, and more. Also runs an online communication dojo where the focus is on practical skill application not listening to a sage on a stage.

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