If You Hate Public Speaking, Learn to Fake Confidence

When being yourself brings you close to wetting yourself, try being an actor.

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Apr 21 2017, 2:00pm

Sean Warren/Getty Images

TED coaches, speech coaches, and speakers who make 20 grand for a single corporate appearance all tell me they get butterflies before they speak. Trial litigators often say they get scared before they go before a jury. Even the greatest orator in history, the ancient Roman Marcus Tullius Cicero, once ran from the Forum in terror without saying a word. And yet all of these people have succeeded despite their nerves.

Walking onto a stage feels like going to the edge of cliff and telling yourself, "Come on, jump! What could go wrong?" I can speak personally. Sure, practice takes some of the edge off the fear. But don't expect ever to feel completely confident. Instead, learn this key secret to public speaking: Confidence isn't the point.

You don't have to be confident. You just have to look the part. The trick is to fake it. The ancient Romans were talking about this long before the birth of that terrific (and possibly nervous) orator, Jesus of Nazareth. Ancient orators called speaking actio, as in acting. A speaker is an actor, and the best speakers are the best actors.

Here are few tried and true techniques, suitable for intimate conversations, arguments, important meetings, and orations like wedding toasts and TED-style talks. All will make you look more confident. And some may even reduce some of the jitters.

Load Your Canons
Bear with me while we get a bit geeky. Cicero, the Roman who fled in terror (he eventually orated his way into waving the Republic) came up with five aspects, or "canons," for delivering a talk. An excellent way to look confident is to walk in knowing that at least you're prepared. The canons? Invention, Arrangement, Style, Memory, and Delivery. Here's how to use them. 

Invention: Write 40 Perfect Words
The ancient orators believed that the brain works in concert with the body's rhythms. The climax of every speech should last the length of a human breath, or about 12 seconds. They called this climax a "period." I tested this theory by looking at videos of political addresses and movie speeches, and what do you know. Almost every major speech or Hollywood oratorical scene climaxes in a 12-second burst. From the time a crescendo of applause begins, or when the movie music wells up, to the end of the period—usually a single big sentence—lasts the length of a breath. (Don't believe me? Watch this video.)

To invent your own talk, don't start with an outline or a title or a list of bullet points. Just write a 40-word nugget that gets right to the point of what you're trying to say. Those 40 words will take you about 12 seconds to speak. That's your period. Make it the core of your speech, and think up whatever you need to build up to it. That way, when you're ready to get in front of people, you'll know that you have a killer period. Everything else you say can be boring can stupid, and your audience will walk away with those 12 seconds thinking you're a genius. Pre-fab confidence, is what that is.

Arrangement: PowerPoint is Your Friend. Really.
Scribble up your notes. Now type them up in PowerPoint slides. Yes, PowerPoint generally sucks, but don't worry. You won't show them unless you have to. Print out the slides at quarter size, and cut them out with scissors. If you do this in an office cubicle, be sure and tell your mates you're working. Then sort the slides in the best possible order. That's your outline.

Style: Channel George Clooney
Between idea sessions, you have some work to do. Start by watching Clooney movies, especially Ocean's Eleven. The greatest, most counterintuitive way to look confident is to speak the way he does, in a monotone. Instead of inflecting your voice an octave upward to emphasize points, use… pauses. Keep your voice even and as naturally deep as you can make it. Don't worry if you're a tenor, alto or soprano. Not everyone can be Morgan Voice o' God Freeman. (He took voice lessons to lower his an octave; not all of us have that option.) Just practice what Clooney does, and keep your voice from soaring like a bird. Watch how he uses little rest stops just before he wants to make a point. If your office mates wonder why you're watching all those movies, tell them you're working.

Memory: PowerPoint Is Still Your Friend
Once you've polished your script, go back to your computer and stick an appropriate image onto each slide. Never mind whether you have the rights to the pictures. No one will see them but you. Print the slides at the smallest possible size, so that the type becomes unreadable while the images are still visible. This imitates an ancient technique: Orators would build "memory palaces" in their heads, filling each room with a visual symbol representing a concept or phrase. Then, when they were ready to give a talk, they would mentally walk through their palace and pick up what they needed along the way. Go over your tiny slides again and again, checking the full-sized file on your monitor when you need prompting. That's your PowerPoint palace.

I'd recommend your going through all this effort even if you're giving an informal business presentation or a wedding toast. Consider making each slide represent a sentence. Memorize everything so well it begins to seem spontaneous. Call it training. As any combat soldier will tell you, training makes you seem confident. Trust your training.

Delivery: Scare the Bear
Just before you go on, I want you to do two things. First, stand up tall in an athletic position, shoulders back, hips tucked in, head balanced nicely on your shoulders. Now bring your arms up, fingers spread wide, and scare the bear. Smile while you do that. The combination will help you feel a little more comfortable and powerful. Doesn't work? Try it again while others are looking. They may look more scared than you. So at least there's that.

The second thing? Look at your audience and say to yourself, "I love these people!" Do it even if you're talking to a group of venture capitalists or the world's worst C suite. It'll make you feel better—like you're not facing hostile forces. 

As soon as you begin speaking, search for a single friendly face. Many coaches will tell you to look around your audience, but that won't help you look confident. Instead, lock onto to the one person who's not frowning or staring at her smartphone, someone who seems to be responding to you. Speak to her. If you feel up to it, look for a different face, one with a smile. Speak to that person. These friendly faces are your lifelines.

You may feel phony faking confidence. That's okay. You're acting. Sure, it's always good to be yourself. But if being yourself brings you close to wetting yourself, try being an actor. It worked for Cicero, and it can work for you.

Jay Heinrichs is the New York Times bestselling author of Thank You For Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion.

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