By Professional Development team, British Council in Singapore

11 January 2019 - 10:00

Speaking in public is a well-known source of anxiety for many people.

This common fear, in its extreme form, even has a medical name – glossophobia. Yet, we often need to communicate in group situations for professional and personal reasons. Whether on stage, in a meeting or even at a networking event, we could all benefit from appearing more self-assured. 

Although managing or minimising the fear of public speaking often takes time and experience, small changes to our posture and behaviour can immediately help us appear more confident and in control, no matter how we feel. I have seen the participants in my public speaking workshops employ these simple techniques to great success, transforming their public persona from cowed to confident in a short time.

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Stand tall

When we feel scared or nervous, our instinct is to protect ourselves. Our bodies naturally ‘close up’ – our shoulders hunch and our spines curve forward in a primal bid to protect our vital organs. Our arms hover protectively over our abdomen and our hands might touch or cover vulnerable areas such as the neck and face. Our brains also interpret these unconscious behaviours in others as signs of fear or weakness.

In contrast, drawing your body upward and outward projects strength and confidence. When you feel strong, you don’t have to protect or hide anything. There are several ways to do this but I’ll mention just one here.

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Unfurl your body and stand comfortably at your full height. Raising your chest and shoulders away from your belly will instantly create a more open posture that conveys strength. Remember that it is not about pulling back your shoulders but is about squaring your chest to the audience.

Standing tall and expanding your body position might even give you a psychological boost. Research by American social psychologist Amy Cuddy suggests that our body positions can affect our body chemistry and our feelings of power. Hence, looking confident could even translate to feeling more confident. 

Maintain an open posture

The next step is to keep your arms away from your abdomen. One of the most frequent questions I get asked is, “What then do I do with my arms?” There is nothing wrong in leaving your arms hanging loosely by your side and moving them to gesture as you speak. Confident speakers – or rather, speakers who appear confident – move and gesture as they talk. Another comfortable ‘ready’ position is to keep the elbow at a roughly 90-degree angle so your hand or hands are at waist level – imagine you are holding a glass of champagne at a cocktail party.

The key is to maintain some space between your elbow and your torso. This appears much more relaxed and confident than keeping your arms pressed to your sides. Cuddy uses the Wonder Woman stance with arms akimbo as a power stance in her research. Although you aren’t likely to adopt such a dramatic position in public, pointing your elbows outward is a subtle expression of confidence.

Speak up

Your voice is your next best tool for projecting confidence. Although everyone’s natural speaking volume is different, many of us speak more softly or ‘swallow’ our voices when we are nervous. Hence, speaking a little louder than you would in normal conversation will not only allow you to be better heard by the audience, it will also project confidence and command their attention. How loudly you speak will depend on other factors such as the size of the group or room and whether you use a microphone. Thus, you’ll need to adapt your volume to the conditions you speak in. But in general, project your voice to convey confidence.

Practice makes natural

These small tweaks, when used together, can create a dramatic impact on your image. As with any change we try to effect, however, they can feel a little unnatural at first, but practice helps. In my workshops, I have the participants practice standing tall, try out different open postures, and experiment with their speaking volume for a few minutes. Even that short period of experiencing those tweaks for themselves and observing the effects on their peers helps build their levels of comfort and confidence.

At home, record yourself on video trying these tips. You could also get feedback from a friend or get a few colleagues to experiment with these tweaks together.

Good luck and hope these tips worked for you.


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