Confidence. I am confident about myself – or differently: I am aware of who I am, what I think, feel and do. This is my initial definition of self-confidence. Based on my personal background, I trust myself and my abilities, such as presenting a great speech in front of a group of people, no matter how many people are sitting in the audience.

In my childhood and youth I was very shy and lacked self-confidence. Today I see myself as a highly self-confident personality thanks to exciting life experiences, self-reflection and numerous own speeches and trainings.

How do you feel about your self-confidence? Do you like performing in front of other people and giving speeches? Are you challenged by your profession, although you might not like to talk in front of people? And what is your strategy to develop your self-confidence? In this blog I will take you on a very personal journey from a shy boy to a self-confident speaker personality.

I used to be shy

In my childhood I was very reserved for a long time. I did not want to attract attention at all, especially at school. At parent-teacher conferences, my teachers regularly requested I should take a more active part in their lessons. But at that time I tried to avoid any mistakes and therefore preferred to keep quiet. Whenever we had to deliver a presentation, my face turned red like a tomato and I stuttered to myself, because I was afraid of other people’s opinions. Even in Sunday school I only moved my lips without sound to at least keep up appearances while singing.

This only changed during high school graduation: At that time the topic “self-confidence” was on the agenda of the English lessons. That inspired me from the very first minute. I blossomed and became more actively involved in teaching. This was a first important step out of my personal comfort zone.

Nevertheless, I first had to change my social environment in order to take a bigger step forward. As I moved from my parent’s village to the next city at the beginning of my studies, I was able to develop more freely while getting in touch with and making friends with many new people. A personal milestone was a weekend training in public speaking: a number of practical exercises in front of about ten other people actually broke the ice. In addition, I got to know my girlfriend at the time during the training. From then on, rhetoric and presentations were highly emotional and positive anchors for me.

Speech Practice accelerates your Self-Confidence

As a student I plunged in at the deep end again and again and was able to deliver short presentations. I will always remember when in a working group I announced to present our results. Extreme palpitations included, I was able to reproduce a part of our content without any mistakes prior to a blackout; then a fellow student completed my presentation. The next steps were not that big anymore, because the foundation for better presentations was laid. Let’s face it: Do you know people who have learned to speak – or swim – just by reading guidebooks and watching YouTube videos? You have to get wet and jump into the water yourself if you want to become a good swimmer. It is the same with presentations: “You only learn to talk by talking.” There is no getting around the practical side.

My next big step forward I took during my study internship in Ecuador: I participated in a workshop lasting several days and took the chance to contribute to the program with a brief presentation, although my Spanish speaking skills were very limited. This was followed by a stirring discussion in which I was able to put my ideas into practice.

At that point my ambition was aroused. As student and later as scientist I regularly attended symposia and presented and discussed results of my research studies – sometimes with poster contributions, more often with oral presentations. In between, I fine-tuned them during internal seminars and in institute colloquia. Gaining routine in public speaking was key to my later becoming a trainer and presentation coach.

The crucial step forward came during my time as lecturer: Week after week for four years, I delivered lectures, exercises and seminars in front of students, no matter whether for five or more than a hundred students. It helped to develop a new self-image and to gain self-confidence. Because I regularly gathered feedback and critically questioned my own performance, I was able to refine and further develop my presentation techniques, while my lectures also became highly interactive: I have left behind the frontal teaching of the last century and moved on to varied events. The topics I taught included many practical questions and stimulating discussions with students, rounded off by short video sequences and spontaneous student contributions. In short: a variety of interactions for entertaining and varied lectures and seminars, at least if I can believe the comments on the evaluation forms of my students at that time.

But there is more to it than that: in my spare time, I am delivering short speeches week after week since many years, also moderating events, providing qualified feedback to other people for their presentations and taking on a number of leadership roles. This additional training in a non-science context provides many new impulses, which benefit my own presentations and trainings.

If you want to improve your presentation skills outside of presentation trainings, you may also benefit from targeted voice training, improvisation and acting workshops in addition to in-house or company training. Another cost-effective alternative are Toastmasters meetings, which take place in most major cities in Germany and worldwide.

Your Mindset makes all the Difference

Trainings and regular presentation practice are an important, but by far not the only cornerstone for delivering successful speeches. Routine alone does not make a good speaker. An equally important aspect is your inner attitude, your mindset. The best training will only help to a limited extent if you are afraid to expose yourself to other people. In that case, all the techniques you have trained are no longer valid. This is where Mehrabian’s – often misinterpreted – study comes into play: insecurity manifests in awkward body language or a trembling voice. If one of these aspects does not fit your personality, the majority of your audience will not believe what you are saying. If you pretend to be self-confident while your body language radiates insecurity, you will ultimately appear as untrustworthy person.

Weekend rhetoric training itself did not make a good or even high-class speaker out of me, but it was a very important basis at that time. It was only when I had grown as a personality and felt increasingly comfortable on stage that I was able to gain in personal charisma and thus in effectiveness as a speaker. From this my self-confidence has also developed – thanks to the right inner attitude, through my self-image and mindset.

Here is another mindset scenario based on a real job interview: If you, as an applicant, approach the interview with the attitude of a supplicant, the HR person or CEO will notice your insecure attitude. He or she will notice that you do not feel comfortable at all. Even the best preparation will fail if your inner attitude does not fit. I myself was one of those people: In the 1990s I missed the attitude to see job applications and interviews primarily as an opportunity. I received numerous rejections and ultimately even decided to take a different career path.

Following a long scientific career I am now a presentation trainer myself. People that attend my rhetoric trainings and coaching sessions regularly ask about the best way to improve their presentations. The trainings are of course very good impulses with as many practical exercises, but even these can only be a first impulse. The crucial point is to stay active afterwards and create opportunities for yourself to stand in front of other people and deliver presentations again and again.

Back to job applications: Last year I discovered an interesting coaching position, which perfectly adds to my own business. In the interview I was relaxed and authentic, while the company’s HR manager directly addressed the issue. Since I was convinced of my own performance and the added value I could bring to the company right from the start, and because I addressed the company’s interests, I got the job immediately. My positive attitude and the open atmosphere during the entire interview perfectly matched.

This is exactly the attitude that allows to radiate self-confidence if you are convinced of your expertise and your performance, and if you are well prepared. In the run-up to the event, put yourself in the position of standing in front of your audience (or in front of the employer’s personnel manager) and presenting skillfully, looking into enthusiastic people’s eyes, how both sides just have fun. Yes, it requires some practice in the beginning and will help you to inspire your audience the more routine you develop.

You can build up a mental charge and put yourself in a distinct positive mood. I frequently make use of this prior to my performances: I compensate for a high adrenaline level by doing push-ups in another room – ideally alone –, by raising my arms in a winning pose or by walking outdoors during the break. Sometimes I listen to good music for a few minutes to get into the right mood. If I am already sitting in the audience, I knock myself inconspicuously on my legs and push myself with (then only imaginary, but not spoken) short motivational sentences. I visualize my presentations and see myself on stage immediately before I do.

Feedback is worth a Mint

During my speeches I am fully with myself. I know what I am going to say and also gather specific feedback from audience reactions, their smiles and eye contact, as well as from their degree of attention and occasional questions as evidence of interest. Despite all of my experience, I also receive feedback from friends, colleagues and customers, which can be useful for future presentations. The crucial point here is to focus on the two or three most important feedbacks only, instead of tackling ten points at once. That way I can prioritize certain aspects of my own performance. For more information about qualified high-level feedback, I recommend my blogs about excellent speech analyses in front of live audiences as well as about supposedly relevant rhetoric advice.

Take quick and decisive actions

Do not hesitate, but act quickly and decisively – tackle and implement what you need to do! In my opinion, this is important if you want to develop self-confidence as a speaker. In the last decade I have personally met hundreds of people who wanted to hone their speaking skills. Far too many are satisfied with short speeches or sometimes with the role of a mere listener. Still others commit themselves for two or three months and then drop out. The biggest leap forward is always made by those who take active speaker roles week after week. They also provide feedback, appreciate good mentors at their side and work continuously and goal-oriented on their speaking skills. Thanks to audience feedback and their own reflection, they also develop a healthy self-confidence. These are successful personalities professionalizing their presentations.

At the time, I made a clear decision to continuously improve my speaking skills and to work on myself. And it never ends: I have only just enrolled in an acting school because I want to gain even more expressiveness and thus promise myself to deliver even more vivid presentations in the future.

This brings us back to our initial questions: How do you define self-confidence? What do you do to develop it further? What are your specific steps to continuously improve your speaking skills? How does your personal journey to a self-confident speaker look like? Feel free to share your thoughts in the chat.

This post is also available in: German