by Steve Roche

Building confidence

The human brain starts working the moment you are born and never stops until you stand up to speak in public.

Sir George Jessel

As you watch a skilled and confident presenter, it may seem there’s no way you could ever be like that person. It’s all right for them, they seem to thrive on it, but for most of us it is a daunting – even frightening – area of learning.

But with the right understanding and approach, and the right preparation and practice, it is entirely possible for you to become a skilled and confident presenter too.

Developing confidence

Thinking calmly and clearly while talking to a group with self-confidence is not as difficult as many people imagine. It’s a bit like playing golf: anyone can develop their latent ability, but only if they have the desire to do so.

It is natural for a presenter to be keyed up, like an athlete before a race or an actor before a performance. All good speakers feel this, but some label it nervousness, and some label it excitement.

Dale Carnegie says four things are needed to develop your ability rapidly:

  • strong desire
  • knowledge
  • confidence and
  • practice.

1. Start with a strong desire

How much do you want to be a good presenter? How strong is your desire, on a scale of 1–20? Think about it now and, as you do so, know that this factor is the single best predictor of your success. If you really want it, and you go for it with energy and persistence, nothing will stop you.

The effort will be rewarded many times over. You will have acquired a skill that will be an asset all your life. Think of the glow of pleasure and satisfaction you will experience every time you exercise this new power.

2. Know thoroughly what you are going to say

What is the biggest cause of feeling uncomfortable and self-conscious when you get up to speak? Simply this: failing to think out and plan your talk in advance.

Don’t speak until you are sure you have something to say, and know just what it is; then say it, and sit down.


3. Act confidently

Action and feeling go together. By changing the action (which is more easily controlled by the will), we can regulate the feeling. You want to feel cheerful? Then move, act and speak as if you were already cheerful – and the feeling will follow.

Acknowledge your nervousness; know that it is normal, appropriate and necessary. Then feel the fear and do it anyway; act like someone who is confident, and the confidence will follow.

4. Practise!

It’s impossible to become a good tennis player without getting on a court and hitting tennis balls. And the only way to develop self-confidence as a presenter is to present.

You are fearful of facing an audience? Fear is the result of a lack of confidence. Lack of confidence comes from not really knowing what you can do. And that is caused by lack of experience.

When you have a record of successful experience behind you, your fears will vanish. The only way to swim is to plunge into the water.

I am the most spontaneous speaker in the world, because every word, every gesture and every retort has been carefully rehearsed.

George Bernard Shaw

Self-image and confidence

The way you are feeling is a poor indicator of how you are coming across. It’s tough to do all the work yourself: to be your own critic, monitor your own performance and give yourself advice.


You are talking in front of a group about an idea you’ve had. You lose your train of thought and somebody interrupts. You struggle to regain your composure, limp through to the end and sit down flustered and embarrassed.

The chances are your assessment of how well you did will be based on your uncomfortable feelings and those little voices in your head. But ask colleagues how your presentation went and they will say things like: ‘I’m always impressed by the way he brings new ideas to the team’ or ‘She handled Bob really well; he’s so negative.’

People don’t see what’s inside us; they just see what they see. So the best information about how you are doing comes from other people.

The point of making a presentation is to communicate ideas to other people. If they get your message clearly, it doesn’t matter if you feel you didn’t express it clearly.

Of course, it would be nice if you felt good as well. But that can be deceptive – you can be having a great time chatting away about something with people who aren’t interested and don’t care.

Observe the audience

The audience will do all that ‘how am I doing?’ work for you. Just watch. If they are smiling, you must be saying amusing things. If they are arguing, you must be challenging them. If they are not paying attention, you are not being very stimulating.

Key tip

If they are not awake, stop what you are doing and do something different.

Then again, all audiences sleep; it’s what they do best. Everything is set up to encourage it – they sit, you stand; you speak, they listen. Often the lighting and heating makes them sleepy.

So the trick is not to give a faultless presentation, it’s to keep waking them up! Most of us are sent to sleep by the presenter repeating things. That can include not moving (repeating stillness), and talking in a monotonous vocal tone.

Changing negative experience

To present well and enjoy it, you need to create an optimum resourceful state, and then to maintain it.

There are ideas for doing this on the day in The delivery, in Your audience, and When things go wrong. Internal state is also important while planning and constructing the presentation (see Preparation – the words).

Certain NLP techniques are great for altering our previous negative experiences, especially in the preparation stage. These include the perceptual positions , which help us see the value of different perspectives on the same event. When considering a performance from the position of the audience, the presenter frequently realises that people want to hear what is being said; they don’t want to be looking for mistakes.

The Circle of excellence, another idea from NLP, helps to anchor, enrich and re-access states of optimal performance. Choose a resourceful state you want to experience during your presentation, such as confidence, and establish an internal anchor that allows you easily to re-access that state.


If possible, use the actual performance space for laying down your circle of excellence. Then when the time comes, you step into the actual circle.

Re-framing – changing the way you look at something – is one of the simplest and best ways to change our experience.


A journalist interviewed Bruce Springsteen (the rock star who played to audiences of over 50,000 people) just before a performance. The journalist asked Springsteen how he handled his nerves before a gig.

‘Oh, I never get nervous’, said Bruce.

‘What, never?’

‘No – I just get excited.’

The interview continued for a few more minutes and then Bruce said: ‘I wonder if you’d mind if we stop now. I like to have the last 15 minutes before I go on stage on my own. You see, I am usually physically sick and have terrible palpitations in my stomach.’

‘What?’ said the journalist, ‘I thought you said you never get nervous!’

‘I don’t,’ replied Bruce. ‘That’s just me getting excited.’

This is the power of choosing a different frame. Try it: if you get tense, sweat, even feel sick, say to yourself, ‘Great, this means I’m full of excitement and anticipation!’ Many actors and performers have learned to do this every time they prepare to go on stage.

Internal dialogue

Negative chatter from our unconscious easily undermines our confidence. It becomes prominent when we are nervous. It’s like having a monkey on our shoulders, whispering:

Who do you think you are?

You’ll mess it up, just like you did before.

You’re hopeless at this, you know.

To put a stop to all this, the first step is to become aware of messages from the monkey mind. Then, you need to identify their origin:

Whose voice is that? [A strict parent, a jealous sibling, a school teacher who never liked you?]

Do you really want to listen to it?

After that, you can begin to decide what kind of messages you’d like to listen to instead.

Choose your messages with care. We know from everyday experience that saying to ourselves something like ‘I must relax’, tends to result in the opposite effect. We know that our unconscious minds do not process negatives. You may have heard the example, ‘Do not think of a blue zebra’. In order to process the instruction, you have to think of a blue zebra.

So if you say to yourself ‘I must not be nervous’, your unconscious receives an instruction to be nervous.

Psychologists tell us that any suggestion that takes root in the subconscious must be discharged in motor action. So if the suggestion ‘I am nervous’ has taken root in your unconscious mind, it will inevitably be acted out in your behaviour.

Internal messages must be simple and positive, focusing on the states and outcomes that you want.


To come across as confident, it’s essential to be congruent with your material. For example, you might say ‘I believe these Health and Safety Regulations are very important’, but you don’t really believe it. Or perhaps you say ‘I’m very happy to be here today’ when you’re obviously not. The audience will certainly spot the incongruity.

If you really can’t manage to get involved or enthusiastic about what you are saying, then get congruent about something else. Do you care about doing a good presentation, for example? If the answer is yes, then be excited about that – and let the audience see it.

And if you don’t much care about the material or the presentation, then it’s time to ask yourself ‘so why am I doing this?’

Performance state

No athlete would dream of attempting to do their stuff without a thorough warm-up. Performers of all kinds, including actors, singers and dancers, know the value of getting into peak performance state just before going on stage.

You will be performing as a presenter. You need to prepare your mind, your body, and especially your voice, if you are to perform well and to look, sound and feel confident.

Develop your own short warm-up sequence, taking between two and five minutes. It might include some of the ideas suggested below – whatever works best for you.

  • Stretch your body to loosen up your limbs, getting rid of any stiffness and tension.
  • Get your breathing going. (Take a deep breath to the stomach. Don’t hold it in your chest and don’t raise your shoulders. Blow slowly out until your body is empty of air and you have to breathe back in. Do so slowly. Repeat several times).
  • Mobilise your face, especially the jaw and lips (repeat ‘M and N’, followed by ‘N and E’ a number of times to get your jaw moving).
  • Make some sounds, as loud as you can. Get all your coughing and throat-clearing out of the way.
  • Repeat a few tongue-twisters. Below are some actor’s favourites.
  • Charles’s children ate rich cheese cakes rather than cheap chips from choice.
  • The growths were measured in sixths of an inch, not eighths.
  • To take her in her heart’s extremest hate...
  • Twist the twine tightly round the tree trunks.
  • Unique New York... Peggy Babcock... Truly rural
  • She stood on the balcony inexplicably mimicking his hiccoughing and amicably beckoning him in. [This is for those who enjoy a challenge!]
  • All I want is a proper cup of coffee, made in a proper copper coffee pot.

Don’t go for speed: attempt to repeat the words clearly and accurately.