How do I sound more confident?
August 3, 2006 2:29 AM   Subscribe

Short question: how do I start sounding more confident?

I've been a deskbound coder for the last two years, and have been transitioning into a people-oriented consultant role in the past few months. Among other things, I'm to guide users and colleagues in using my work, and this is where I seem to be faltering a lot.

The feedback I get is that I apparently don't convey a sense of confidence when I'm interacting with users and colleagues; I mumble a lot, fidget, and generally talk quite fast, without really answering the concerns raised. My question, ye Metafilterers, is this: how do I start sounding more confident in semi-formal, and perhaps, formal, conversations? How do you boost your confidence levels in general at your workplace?

Might add here that I've given public speeches and oratories before (been in the university debates team), so I've always thought I could articulate myself well. It's just now, when I'm asked to talk about the application domain, that I seem to falter a lot.
posted by the cydonian to Human Relations (18 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe you need to prepare set speeches and answers and practise them. Also you can take more time tha you think to consider an answer before you speak.
posted by lunkfish at 3:05 AM on August 3, 2006

Toastmasters is a good place to learn the skills of confidently communicating. Cheap, effective and fast.

I have found that the best way to communicate competence is asking good questions. It stimulates everyone to think and contribute.
posted by FauxScot at 3:37 AM on August 3, 2006

There are a few things to consider, ranging from the environment you're in to your posture and knowledge of the product you're talking about.

But to start you off there are a few speaking with confidence tips at the BBC and some more over at Toastmasters. And FauxScot's right, they are an excellent organisation.

Although these are really geared toward public speaking, you can adapt them to any situation.

I wish I had longer to help answer your question, however, work calls! Interesting question though and I look forward to reading the answers later.
posted by Nugget at 3:53 AM on August 3, 2006

I have found that the best way to communicate competence is asking good questions.

I second this suggestion. I've used this method with great success when dealing with more senior colleagues. Whenever I found myself in a situation where the senior person was not taking me as seriously as I would've liked, I made sure to ask good questions at every opportunity. Without being obnoxious, I was always able to ask a good question that the senior person couldn't answer and all of a sudden I found that I had gone up a few notches in that person's eyes. And, in turn, this made me feel and act more confident. This has a couple pitfalls: 1) if you ask a good question that can't be answer, guess who just volunteered to find the answer? and 2) make sure you don't come off as overly aggressive or condescending. Of course, this may not be the best way to go with clients.
posted by mullacc at 3:53 AM on August 3, 2006

In addition to all of the above: stop fidgeting! Do you have a significant other or some good friends you can get to provide feedback to help you become aware of your fidgeting, and thus stop it? Fidgeting is one of those things that's surprisingly harmful to your apparent confidence and easiest to reduce the impact of.

Also: a sign of conversational dominance is the direction of information flow -- if you're giving out lots of information but not asking for much you will appear less dominant than were the reverse true, and this doubly so if the information you do give out is low quality. Requesting information -- even answering questions with related questions -- will dramatically increase your apparent with-it-ness, ceteris paribus, so long as you do not do it to the point of charicature.
posted by little miss manners at 4:27 AM on August 3, 2006

There's one thing that really helped me - it is a really great way to build confidence in situations in which you may not know the participant.

Go out shopping even if you hate it. When an assistant asks "can I help you?", don't do the standard mumble e.g. "just looking"

Say "yes", describe what you need, ask them for advice. Be really confident and remember, you're the customer.

It sounds ridiculous, but face to face customer service is the best training ground for confidence improvement there is.
posted by olvar22 at 4:39 AM on August 3, 2006

Okay this sounds weird, but hear me out. I used to be in a similar situation, until I bought a cheap [very cheap] microphone/headset, and wrangled a pal into voice chatting [MSN, Google Talk, whatever].

Stand up when you're talking to the pal and get them to run through a typical conversation with you that you want to improve.

This will:
- Stop you fidgeting [if you fidget, the cheap mic will pick up on the sound and pal won't be able to hear you.
- Stop you talking so fast [pal won't be able to understand you]
- Take out the burden of eye contact [I found that making eyecontact was a major stumbling block and turned me into a bumbling loon when talking. Concentrate on what you need to say first - be secure in what you're saying before tackling confidence]
- Give you "stock" answers that others have recommended.

Spend some time thinking about *why* your confidence plumets in these situations, when clearly being a debater etc. you're quite articulate. No eye contact, fidgeting, mumbling point to fear - what are you afraid of?

The people's judgement? A consultant is essentially paid for their knowledge - which can be stressful and fear-inducing when you're not 100% sure your knowledge is up to scratch. I don't know the ins and outs of your situation, but brushing up and double checking on whatever it is you're supposed to know will work wonders also.
posted by Chorus at 4:48 AM on August 3, 2006

A few tricks to appear confident, if not necessarily feel it (of course you will feel more confident if people perceive you as such). These are all cheap gimmicks I've picked up from acting, but they tend to work:

- Clearly and loudly pronounce the first word when you say something
- A quick smile before you say something (as long as it's appropriate)
- If you happen to swear, emphasis the word before or after the actual swear word. Otherwise it looks like you are trying to use the word itself to compensate.
- To combat the fidgets, grab onto something like a wall (or a prop, if you will).
- I don't highly recommend it, but sometimes using the person's name frequently can help

But most of all, try not to overthink too much. After all, chances are the other person is too.
posted by Serial Killer Slumber Party at 5:33 AM on August 3, 2006

Just remind yourself that all people are nearly totally ignorant about almost everything under the sun. Relative to you & your area of expertise, they are approaching stratospheric levels of ignorance. So, chances are that they will never be able to challenge what you say.

The thing is that they are not asking you to prove yourself. They want your help. If you approach your clients with a genuine intent to assist them, you might find that your focus shifts from "am I coming across OK?" to questions that focus on the clients, like "what is it that they really want?", "what pressures are they under?", "what can I do to help them?" and so on, that should relieve your self-consciousness & actually enable you to do shit for them that others would overlook.
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:49 AM on August 3, 2006 [1 favorite]

oh, ps: there is never anything wrong with saying, in response to a question that you cannot answer with true certainty on the spot, "I will have to look into that and get back to you". Note it down in writing on the spot & promise a reply, with a timeframe if possible.

That approach doesn't diminish you at all, but actually raises your standing as a serious, diligent professional who refuses to bullshit. Do you think any lawyer gives a definitive opinion on the spot? No, it's all "let me get back to the office and peruse the heavy legal tomes". Same with you: you shouldn't be out to answer & explain everything on the spot, but to capture all the issues, ideas, problems etc & set up an agreement to solve them. [disclaimer: IT business systems analyst here]
posted by UbuRoivas at 6:04 AM on August 3, 2006

I don't know if this applies directly to you, but a lot of coders get similar, broadly negative feedback because they lack the ability to explain technology to non-techies. Business folks don't care that the SSL encryption on all HTTP requests between the web proxy and the app server is 128 bit. They just care that their data is encrypted.

Do you have a girlfriend? If so, practice explaining what you do day-to-day to her, in terms she can understand.

Also, another vote for Toastmasters. I've never done it, but everyone I've met who has, has loved it.

And, my rule of thumb for answering questions from colleagues:

1) LISTEN. Don't interrupt, even if you know what they're about to say. Let them wind through their issue on their own terms- people are generally insecure, and will think that you think they're stupid if you interrupt them.

2) PAUSE. Before giving your answer, even if you immediately know exactly what they need, pause for a beat. It (a) gives the impression that you're really thinking about their problem, and (b) lets you make sure you want to say what you're about to say.

3) CONFIRM. When you've answered their question, ask if that covers their needs. Pass control of the conversation back to them, so they don't feel that you're just trying to be done with them.
posted by mkultra at 8:20 AM on August 3, 2006 [3 favorites]

I second the idea of recording yourself b/c then you can catch yourself if you find that you say "I guess," "I suppose," "maybe," and other weakening space-fillers. I do think though that eye contact is something to work on. You don't have to do the eyeball death-grip but, for instance, I'm always pestering my boyfriend to stop looking up and in the distance whenever he talks to a stranger, because it makes the conversation seem much less substantial.
posted by clairezulkey at 8:22 AM on August 3, 2006

Excellent suggestions above, I also recommend you check your speech patterns for uptalking.

[note that I assertively validated everyone's remarks and by doing so, placed myself in a expert position. A little bit of this will make you look like an alpha dog. A lot of this will make you look like an ass. Choose wisely.]

Uptalking? Is where everything you say? Sounds like you are asking a question? Even if you are just stating a fact? (As an alternative example, Alyson Hannigan's character in American Pie uptalks, "This one time? In band camp?")
posted by jamaro at 9:45 AM on August 3, 2006 [1 favorite]

Try to stay relaxed and mindful.
posted by callmejay at 10:22 AM on August 3, 2006

Lots and lots of good advice here. To address the specific issues you mentioned:

Recognize that you are the expert, and they are coming to you because they need your help. It might help to think of good role models in your own life, whose explanations have helped you. Maybe you had a great teacher in high school? Maybe some friend explained how to cook some dish or fix a car or beat a videogame? Maybe you've had a medical problem and there was a doctor who explained it in a very clear way? If you can put yourself mentally into the role of patient, authoritative expert, that should help.

If you are more confident, it will be easier to sit up and make eye contact. Making eye contact can help decrease mumbling. If you're looking down, or away, it's much easier to mumble as if you're talking to yourself. If you have some public speaking experience, think about being on stage, and needing to look out to the audience and project your voice.

Another reason people sometimes mumble is that they are very, very familiar with their material, so everything they are saying seems obvious to them. The mumbling is a way of conveying "I'm embarrassed to be telling you something so obvious, but as we all know, ...". But of course: the people you're working with in your new role really don't know about your material.

To try to remind yourself of this, it might be a useful exercise to write out a kind of simple "manual" for the common functions of your software. (Try to break it down to the very simple. Have you ever done one of those writing exercises where you have to explain every step in making a peanut butter sandwich, and it takes three pages? Sitting down to think seriously about what your software looks like to the novice user will probably be similarly revealing.) This will help you to get into the customer-service mindset (how can you help them accomplish their goals, starting from where they are now?). It will also provide useful little "scripts" that you can go through, as others mentioned above. Use analogies and pictures if they'll help.

Another thing that makes a big difference in explaining complicated things is just to stop regularly, and ask the other person "Does that make sense so far?" As others have said, remember that you really know a lot more than they do, and they will be struggling to keep up.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:57 PM on August 3, 2006

Apathy. If you look like you're too important to be doing what you're doing, people will assume your cool.
posted by JPowers at 2:51 PM on August 3, 2006

Try not to say "I do not know" - rather say - I will get back to you on that one. (Obviously there are things which you are suposed to know - but for the rest use the above phrase.)

Try to say - "I plan to ..." rather than "I hope .." or I wish"

Try to think what questions people will ask you. E.g - when will it be ready? Or some tech stuff. Have the answers ready before they ask.

Practice - I was is the same boat, but after a few years and many meetings I can now come across the right way.

Look people in the eye - without staring.

Ask - "I did not get that" instead of "I do not understand"
or - "help me understand"

Sometimes, you can say "you are asking the wrong guy" if it is not your department - or better "you'll have to ask Jim," or "you will have to ask the manager of the HR department"

Sometime you can say " yes, but I do not think your remark captures the whole truth ..." and go form there.

Learn how to shake hands properly ....

Listen to your boss - and others - and learn how they ask and answer questions.

I always ask - "When will you need that"

Another cool non-confrontational phrase is ... "Are you comfortable with that ..."
Or "are you comfortable with going ahead with the project?"

Hope it helps
posted by bright77blue at 6:33 PM on August 3, 2006

Thank you all for your great suggestions. My belief in the MetaFilter community has been restored!

My ex-flatmate was a part of a local Toastmasters group, and I did drop by their sessions on two occasions; it's an interesting group, and, you guys are right, I ought to check'em out.

UbiRovas, I found your point about the changed expectations rather insightful; I suppose part of the problem is the fact I've been so far performing to prove myself, as you put it, not to solve problems.

LobsterMitten, interesting point about mumbling because things are so trivial; that, also, is, I guess, one of the issues here.

bright77blue: great set of phrases to use! Will keep'em in mind during my next confrontation.
posted by the cydonian at 8:04 PM on August 3, 2006

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