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How to speak confidently when you don’t know what you’re talking about…

By way of preparation for every training session, I ask attendees to share with me their strengths and weaknesses, as communicators.

The issue which comes up time and time again is this – “I’m ok when I know the material well but I really lack confidence when I’m not so sure about the content”.

This lack of confidence manifests itself in a number of ways – a hesitant tone of voice; lack of eye contact; fidgeting; a high-speed delivery and lack of pauses (lest someone should jump in to ask a question); apologetic language (especially at the beginning).

And then there’s the most obvious indication that the speaker feels on shaky ground – the use of what I call JENGA words. Those annoying and distracting fillers which dilute the message and shatter the credibility of the speaker. Kind of, sort of, you know, like, kind of like, and the biggest offender of all – just. Only 4 letters but hugely damaging. How often do you witness this as an opening: “I’m just going to talk to you for a little bit about ………” or in the middle of a presentation: “I’ve just put this slide in to show you……..”

I imagine some of you are recognising these habits, and are remembering situations where you’ve had to present someone else’s slides or speak on a topic which is at the very edge of your expertise. They’re extremely common. And, unfortunately, it’s impossible to eliminate them from our working lives.

So, what practical tools can we use to boost our confidence in these challenging scenarios?

It’s all about stepping stones.

Like crossing a river.

When you walk across a flowing river bed, you step from stone to stone, rock to rock. Some stones are big and flat and very stable; others are small or oddly shaped and a bit wobbly. We feel safe on the stable stones and insecure on the wobbly ones. We’re grateful for the moments on the big rocks because we can linger there as long as we need, to grow confidence, before moving on to the scarier ones where we know we’re going to feel tentative.

You can see where this is going!!!!

My proposition is that in every presentation/webinar/talk/update/interview, where we’re unfamiliar with the subject, we deliberately include content which make us feel safe. We create moments when we can build and exude confidence, to sustain us over the wobbly rocks. We do it throughout the piece but especially at the beginning and the end.

Such content might be a case study, data, story-telling/an anecdote, personal testimony, background or contextual material, research. It needs to be relevant and it needs to be useful to your audience.

You might, for example, include a brief review of the overall objectives for this project; you might give the global context in which your organisation is operating; a project of similar scale which you ran previously and from which you learned valuable lessons; a case study from another company; the latest findings from an independent research body.

Some of this material you may already have at your fingertips. Some of it you may have to seek out. The important thing is that you own this content and feel safe on its wide, flat, stable surface.

Thus you will reach the other side of the river with more confidence, more control and dry feet.


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