The Definition of Confidence

June 6, 2013

When Brian Johnson and I teach speaking skills to small groups of lawyers, we always ask why the participants are there. What do they want out of the session? The most common answer is that they want to feel more confident. They want to feel something, or be something somewhat different from what they are, or have something they haven’t got. So we’re talking about emotion, self-perception, and skill acquisition. Emotion and self-perception are long-term projects to tackle with a coach. Skill acquisition is a more objective goal, and tried-and-true approaches abound.

How can we teach confidence? We believe we can teach lawyers to figure out how to act confident until they feel it. In our seminars here at West, we offer specific techniques to help you trigger confidence. Here’s another way of going about it.

This spring the New York Times published an amusing article in its Fashion section about how to jump-start your own confidence. Titled, “The Right Stance Can Be Reassuring,” it featured photos of Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman, Angelina Jolie on the red carpet, and actor Yul Brenner standing in a hands-on-hips domineering stance in The King and I by Rogers and Hammerstein. All three actors exuded power and confidence by posing, well—imposingly: hands on hips, facing straight forward, with a wide stance.

In effect, these actors are striking poses just as soldiers do when they stand at attention. They give careful thought to where their feet and hands are, and brazenly look their viewers in the eye. If they feel afraid, we haven’t got a clue. If they need to “Whistle a Happy Tune” to fake us out, we’d be shocked to learn it.

The advice offered in the article is to stand in such a pose before you have to speak. Preen in front of your bathroom mirror. Stride around your living room. Gather yourself to your tallest, brashest self while walking to work. Dale Carnegie and generations of speaking coaches in the last 100 years would have agreed, at least in principle.

If the idea of prancing about pretending to be a monarch or a super-hero appeals to you, go for it! Remember to keep it behind closed doors, though. These stances trigger feelings of confidence and swagger. You’ll need to modify your real stance for courtroom or public speaking presentations, but if it helps you to go over the top and pretend, we wouldn’t dream of discouraging you of engaging in such private, experimental behavior. (Please report the results to us here.

In your public behavior, think of these words as you align your spine and face your listeners.