Ways that women leaders can gain confidence, whether speaking to a room of fifty or a Zoom of tenFeatured

There’s a reason that it’s hard to speak with confidence. It has to do with the wiring of our human nervous system.

You may not have learned this stuff in your college public speaking class or your last professional development workshop, but it’s my mission to change that. I believe understanding how your nervous system works is the crucial puzzle piece to becoming more confident, so I share this in every corporate training I offer, and with all of my clients.

Here’s why fear of public speaking is universal: Imagine for a moment that you’re not an Account Executive, but instead a zebra on the savannah. Not too far off, a group of lions turns to look at you. Your heart starts beating and you go into a panic. You, my zebra friend, might be prey.

When people are looking at us, our nervous systems automatically go into fight or flight mode. That’s prehistoric. So it’s only when we start training our nervous system to understand that it’s safe that we can stay focused, calm, confident, and connected.

Feeling calm and connected is especially hard when we’re on a screen. We’re missing cues that could help put us at ease. But the great news is that there are a few simple steps you can take to regulate your nervous system so you can speak with confidence whether you’re on a stage or in front of your screen.

To be present, start with your eyes.

You’ve heard people say, “Your eyes are the windows to your soul.” Well, that’s because your eyes are actually the windows to your nervous system. They are the quickest way to tell whether you are in fight or flight, or truly confident and present. If you’re not feeling confident, your eyes will either recede from seeing what's in front of you, or they’ll be overly focused. It follows then that the best way to regulate your nervous system is by bringing your eyes into focus.

Try this very simple practice: Take a moment (yes, right now!) and look around the space you're in. Blink a few times to bring your eyes into focus.

What you just did is the same process you want to do in the middle of a meeting or a presentation, when you start to get overwhelmed. As you practice doing this, you'll realize it doesn't take very long and it's worth the moment to let your eyes come into focus so you’re present again.

Next, start to breathe in and out through your mouth.

I get that breathing in and out of your mouth may sound weird. After all, many of us learn to calm down by breathing in and out of our noses. However think about this: when you are speaking, your breath is entering and exiting through your mouth. It’s actually not really possible to talk with any other breathing pattern, because you need to get air in quickly and you can’t make much sound through your nose.

Try this very simple practice: For a few moments, let your breath come in and out through your mouth. It doesn’t matter how long your inhales and exhales are, or what you do with your lips. Just get comfortable breathing in and out through your mouth.

Then here’s how you put this into practice: Next time you’re in a meeting and someone else is speaking, let your lips rest gently apart and let your breath come in and out through your mouth. It’s totally fine to take breaks, swallow, and lubricate. But notice if you start holding your breath or switching back to breathing through your nose. Breathing in and out through your mouth is powerful because it leaves you ready to speak, and that comes across as confidence.

In order to be loud enough, think about the volume of space that needs to be filled and then envision your presence and voice filling that space.

I hear so often from women that they feel like they need to be louder. That may be true, but first it will really help to shift how you think about loudness.

In order to be loud enough, I encourage you to think less about projection (which actually requires a whole lot of effort and pushing!), and think more instead about volume.

What is volume? As you may remember from high school physics class, it’s geometric 3-D space. Another way to think about it is the “bubble” between you and your audience. This may be between you and the chairs in the back of a big room, or it may just be between you and your computer screen.

Try this simple practice: Take a moment to breathe and get clear about the bubble of space that you need to fill with your voice. Imagine your presence filling this space first. This will help you direct your energy and voice.

Here’s the last and most important thing to remember: It's okay not to be confident yet. Just start by taking these actions.

As women, so many of us sabotage ourselves by thinking we need to have confidence before we even start the meeting or presentation. But remember, it’s our physical state that actually drives and informs our mental state. In other words, we need to put our body in the shape of confidence for our voice to become more resonant and confident.

If you want reinforcement for this idea, I highly suggest watching Amy Cuddy’s incredibly popular TED Talk called “Your body language shapes who you are.” She talks about changing your outside to change your inside too. She even recommends power posing for two minutes before you go into an interview, as it can change your hormones and the signals your body sends to your brain.

Follow the steps above to change your eyes, your breathing, and how you're thinking about volume, and you’ll change your whole nervous system. And your confidence will follow.

If you have any questions about this or want to share how it worked for you, please reach out to me, I would love to chat!

Thanks all so much for reading, and Elpha for publishing! What perfect timing too... I'm teaching a free masterclass next Wednesday September 15th if you'd like to join. Here's the link:
Great advice. Thank you for sharing, Elissa!
I'm so glad it's helpful @hannahlake!!
This is really interesting. The only thing that I'm not sure about is the breathing in through the mouth. This is a topic I've thought about a lot recently. In meditation, breathing in through the nose is supposed to help calm us down. Breathing in through the mouth often leads to shallow breathing or even hyperventilating. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this @elissaweinzimmer!
Ooh @sarahw amazing question ... I love debating this topic. So there are tons of different breathing patterns that are useful for different things. For example: Breathing in and out through the nose is great for yoga, meditation, calming down.... Breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth is best for vigorous exercise...Breathing in through the mouth and out through the nose is the best pattern for swimming...And I personally believe - after a lot of research and watching folks - that breathing in and out through the mouth is the pattern we rely on most for speaking. Now, when we pause to think or listen to others we'll very quickly go back to nose breathing to re-lubricate and filter air through the cilia in our nose. But I believe breathing in and out through the mouth is the easiest, most authentic pattern while we're speaking. Two experiments to try to see if you agree:1) Leave your mouth slightly open in a meeting when you have something you want to say, and see if people give you a chance to speak sooner 2) Watch a TV show or movie, and see if the actors are leaving their mouths open during intense scenes... if they're about to speak, they probably are (if they don't, we sometimes call that "bad acting."By the way singing can be different - and there are many voice coaches who will still spout the old idea that we should always breathe through our nose. But I feel passionately that breathing through our mouth while speaking makes life a lot easier!
This is so useful! Thanks for posting the article and also adding the link to the TED talk. The TED talk especially helpful to reinforce opening up the body as a method to create presence and confidence.
Yes I LOVE that TED talk @annamiller... it's actually one of the most popular ones ever!