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Confidence Is Personal: Being a Better Public Speaker

By Chris Graham

“Why can’t I be more like [insert name of your favorite speaker]?”

When lawyers ask this question, it usually means they’ve been on their feet in court or presenting to potential clients and it didn’t go well. They felt anxious, insecure, unsettled — far from the confidence they’d hoped to project.

Imitating your favorite speaker doesn’t really solve this problem. You spend a lot of time perfecting your imitation, and — worse — if people recognize the imitation they’ll be distracted by that, too.

Instead, work on being more like your (confident) self.

Great Speakers Are Different

Here are talks from two great speakers: finance executive Mellody Hobson and branding expert Ron Tite. Watch a couple of minutes of each talk and notice what you think makes each speaker great.

Here are some responses to them from my workshops:

  • Good storytelling
  • Lots of detail
  • Funny
  • Hand gestures
  • How they move on stage

Those are accurate observations — maybe you noticed other things — but what’s most interesting is how Hobson and Tite are simultaneously really great and really different. There’s no way you’d mistake one for the other, and there’s no way you’d recommend either should be more like the other.

One thing that Hobson and Tite do have in common, along with any other speaker you admire, is confidence. There’s no question that each knows what they’re doing.

In their own way, each appears calm, confident, in control, and this makes it easy to pay attention to their message.

Find Your Tells

Everyone gets nervous talking in front of people. Whether you appear confident depends, in large measure, on what you do with that nervous energy.

The unconscious way you dissipate nervous energy is your “tell.” There are as many tells as people. Some common examples:

  • Foot-tapping
  • Pen-clicking
  • Hair-flipping
  • Saying “um” a lot

The first step to appearing confident is to find your tell. Doing this is simple: Stand in front of a friend or colleague and talk about yourself for two minutes. No interruptions, no script. It’s harder than it sounds.

When you’re finished, ask your friend what they noticed: What happened to your hands, feet, other parts of your body? Do you have any verbal ticks? Were you able to maintain eye contact? What happened when you paused, unsure of what to say next?

Basically, ask them what made you look nervous and uncomfortable. Those are your tells.

Work on Your Tells

Once you know your tells you can practice effectively — meaning on video. Your laptop or phone camera is fine and gives you feedback that you’ll miss in the mirror.

Tells are distracting when they have no relation to what you’re saying. Foot-tapping, pen-clicking or hair-flipping are classic examples of gestures that add nothing to a presentation. Unless you’re talking about foot-tapping — in which case tapping your foot is a useful illustration — doing this will distract your audience.

The same is true for hand gestures and walking around on stage. Go back and watch Hobson and Tite. Notice that both move around and use their hands (in his case, quite a bit). The reason it’s not distracting is that their movements track what they’re saying. It’s like being an orchestra conductor: the hands and body movement help the audience follow along.

As you watch your practice, you’ll see how your tells are distracting and start to bring them under control. Not by freezing like a statue, but by moving around in ways that appear more natural.


What about your tendency to fill every pause with “Um”? This is telling you to get more familiar with your material. If you know what you’re going to say, you won’t have to pause to remember. (You probably noticed that Mellody Hobson and Ron Title aren’t speaking off the cuff.)

In the end, confident public speaking is like confidence generally: it comes from being yourself.

More Good Ideas for PolishING Your Presentation Skills

You might also like these posts from Attorney at Work contributors:

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Categories: Communications Skills, Daily Dispatch, Professional Development, Public Speaking
Originally published February 12, 2018
Last updated October 4, 2021
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Chris Graham Chris Graham

Chris Graham is the founder of TellPeople, a vehicle for teaching communication and storytelling to professionals. He is head of speaker coaching at TEDxToronto (Canada’s premiere TEDx event) and the Storyteller in Residence at Manifest Climate (a global climate technology firm). Twice-retired from law himself (first in New York, then in Toronto), through TellPeople, Chris makes lawyers better at talking to their clients, each other and everyone else. Follow him on LinkedIn.

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