Coach of the Month – Cordelia Ditton

Wouldn’t it be great if we could bottle that thing called ‘confidence’?
Then you could shake a few perfume-like drops on yourself just before getting up before your audience. We’ve all heard about research which suggests people fear public speaking more than death and in my work with clients across the whole public and private sectors ‘confidence’ is what most people claim they seek.

So what is it?
Do we have it?
Do we need it?
Can we learn how to be confident?

What is confidence and how do other people judge if we have it?
I sometimes use a group exercise based on a party game called ‘In the manner of the word’. A set of cards has adverbs written on them such as ‘Happily’, ‘Determindly’ , ‘Nervously’ and so on. Typically, we sit in a circle and one person gets up, a pen in hand and walks round behind the circle, handing the pen to someone, before walking back to their own chair. They do this silently, ‘in the manner of the word’, ie happily, determinedly etc. The rest of the group then guesses the word.

Interestingly, ‘Confidently’ is often guessed as ‘Aggressively’. Why might this be? People equate confidence with energy and also focus. Aggression usually has a high degree of both these qualities.

When people get this surprising response, I often ask them to have another go, with a new card on which is written ‘calmly’. This time they relax, they are unrushed and they move purposefully round the circle. Then they often get the response ‘Oh that’s Confidently’.

On the other hand, if the person gets a response like ‘Shyly’ or ‘Carefully’, I give them a card with a word like ‘Purposefully’ or ‘Brightly’ and that often does the trick, as it helps them raise their energy level.

People start realising that how we perceive confidence in others is determined by many factors. We seem to exhibit confidence by showing moods through our body language, which are interpreted as:

* Being unhurried / having control over our situation
* Having controlled energy
* Concentrated focus

They might also realise that having a clear focus helps us declutter the mind and concentrate on the job in hand without having that little undermining inner voice saying “What you just did was really silly, everyone must be laughing at you by now.”

How does this apply to public speaking? From the minute you appear your audience is making a judgement about whether to listen to you or worry about you! You not only need to feel like you are in control but to look it too.

Speaking confidently
When I ask groups ‘How many of you prepare what you’re going to say in a speech or presentation?’ nearly every hand goes up. When I ask ‘How many of you prepare yourselves?’ I usually get puzzled looks or questions. Some say that they take great care about what they wear – good idea as you want to feel right in the presenting role – and occasionally they might say ‘ I rehearse it a few times’ or ‘ I take some deep breaths’. All these answers are fine but…

When we try to define the qualities of an effective presentation or presenter, most of the answers are tied to how the presenter is engaging their audience – eye contact, body language – and the quality of their speech – pacing, vocal variety and so on. Some thought might go into content, structure and language, but people think first about how confident the presenter appears and how well they’ve build rapport, because those are the people they find it easy to listen to.

Yet most speakers spend their time preparing what they are going to say, which makes them ill-prepared for the surprises their body is about to spring on them.

Think animal!
This is the time to think animal! Once you get up in front of a group, various things start happening to your body, from tension almost anywhere, stomach churning, heart thumping and breath shortening. Your voice might sound strangely strangled and you can’t think clearly.
What’s going on?
Simply put, your body is protecting you from the threat of the ‘pack’ in front of you. Your subconscious doesn’t distinguish between a wild tribe who may attack you at any minute, or an audience waiting to hear you speak! You’ve had all the clues – visual, auditory etc – that your body needs to identify a potentially dangerous situation. It has started pumping adrenaline round your body – a chemical sending messages to your muscles – to get you ready to run away or deal with this threat. And this is at the very time when you want to appear calm and confident.

What can you do about it?
‘Lots’ is the answer. So many factors can contribute to lack of confidence in a speaker. Far too many to go into here. However, our many, many clients over the years have found of the following pointers helpful: (I’ve included video links, for those who want to know more.)

Firstly, you have much more control over your own ‘state’ than you probably realise. When we feel anxious, how does this affect our body language and our voice. Try it now: ‘be’ anxious for a moment. Now change and ‘be’ happy. Feel the difference? Our mind and body work together, and the wonderful thing is that if we feel nervous or stressed we can change how we feel by what we do physically.


You can mitigate most of the negative effects of excessive nerves by doing a few simple exercises beforehand, the memory of which your body will retain. You know how going for a walk can allay anxiety? Same principle. Do something active – this can be as simple as a few arm swings and knee bends in a handy private corridor or loo!


Breathing well is the key to slowing the adrenaline flow as the more oxygen you take in, the slower your heart rate. Once you’ve calmed down your blood flow your whole body starts to relax. Try this: The flower and candle breathing exercise is a useful one to remember, particularly in times of stress. Sit, well balanced, to the front of a chair. Make sure you are not slumped in any way. Lean forward and imagine you are picking up an exotic flower or a really wonderfully scented rose. Breathe in the scent, savouring every moment. Repeat, slowly a few times. Then, dispense with the action of holding up the flower, but keep the same thought, and when you breathe out imagine there is a lit candle in front of you. Blow steadily on the flame so you bend it but do not blow it out. Repeat – smelling the flower and exhaling, bending the flame.


Confident voices are in the flow, not chocking or tight. Warm your voice up by humming and running through a few tongue twisters.


Of course, it is absolutely essential to prepare what you want to say and try to make your speech a conversation rather than a lecture. Rehearse it out loud too, as your brain reacts differently to your material if you only rehearse inside your head. And, this is crucial – don’t try to think ahead. Stay absolutely in the present. When you try to think what’s coming next, you lose focus, your voice will flatten as your mind and mouth disconnect and this is the time that confidence can drain away.


1. Prepare yourself and your state, as well as your material
2. Rehearse your material out loud, not just in your head.
3. Release unnecessary tension with a few simple exercises
4. Breathe
5. Do not think ahead, take your time and stay focussed and in the present.
6. Get older – this one takes a while but is inevitable. I’ve found that for me anyway, the older I’ve got the less I care about what others think of me, because I’ve realised that they are probably worrying about what other people think of them!

Cordelia Ditton, Director, voicebusiness
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twitter: @DillyTalk

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