My senior year of college I was part of a case competition team where we had to present to a panel of judges for the final round. To choose who would represent the team as speakers, we held a tryout of sorts with our professor. Five years later, I still remember my audition clearly—that’s how bad it was.
What went wrong? Nervousness and an over-reliance on notes.
Fortunately, public speaking, like most individual skills, has a straightforward path to improvement—practice. More practice → more confidence.
But there are also competencies where the relationship between practice and confidence isn’t quite so deterministic.
Take the fuzzy skill set of “leadership.” For a long time I thought of leadership as the sum of:
The problem, of course, is that you can’t just shut yourself in a room and “practice” leadership.
Credibility is not something you ever possess, but rather is bestowed on you by others, the accumulation of a multitude of interactions, big and small.
I’ve struggled with the confidence piece for a few reasons: imposter syndrome, scarcity of role models who come from a similar background, cultural and childhood influences, etc. Tactics like the ones below, in the vein of “Fake it till you make it,” have helped somewhat:
- Raise your chair and sit up in meetings.
- Dress comfortably and neatly.
- Talk twice as slowly as feels normal.
- Avoid upspeak.
- Maintain eye contact.
- Edit out gratuitous apologies, thanks, and qualifiers like “This might be a dumb question but…”
- Do some power poses before a presentation.
- If you have trouble speaking up in groups, adopt an arbitrary rule like “Contribute within the first five minutes” or “Chip in at least three times before the meeting’s over.”
My personal experience from applying these strategies has been unsteady progress—a sense that I’m targeting ad hoc symptoms but not the root cause.
And then, a small breakthrough. Our team was getting pushback on an experiment that was showing inconclusive results. Unsure of whether we should keep iterating or shut it down, I mentioned it to my lead in our 1:1. He immediately asked, “Do you believe that XYZ is good for Pinners?”
That’s when I realized why my old approach had always felt slightly off—it lacked the set of core convictions that supports and sustains confidence. Without it, the latter will only ever be a superficial facade. It’s much easier to build confidence as a by-product of credibility and conviction, rather than trying to conjure it out of thin air.