How to Speak Confidently, Without Cockiness

When you’ve been asked to speak in front of a large group, it’s bound to give your ego a boost. And though speaking invitations do show the confidence others have in you, you’ll fare much better with your audience if you check your ego backstage. Here’s some advice on how to be a confident speaker without being cocky.

You have access to hundreds of articles, books, podcasts, and videos designed to help you control your stage fright, so you can speak with unmistakably impressive confidence and poise. I applaud those resources, and every colleague who directs you to them. Yet only rarely do you read, see, and hear guidelines for keeping that confidence boost in check-so that you won’t offend your audience by moving beyond confidence into cockiness. To remedy that imbalance, consider these methods for keeping your healthy ego under control.

First, when you speak behave like a guest, not a prima donna. Leave it to show business celebrities to require upgrades to first class flights and suites, complimentary travel and entertainment expenses for your spouse, and two free hotel nights after the event.

Stated more positively, act like a member of the welcoming and arrangements committee. Examples: Arrive early to meet and strike up conversations with attendees. Distribute your handouts, without requesting help from the very busy meeting planner. Ask where your host wants you to sit, without heading automatically to the head table. Identify the planning committee, and thank every one individually for their highly professional preparation.

When you start speaking, avoid sounding like a one-person dynamo. Sure, your credentials reflect that you’re a leader-otherwise you wouldn’t be addressing this group. But refer frequently to those who helped you get there. As some wise coaches have warned, beware of “I Disease.” Throw in plenty of “we” credits.

A vivid annual illustration: Football fans who watch the Heisman Trophy presentation every December respond warmly to a nominee’s speech when he says: “I appreciate all the kind words that have been said about my playing career. But I can’t take anywhere near all the credit. My mother and father encouraged me to train and play. They attended every game they could travel to. My coaches helped me develop my God-given skills. And those linemen up front opened the way for me to make those record runs and winning touchdowns. Plus, I’m proud of the strong support from this marvelous university.”

Similarly, the business speaker should express gratitude for her management team, mentors, support staff, and others who made her accomplishments possible.

Also, part of sharing the limelight is to tell success stories that revolve around other people. Yes, you can mention your own life and career story modestly, as long as you keep your personal recollections brief and shift the focus regularly to remarkable colleagues who will inspire your audience.

Think of how Paul Harvey became a beloved speaker, because he centered his presentations on events in the lives of ordinary people. True, he talked occasionally about his travels and his wife nicknamed Angel. Repeatedly, though, the heroes of his speeches and broadcasts were not the Harvey’s. They were housewives, nurses, educators, small business owners, young people, and humanitarians.

Another way to seem confident without exhibiting cockiness: Avoid excessive name dropping. Extreme blunders: “Let me share now what Bill Gates said to me last week while we enjoyed lunch” or “Sure good to be with your group again. Maybe you watched Matt Lauer interview me yesterday on The Today Show, so I’m not really a stranger to you this morning.”

Mention famous people and events only if they are highly relevant to your message. Even then, focus on their expertise, not yours. Admit that you were extremely fortunate to associate with internationally recognized authorities.

Closely related, remember that your audience did not intend to tune into the Travel Channel. Not only do they not really care where you have been or where you are going next, giving them your itinerary could become quite offensive. Have you heard opening lines like these? “Pardon me if I’m a little groggy, didn’t get much sleep last night on that long flight back from Hawaii” or “This is a lovely auditorium. Sort of reminds me of the cruise ship I spoke on last week as we spent seven days in the Caribbean.”

Chances are good that many of your listeners don’t enjoy the changes of scenery you get professionally. Beware, then, of stimulating envy and resentment by recalling your exotic trips.

Often your presentation will include a question and answer segment. In answering questions, stay away from sarcastic statements that could embarrass questioners, such as: “You’re serious…you really didn’t know that?” Even one condescending remark will mark you as arrogant and uncaring.

Also, the Q&A segment gives you an opportunity to admit that you don’t consider yourself a know-it-all. “Thanks for that excellent question, Evelyn. Although I have had some experience with the software you’re asking about, I’m going to call on your group’s vice president to handle your question, because Marvin has helped several companies get started with that system.” Turning the program over to another person temporarily suggests that you are comfortable giving credit to others, without diminishing your own authority.

In conclusion: Develop a healthy level of self-confidence, definitely, while acknowledging that others got you where you are and will continue to contribute to your progress. Be polite and helpful at every event, expecting no special privileges. Give your associates as much or more credit as you take for yourself. And never brag-just let your presentation reflect your quality.

Using the steps we have considered, you will display confidence without cockiness. Then you will welcome how much your audiences enjoy hearing you speak.

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