I recently conducted a survey in which I asked lawyers to let me know what professional and personal development topics they would be most interested in reading about. One of the issues that came up again and again was confidence, more specifically, how to increase it. If you are a lawyer who feels unsure about your legal abilities or interpersonal skills, rest assured that you are not alone.

One way to boost your self-confidence is to think about your track record of success. Your self-confidence may increase naturally with maturity and experience. Eleanor Roosevelt pointed out that “[y]ou gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’”

But sometimes, no matter what you do, you just can’t get yourself to feel confident. What do you do then? You pretend. And sometimes pretending leads you to feeling more confident.

Why It Pays to Project Confidence

Whether or not you feel confident (and no one feels confident all the time), it’s important to know how to appear confident because the impression you make on others will have a significant impact on their perception of you as a competent lawyer worthy of being retained, referred, consulted or promoted. Those with whom you interact may pick up on your fear or feelings of inadequacy and dismiss you without ever taking the time to analyze your smarts or skills. As legendary football coach and Pro Football Hall-of-Famer Vince Lombardi said, “Confidence is contagious. So is lack of confidence.” If you act like you think that you’re not worthy or don’t belong at “the big kids’ table,” no one else will, either.

Another important reason to lead with confidence is this: acting with confidence actually makes you feel more confident! A 2010 research paper published by Amy J.D. Cuddy of Harvard University and Dana R. Carney and Andy J. Yap of Columbia University demonstrated that standing in “expansive, high-power” poses (in contrast with low-power poses such as slouching) resulted in increases in testosterone levels (associated with power and dominance) and decreases in cortisol levels (known as the “stress hormone”). In addition to impacting those hormones, the power poses led to higher levels of confidence and an increased tolerance for risk. The research demonstrated that simply behaving in a confident way breeds confidence both mentally and physically.

5 Confidence Do’s and Don’ts

1. Give Yourself Permission. Whether you are appearing in court, negotiating a transaction, meeting new people or networking with a prospective client or referral source, some positive self-talk is in order. Speech coach and author Christine Jahnke, who has advised public figures such as Hillary Clinton and First Lady Michelle Obama, recommends that “[o]nce you are in the room, recognize that you belong there.” Remind yourself that you have as much right to be there as anyone else and that you have a great deal to offer.

2. Take Up Space and Engage Fully. As the Harvard/Columbia study demonstrated, you can “fake it ‘til you make it.” Stand up straight, make eye contact, participate in the conversation, use gestures when speaking, put your elbows on the table and lean in slightly when making a point or showing agreement with others. If you slouch, lean back, avoid making eye contact, sit in the back of the room or remain silent when you have something to say, you will appear – and feel – powerless. 

3. Get to the Point. When you ramble, digress and beat around the bush, you are likely to be perceived as less informed, decisive and authoritative, qualities that are expected of a competent attorney. Instead, make a powerful impression by staying on message, using succinct sentences, avoiding asides and distractions and clearly stating your idea.

4. Avoid Turning Statements into Questions. Everyone is familiar with the upward inflection that occurs at the end of a question. But many people put an upward inflection at the end of a statement when they are unsure of what they are saying or nervous about appearing too aggressive, thereby minimizing the impact of the point they are trying to make. To counteract the impression that you are timid or wishy-washy, end your declarative sentences with a downward inflection. You will sound confident and powerful and, even if your idea isn’t given much credence, you will be.

5. Eliminate Verbal Clutter. Um, like and “y’know” are fillers that you use to take up space while you think of what to say next. But they make you sound uncertain, insecure and even immature. Instead of filling in the space with meaningless chatter, simply pause and hold the silence. Allowing a bit of silence after making a statement can be incredibly powerful and is a trick speakers use all the time to ensure that important messages are heard and absorbed. Don’t be afraid of a little silence.

By following through on these five guidelines, you will present to the world as a more confident person. And odds are that you will feel more comfortable, too.

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