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Unleash your confidence when communicating

Practising simple techniques will help you conquer your nerves and foster credibility.

Most people interact easily with family and close friends. But sometimes meeting new people, talking in a group setting, or speaking in public can cause anxiety, self-consciousness, and a fear of being embarrassed.

For finance professionals, communicating with confidence is key to helping managers, colleagues, and customers feel secure in their ability to perform at a high level, which can lead to a more successful career.

Paul Hatrak, CPA, CGMA, of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, owner of Hatrak Associates and author of Picture Perfect Business Success: How to Go From Confusion to Clarity in Your Business, describes a progressive journey to becoming an effective communicator.

Authenticity is key, he said: "You have to think clearly to speak clearly. You must possess confidence to portray confidence, and you must be credible to project credibility."

Hatrak and other experts provide advice for developing confidence and coming across as a credible resource when you communicate with others.

Know your audience. Whether you are addressing a client or a business associate one-on-one, presenting to a small group, or speaking before a large crowd, your nerves can get in the way of a productive conversation or an effective speech, Hatrak said.

One strategy for overcoming nervousness is to learn all you can about your audience, such as their level of experience or their roles at their workplaces. This helps you find common ground that will help you feel more confident when you speak to them.

"You will shine when you convey that you understand your audience's motivations by providing helpful responses to their questions and delivering the information they expect, with confidence," he said.

Prepare your message. Before making a presentation or going into a meeting, you must be clear about the message you wish to convey, said Atlanta-based Deborah Curry, CPA, CGMA, vice president and controller of Speakeasy Inc., an international executive communication consulting firm.

Preparation is the best way to achieve clarity in your messaging and to feel confident in your delivery. It will also keep you focused and help you avoid rambling and overexplaining, two traps that may cause your audience to tune out, Curry added.

"If you are not prepared for your presentation and appear to lack confidence, it distorts the fact that you are the authority on your topic," she said.

Curry advises nervous speakers to avoid overwhelming people with a lot of facts and figures. Instead, tell them what you want them to know and provide key points concisely.

"Remember, less is more," she said.

Ask questions. Asking questions and inviting feedback is a good way to break the ice, said Jay Sullivan, managing partner at Exec-Comm, an executive communication consulting firm in New York City. "If I ask my audience an intelligent question, and it prompts thoughtful responses, I will appear smart and confident," he said. "Being a good communicator comes down to asking good questions, and really listening to the answers."

Sullivan suggested posing queries that open conversations, help you avoid making assumptions about your audience's needs, and elicit what is important to those with whom you are speaking. Three sample questions are: What is on your agenda? What is most important for us to talk about from your perspective? How can I help you?

Use coaches and mentors. A communication coach or mentor can help you identify your strengths and areas that need improvement. They can also guide your practice sessions and provide feedback, Curry said.

From correcting your body language to helping you conquer your nerves, coaching can help you craft ways to deliver your messaging and build confidence in your ability to communicate effectively.

In addition to working with a coach, a great resource for building confidence is a close colleague or a mentor. This can be someone in your company or even outside of it who has leadership experience and good communication skills.

"A mentor is an excellent resource with whom you feel comfortable discussing your fears, sharpening your presentation skills, and even doing some role-playing," she said.

Make eye contact. Making eye contact and focusing on individuals in your audience can help calm your nerves and project confidence, according to Sullivan. 

"If I'm speaking before 30 people, I don't scan across the entire audience," he said. Instead, Sullivan picks out individuals, makes eye contact with them, and talks directly to them for full sentences.

"When I'm talking to that one person, they are the only person in the room," he said. "Most of us have the ability to speak to one person, and when we do that, it makes us come across as being more confident."

Step outside your comfort zone. One of the best ways to build confidence is to do things that make you feel uncomfortable, including public speaking, collaborating with others on projects, and talking to strangers, said Curry.

"This could be something as simple as participating on a committee within your workplace or scheduling a short presentation in front of your colleagues," she said.

Curry also suggested volunteering for a project or taking a leadership role in a civic organisation. Conducting a training session on a topic you are passionate about for some of your colleagues is also a great way to demonstrate your knowledge or share your skills with others in a safe environment.

"By taking it one step at a time, you will slowly increase your comfort level until you are a more confident communicator," Curry said.

Hatrak has found that successful people make a habit of doing things that make them uncomfortable, and that's how they grow in confidence.

"Embrace the moments you start to feel uncomfortable," he said. "Life begins at the end of your comfort zone."

Teri Saylor is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.