Confidence: it's complicated
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So now, with that clear – let's dive in.
One of the themes I keep orbiting around in my journals and contemplation is confidence. It's a word I've always had a complicated relationship with, and it's a theme that keeps coming up in the coaching conversations I'm having with other professionals. There seem to be people who project confidence (I suspect, often correlated with extroversion) who this won't resonate with.
And then there are the rest of us, who've been coached in professional development conversations that we need to be more confident or speak with more confidence or not cave to outside pressure or push-back as quickly as we may.
I was even coached during an ill-fated candidacy for a job with (ironically) a progressive political organization to watch a TED talk about "power poses" before my second round interview. That's a story for another day, though.
No matter how well-intended the advice or feedback, it's hard to receive with grace. It's kind of like a ski instructor yelling at me to relax, or my general practitioner telling me that I need to reduce my stress levels (with no medical advice about how other than "try meditation," which I'm already practicing). That advice is typically (in my experience) given about the performance of confidence. But performing in a more confident way doesn't actually help me feel confident (which is the more important goal, in my book)(since then the confidence flows from the truth).
So it's been a very long journey for me to find my way to authentically feeling increased confidence. In the last year I've made big shifts and progress on that front and have paid attention to the shifts hoping it's helpful for others (maybe you).
Today, I'm going to share a bit about how this shift has happened in the presenting part of my life, since I'm spending a lot of time in that mode right now pitching speaking engagements and then showing up for them despite my nerves, so it's really top of mind.
For some of us, what leads to a feeling of authentic, not performative confidence, is psychological safety and preparation. I'm not talking about perfectionism-fueled overpreparation – perfection is not the goal. But, enough preparation that we feel ready to handle what we expect and what we can't anticipate about the performance setting is helpful.
The presenting we can prepare for.
The questioning is often when the nerves kick up.
What might be asked that I'm not ready for?
What if there's someone who knows more than me?
What if someone disagrees with me? How will I handle it?
These days, I aim for a reasonable amount of prep around the pieces of whatever I'm preparing that are within my influence, including anticipating what questions and challenges I can anticipate.
And then I let go of my desire for control over who's in the room and how they'll receive me. Those things are beyond my control.
But I do have a few tips I've picked up along the way that have helped me maintain my calm when the going gets challenging.
Wear your own shoes
Understand and embrace your natural presenting style. Mine hasn't changed in 11+ years (maybe ever). I came across an old video of myself presenting at a conference about 11 years ago the other day and realized: nothing has changed. I still prep for presentations and speaking by (1) inviting in and exploring other voices as data; (2) developing my story; then (3) offering some helpful tool, resource or takeaway to help leave audiences a little more enabled than I found them. I'm vulnerable and honest and self-effacing, because when I try to be anything else, I feel uncomfortable: like I'm wearing someone else's shoes.
It's the same thing in persuasive presentations, with a couple of twists.
Activate your strengths
When met with a hard question or a differing point of view, which especially happens in persuasive presentations, you have options. Some of us aren't as strong at thinking on our feet (I'm not). I'm really strong at research and deep thinking and dot connecting (and not everybody else is). So there is a balance there. I can't expect myself to be both a researcher and deep thinker and always able to think fast on my feet. So when I get hard questions or am in a position that requires defending or arguing my position in the face of push-back, I no longer accommodate or get flustered or turn that inward (what's wrong with me? nope.)
I lean into my strengths and I get curious.
"Oh, that's interesting – tell me more?"
Asking questions gives you two things:
- A little more data to craft a possible response based on, and
- Time to listen and think, to make a decision about how and whether to engage with the question.
Asking questions slows things down, which is exactly what you may need to think more clearly.
Adjust your performance expectations for scripted vs. unscripted territory
The performance standard when we're in unscripted territory isn't and can't be perfection.
The performance standard in unscripted territory is to do what you can, with what you have, where you are.
Most likely, you're doing great in your presentation. Most of the room is rooting for you (while simultaneously being relieved they aren't doing the talking). The rest – we can't and don't control, and their reasons may be entirely beyond our understanding and control.
Our energy is better spent focused on winning with who we can win, and treating our skeptics with curiosity in case we can move them from skeptical to neutral with a little bit more data or explanation.
These shifts have helped me create better experiences for myself when presenting. I still get nervous, and I still have a tendency to overprepare, but I'm working on it (by doing less? that makes no sense. But I'm working on doing less overpreparation, if that makes any sense). And the more I feel the fear and do it anyway, the more skilled I get at managing my nerves and preparing enough but not too much for the performance setting at hand.
But creating a more positive experience for myself by applying these techniques to presenting helps me want to do it more, so it's a virtuous cycle. And then spending more time in my strengths instead of trying to perform like a character in a role also triggers a virtuous cycle to me.
When I left the relative clarity of individual contributor work to step into leadership years ago, I started finding myself in roles where I was not straight from central casting. There were performance expectations of me based on what our culture thinks leadership looks like that just, simply, are shoes that don't fit me. But I struggled to squeeze into those shoes, and to fit in, and to "dial up" my extroversion and none of it fit me.
I didn't think to refuse or challenge until I was asked to coach my team to those expectations: when I was put in a position to apply those standards of performance and "professionalism" (in quotes, because it was an antiquated, majority-culture-driven standard that I no longer am willing to honor) to my team of brilliant, talented, diverse background and viewpoint humans my answer was visceral: "No." I learned to share "feedback" that I was asked to as information that they don't have to act on (and here's why). And by treating those expectations and feedback that way with my team, I was able to make the shift to receive it that way when applied to me, as well.
And when I think about some of the most powerful presentations I've ever experienced as a viewer, they were given by super smart weirdos (a compliment, not an insult) who own and embrace their weird as a strength. Maybe it's not for everyone, but I'd rather feel great presenting authentically as weirdo-me than trying to put on a central casting character whose shoes don't fit me. And even if it only "works" with a small fraction of the audience, I'll likely form a stronger bond with them than I would if I put on an act to try to reach a broader swath of the audience.
It's been a long journey to get to this place, but what I know to be true now is that the more I move from my own center – trusting myself, embracing my me-ness, not trying to be or behave as something I'm not – the happier my work is and the more (I still can't stand this word, but it's true now) confident I feel.
This got long so I'll wrap it up there. I'm curious to hear from you: what's your relationship with confidence? What does that word mean to you, for better or worse? Have you found helpers on your journey to feel more of it, or are you wrestling with factors that diminish it?
You can reply here or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
P.S. a reminder from @yung_pueblo via instagram:
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