5 Ways to Appear Underconfident—and How to Avoid Them

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Memed ÖZASLAN/Dollar Photo Club

​​You’re talented, hard-working, and a valuable asset. So why didn’t you get that great job or coveted promotion?

You may be missing the secret sauce of success: an air of confidence. If you believe in yourself (or at least appear to), others are more likely to believe in you. Projecting confidence gives you a career-boosting edge, whether you’re interviewing for a job, meeting with your team, negotiating a raise or promotion, or trying to wow a big client. Without it, you lose credibility and opportunity.

Following are five common faux pas that can “ding” the confident impression you need to make in the work world. You’d be surprised how many people—at all levels—slip up.

Fortunately, you can sidestep these missteps. Armed with some self-awareness, the pointers below, and a little practice in front of a mirror or video recorder (e.g., your smartphone), you can project confidence and make a winning impression.

NOTE TO INTROVERTS: Our society equates confidence with bold, decisive statements and actions that are directed externally and come more naturally to extroverts*. Introverts, on the other hand, may feel confident inside but not show it outside. Some of us must make a conscious effort to convey our quiet confidence. After each pointer, I’ve added a bonus “Introvert Tip” to help you do just that.

Kaspars Grinvalds/Dollarphotoclub

Kaspars Grinvalds/Dollar Photo Club

Misstep 1. Introducing yourself poorly

We’ve all heard the adage “first impressions are lasting impressions.” Did you know this has actually been researched and proven?

According to a study conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “Decades of research in social psychology illustrate the surprising power of first impressions. From contexts as diverse as evaluating classroom teachers, selecting job applicants, or predicting the outcomes of court cases, human judgments made on the basis of just a ‘thin slice’ of observational data can be highly predictive of subsequent evaluations.”

Don’t serve a “thin slice” of underconfidence when you introduce yourself to colleagues or clients. Avoid a limp-fish handshake, downcast eyes, a serious face, slumped posture, and a barely audible voice.

Instead, shake hands firmly, look the other person in the eye, stand straight, speak in a strong voice, and state your name. And of course, remember to smile.

Like it or not, your clothing and grooming matter too. If you’re job hunting, observe how your most successful colleagues dress and accessorize, and follow suit (with your own personal flair, of course). If you’re working, follow your organization’s dress code—and any unwritten one too.

INTROVERT TIP: Group interactions can drain an introvert’s battery. After a busy stretch of meetings and conference calls, take a break and recharge so you can present your best self at that important interview, networking event, or meeting. Your time-out can be a quiet meal, solo walk, or nap (just remember to set your smartphone alarm!).

Misstep 2. “Speaking” weak body language

If your words assert, “I know what I’m talking about,” but your body language mumbles, “Well, um, maybe not,” guess which wins?

Don’t let your body betray you. Here’s how to say, “I rock” in body language:

  • Make eye contact. During meetings and conversations, keep your eyes on others (not on your smartphone). If you’re uncomfortable looking people in the eye, shift your gaze to their eyebrows or forehead.
  • Put your best face forward. Try this at home: look in the mirror and talk about your greatest accomplishment (or pretend you’re your biggest advocate doing so!). Wear that self-assured, positive expression to work and interviews.
  • Align your spine. You can project power simply by standing and sitting up straight. When seated, lean in a little from your waist instead of curving your shoulders inward. This shows your interest in others.
  • Gesture naturally. Don’t fidget, play with your hair, cross your arms, or stuff your hands in your pockets (or jingle your change). If seated, don’t keep your hands under the table. Instead, gesture naturally, letting your hands highlight your words, not your nervousness.

INTROVERT TIP: The intro in introversion means “directed inward.” Introverts’ focus is just that, meaning we often get lost in the inner space of our thoughts. Unfortunately, our serious, pensive expressions can be misinterpreted as standoffish and unfriendly. The fix is straightforward: when in business settings, remember to smile, make eye contact, and focus on the world around you. (You can return to introvert default mode when you’re alone.)

Andrei Ureche/Dollarphotoclub

Andrei Ureche/Dollar Photo Club

Misstep 3. Not using your best voice

How you sound has twice the impact of what you say, according to a communications company’s recent study that caused quite a stir in business circles. Don’t weaken your image with an underconfident voice.

  • Vary your tone (the emotion in your voice). Don’t speak in a lifeless monotone. When you’re talking on the phone, your tone is especially important. To brighten your phone tone, smile.
  • Adjust your volume. Project your voice from your core, and use the appropriate volume. As a grownup Goldilocks might say: not too loud, not too soft, just right.
  • Avoid “upspeak.” No, “upspeak” doesn’t mean speaking up. It means ending statements with a “lift” so they sound like questions? This habit can make you sound tentative instead of authoritative.
  • Pace yourself. Give people time to digest your message. Avoid long, snaking sentences, and remember to pause. Rambling comes across as underconfident.
  • Um, avoid filler. If you think “um” looks unprofessional here, you’re right. That’s why you should remove “um,” “er,” “you know,” and other fillers from your speech. If you’re searching for a word, it’s okay to pause.
  • Enunciate. Don’t mumble. Think of a TV news anchor’s clear speech, and remember Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady reciting, “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.”

INTROVERT TIP: If you speak quietly instead of projecting your voice, heed the advice of Barbara Rubin, theater director, vocal coach, and teacher at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. She advises harnessing your breath and posture to power your voice, as she explained in my blog post “Vocal Power for Introverts.”

Misstep 4. Getting caught off guard

Curve-ball questions can really throw you for a loop and put you on the hot seat. Your voice falters, your body crumples, and you lose your confident edge.

Of course, you can’t prepare for every possible question or scenario. But you can actually prepare to be unprepared.

When you’re asked a question you can’t answer on the spot, don’t panic. You can buy time by asking the other person to clarify the question. Then state what you do know and offer to follow up later with more information. No need to overapologize for not having an answer at the ready.

If you’re rattled, take a few deep breaths to start calming down your system. Remember to use your body and voice to project confidence. And—you guessed it—smile.

INTROVERT TIP: Introverts often struggle with thinking on their feet in front of others. Taking an improv class is a superb way to build the mental “muscle” needed to speak spontaneously and respond off the cuff. The mere thought of improv may frighten you, but a good class is supportive, fun, and a wonderful confidence builder. I’ve taken several and can vouch for them wholeheartedly.

Misstep 5. Losing your mojo

Amid all the workaday pressures and challenges, it’s easy to lose sight of the gifts that help you shine. Your confidence can evaporate and your mojo can take a big hit.

To the rescue: “attagirl” and “attaboy” files. Got a written compliment from a boss, colleague, or client? Keep these kudos in an electronic or paper file. Expand the file by asking your biggest fans what they appreciate most about you. The next time your confidence flags, look through the file. You’ll feel better, and your body and voice will magically register the positive shift.

Jale Ibrak/Dollarphotoclub

Jale Ibrak/Dollar Photo Club

To psych yourself up before a big meeting, do what Harvard Business School social psychologist Amy Cuddy recommends: assume one of the following “power poses” for two minutes. Her research shows that these postures change your physiology, literally pumping you up with “power” hormones:

  • Arms up and chin in the air
  • Hands on your hips
  • Feet up on your desk (if practical where you work)

INTROVERT TIP: Take pride in your introvert gifts. Pat yourself on the back for being an attentive listener, thorough researcher, independent worker, and expert in your field—not to mention insightful, patient, and detail-oriented. Our society may not showcase these strengths in neon lights, but we introverts know better. (Besides, we’d feel uncomfortable with all that attention, anyway!)


*Also spelled “extraverts” by Carl Jung and the communities of the MBTI® and other personality assessments such as the Five Factor Model.

Copyright ® 2015 Nancy Ancowitz

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