“A mountain-climber’s axe! A mountain-climber’s axe! Can’t I get that through your skull?” I said, ending the scene from the short play, Variations on the Death of Trotsky by David Ives.
There I stood, beet-red face in front of the college acting class, embarrassed by my horrible Russian accent, yet overwhelmingly relieved that I hadn’t caved into my desire to bolt out of the room.
At the time, I was a college student and third-year ROTC cadet, learning and practicing leadership skills with other future military officers. What prompted my decision to take an acting class (other than just earning elective credits) were the anonymous peer reviews I received that stated: “Cadet Semczuk lacks confidence.”
No mincing of words there. And while it wasn’t a huge surprise (I’ve never enjoyed trying to motivate large groups of people), I was still shocked at just how many of my comrades expressed this particular critique.
To be honest, I’d never thought of myself as unconfident. An introvert, yes—but not one who lacked confidence.
But regardless of how I perceived myself to be, I couldn’t ignore the peer reviews. They kept me up at night, and I wondered if it was my introverted tendencies that were making me appear shy and timid. So, I decided to push myself and to try something way outside my comfort zone: I signed up for that acting class.
And I’m happy I did because I’ve been able to apply the lessons I learned to other areas of my life, such as: leading soldiers, interviewing for jobs, giving presentations, and teaching classes.
My two biggest takeaways are ones I think about almost daily—and lessons I believe will help you if you also struggle with appearing less confident than you are:
1. Your Body Language Probably Needs Work
“Smile as broadly as possible and walk with the best posture of your life,” instructed our acting professor, as she prepped us for a fake audition exercise.
I smiled harder than I thought my face capable of, strutted into the room, and delivered the audition lines, exuding confidence. Or so I thought.
The class verdict? Needs improvement: “She leans a little too forward while walking, and she could pull her head back a little. Also, she touches her ear repeatedly.”
This feedback, which harsh at first, quickly taught me that for almost anything public facing—from acting to speaking in a meeting to interviewing for a job—I should “dial up the volume.” And not only with big smiles and good posture, but also with my personality.
Introverts tend to default to assuming they’re being more overt than they actually are. Case in point: When I thought I was smiling broader than a Dallas Cowboy’s cheerleader, the class thought I looked half-hearted.
And though you might not clock any nervous tics on yourself, always ask for another opinion. When you know your body’s habits (like fiddling with hair, lifting a leg, or chewing your lip), you can start to work on lessening those movements—which’ll help you appear more professional, polished, and again confident.
2. Your Nerves Are Holding You Back
In one of our very first classes, we warmed up with an improvisation exercise to help introduce the “in-the-moment” exchange good actors have when playing a scene. One of the tenets of doing group acting work, such as improv, is that you’re supposed to react to every interaction with a resounding “Yes!”
My “Yes!” came out more like an, “Eh, maybe” when it was my turn to spontaneously interact with a fellow classmate. I couldn’t figure out what or how I was supposed to act, so I defaulted to trying to play it cool because I was too scared to really put myself out there. My hesitation and anxiety hampered everyone else.
Of course, looking back now, it seems pretty silly how nervous and embarrassed I felt about playing what basically amounted to a game of pretend. Not to mention that by focusing on how dumb I thought I sounded, I killed everyone’s momentum.
It’s an ongoing battle for myself, but when I’m able to shut down the fear of looking stupid, I not only perform better, but I’m also seen as a better team player.
You too will feel more confident speaking up and contributing at work when you stop worrying so much about saying the wrong thing. Because if you want to be respected or be seen as a leader, you have to make steps to stop acting small, apologetic, or timid. Those traits detract from the real impact your ideas and words could possibly make.
Acting class helped boost my confidence, but I’m not saying you need to go out now and sign up for improv.
Instead, think about your habits and how they might be perceived by others. Maybe even ask a close friend or family member for an honest opinion on what you can work on and what behavior you can modify in the name of confidence.
If you’re hesitant about putting yourself out there in a new way—don’t be. You never know what you’ll learn about yourself unless you take that risk, and I’m telling you, it’s worth it.
Photo of smiling person courtesy of Caiaimage/Sam Edwards/Getty Images.
TopicsTools & Skills , Confidence , Getting Ahead , Acting , Communication , Personality Type , Introverts
Nina understands the struggle of a major career change. After snagging her first job at fourteen, she continued down the path of employment by pursuing a motley assortment of vocations. Ask her about her time in the Army, or her stint as a Harvard research guinea pig. Say hi @ninadawdles or ninasemczuk.com.More from this Author