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As a graduate student or postdoc, you’ve spent years doing research, navigating the intricacies of data and perfecting your skill. But all this hard work has no value if you don’t share your findings.

In today’s busy world, new ideas and discoveries change the future, so communication isn’t just a tool—it’s crucial for progress. As a researcher, you need to convey complex concepts with clear and engaging communication to make an impression that can lead to collaborations, spark curiosity, drive innovation and make an impact. Becoming a confident communicator is vital for success.

The purpose of this article is to empower you with the knowledge needed to build a robust toolkit for confident communication. With this toolkit of insights and strategies, you can enhance your ability to express yourself effectively, connect authentically with others and navigate communication challenges with confidence and competence.

Three Key Components

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, communication is defined as “a process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs or behavior.” Albert Mehrabian, a psychologist specializing in verbal and nonverbal communication, emphasized the multifaceted nature of communication and how it involves more than just words. Rather, it has three key components.

  • Content, or what you say. These are the words used, facts and data presented, and stories told.
  • Voice, or how you say it. This is your tone as you speak, and the sound, resonance, range/modulation, pace and variety of your voice. It even includes how you use silence.
  • Body language, or what we see. This involves eye contact, facial expressions, gestures, posture, movement, physicality and effort.

A confident communicator must consider all of these aspects. While content is important, the rest of communication is about making a personal connection between your message and your audience.

So, what do you do if you just don’t feel confident at all? Here’s a secret: You can look confident, even when you aren’t feeling that way.

Building a Confident Communicator

First, remember that as the speaker and presenter, you are in charge—of both yourself and your message. That means as the speaker and presenter, you are fully responsible for both your conduct and the delivery of your message. You must continually manage your presence and keep refining your communication to keep your message clear and on track, adapting as necessary to handle any unexpected situations or unforeseen complications.

Equally important is to be steadfastly aware of your audience. Your listeners are there to understand and engage with what you have to say, and as the leader in this interaction, it’s vital to consider their needs and expectations. To truly connect, you must prioritize their perspective and think about how best to serve them with your communication. By focusing on not only the delivery and effectiveness of your message but also its reception by your audience, you can create a more impactful and confident exchange.

We have several strategies and ideas that will empower you to feel and become a confident communicator. Equipped with these tools, in time, you can elevate your communication skills and adeptly navigate any communication situation with self-assurance and expertise. Similar to a well-equipped workroom, you must make sure you have a well-stocked toolbox with all the tools you need for effective communication. This is your starting point where everything begins.

Hammer away with practice.Just as a hammer is essential for building things, consistent practice and effort are foundational tools for nailing down confident communication skills. Practice is key.

Practice a lot.Practice can increase your confidence. TED talk speakers report hours of practice for those 20 minutes of live presentation. One TED talk speaker, Jill Bolte-Taylor, reportedly practiced approximately 200 times for her talk, and it was a huge success, with more than 23 million views.

Practice under pressure.Sian Beilock, president of Dartmouth College and a former psychology professor at the University of Chicago, explored in her book Choke why some people succeed and others choke in intense and high-pressure situations. The difference was practice. Not just any old practice but practicing under pressure. “Even practicing under mild levels of stress can prevent you from choking when high levels of stress come around,” she wrote.

Practice in multiple ways and avenues. Find different ways to rehearse your presentation. Practice—aloud, with and without your slides, while videotaping yourself for review, and in a variety of settings and places—quiet, loud, big and small. Practice in front of different audiences and solicit feedback.

Level up your nonverbal communication. A level tool helps ensure that things are balanced and aligned. Hone your nonverbal communication to help you give a level-headed presentation that engages your audience.

Maintain your stance. How you stand tells your audience something about your power and confidence. Are you swaying, walking backwards, resting on one hip or pacing without purpose? Consider that stillness, when you stand, is like a pause when you speak. It allows your audience to process what you say without any distractions.

Use hand gestures. What do you do with your hands when you speak? You talk with them. In social situations, you gesture naturally without thinking about it. Yet, when you speak in front of an audience, you may suddenly become unsure of what to do with your hands. Leaving your arms and hands hanging or gesturing from below distracts the audience, pulling their attention away from your face and your words, forcing them to constantly shift their focus. This makes you seem disconnected from your message.

Instead, practice lifting your hands and arms up so that your gestures happen at waist level, even if it feels awkward at first. Keep practicing like this and you will soon be using your gestures authentically. This is one way to use your body language to convey confidence, even if you aren’t feeling it deep inside.

Wrench the delivery of the message. Like a wrench tightening a bolt, fine-tune the delivery of the message. How you deliver your message can affect the audience’s interest and engagement.

Personally engage each person. Think about the specificity of your eye contact. Are you scanning over the crowd, or are you truly looking at specific individuals in the audience? Use eye contact to engage directly with people to help them feel more connected. Even if the lighting is bright and you can’t see anyone, imagine you can and keep on making your connection specific.

Remember to breathe. In informal situations, your voice has breadth and variety that match what you say and make you sound believable. However, when you stand up and speak in front of an audience, the variety often disappears, and you forget to breathe. To keep the sound of your natural speaking voice, practice aloud while you are doing different everyday tasks, or imagine you are talking to a friend over a cup of coffee. Observe your pitch, pace, intonation, where you pause, what you emphasize and how you breathe. Vocal variety helps keep your audience curious and engaged.

Tell a story. Notice the descriptive words you use and how you might tell a story to illustrate a point. Audiences love stories, and when you use persuasive language, metaphors or interesting descriptive words that light up the senses, you draw your audience in and keep them interested and absorbed.

Power drill through with effort and energy. A power drill applies force from the energy of its motor to do the job. You can apply energy and attitude to enhance your message. Your energy level should align with your message to convey authenticity and credibility.

Make an effort. Have you ever found yourself tuning out during a presentation? It is probably due to the way the speaker is using their energy. When a speaker does not put physical and vocal effort into their delivery, the audience will begin to disengage. Putting the right level of energy into your voice and body language has a significant impact on your audience. Try this exercise:

  1. Practice your talk aloud.
  2. Now, do an energizing activity: run, jump, or anything that gets your heart rate up.
  3. Then immediately practice your talk aloud again.

Notice how your increased energy level lifts your delivery, making it more interesting. Videotape yourself or even better practice this exercise in front of a test audience and get honest feedback.

Finally, one more thing to keep in mind is that nerves are actually good. People often relay that they just wish they weren’t so nervous. But experts have found that, although nervousness and anxiety are uncomfortable, the right amount of anxiety can lead to “optimal task performance” or improved performance, according to the Yerkes-Dodson law. So instead of thinking about how to take away that nervousness, use that mental arousal. You may not feel confident right away, but always keep in mind that confidence is about faking it until you make it.

Becoming a confident communicator takes time and effort. By consistently practicing, internalizing your information and using available tools to project confidence even when unsure, you’ll develop the ability to confidently convey your message and be perceived as a skilled communicator. So, tighten up your communication game until every word fits snugly like a bolt in its perfect thread!

Diane A. Safer is the director of career and professional development for biomedical sciences graduate students and postdocs and assistant professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

Susanna Baddiel is a professional actor, director and voice-over artist with 16 years of experience teaching public speaking, personal impact, presentation skills, leadership development and executive coaching.

Both are members of the Graduate Career Consortium, an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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