(Excerpted from the book by Scott G. Halford:  Activate Your Brain: How Understanding Your Brain Can Improve Your Work – And Your Life. Book available May 5, 2015)Activate Your Brain

The feeling of self-confidence may go up when we get better at something, but resist believing that confidence will always follow from competence. When asked what makes them feel self-confident when they are presenting, most presenters will say they feel confident when they “know their stuff.” Think about brilliant PhD scientists or engineers or any other subject matter experts who “know their stuff” and completely flop as a presenter. Their knowledge did not give them self-confidence. So what is it? They are likely focused on comparing themselves to others or imagining the worst possible scenario.

Their less-than-riveting performance may be weighed down by a little voice that whispers to them that great presenters don’t sweat or feel anxiety before they speak. Rubbish. All rubbish. The self-confident individual in this situation says, “I know my topic; it’s a normal physiological phenomenon to get a little anxious before presenting; it’s actually a signal that I am alert; it’s okay to sweat in front of others—no one ever died doing it. Just go.” For some people, though, it is difficult to assume this mindset.

Our worries about performance, our comparisons to others, and our lack of confidence often lead to a third confidence killer: “what if” thinking, which can wreak even more havoc on our confidence. It’s a vicious cycle and it takes focus and attention to break out of it. For some people, it requires daily work. Here’s a method to calm the “what if” jitters that has practical application in other areas of self-confidence. See if you can apply it to your own situation when your confidence is hampered by worry over what could go wrong.


  • Visualize the worst possible scenarios that could happen in situations that give you a crisis of confidence. For our presentation example above, the list might look like the following: PowerPoint failure, microphone doesn’t work, you forget an important piece of your presentation, an executive interrupts your flow and wants to skip ahead to the middle of your slides, someone hijacks the presentation by going on and on about their own experience, someone challenges your data and the credibility of it, and any other nightmare you can think of that could realistically happen.
  • Assess the percentage of the likelihood of each scenario happening from 1 to 100. It is often realistically much lower than our fear-laden brain is magnifying it to be.
  • Now visualize what you would do in each scenario to recover. No detail is too small to think about. Your brain wants a plan. Give it one. You might even practice your plan by saying certain phrases out loud, by going through physical motions.

You can apply this to giving a difficult performance review, negotiating a contract, delivering bad news to a customer and many other scenarios. Often, what we “what if” about doesn’t take place; but calm the threat in your brain by being prepared.