October 22, 2012, 3:19 PM — Q&A: Cara Hale Alter
The founder of communication training company SpeechSkills explains how to project confidence and competence, the topic of her book The Credibility Code.
What is a "look of competence"? Most people believe that competence, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder. Truth is, however, that there are at least 25 specific behavioral cues that affect the perception of competence. For instance, you're more likely to appear competent if your head is level -- avoiding raising or dropping your chin -- and your spine is straight. You're also more likely to come across as competent if your voice is strong and resonant, your articulation is crisp and clear, and your pace is relaxed. Additionally, you're more likely to seem competent if you hold eye contact with others for at least three to five seconds. So, if you want to achieve a look of competence, learn the skills that can strengthen your posture, voice and eye contact. There are numerous other behavioral cues, but these skills are a smart place to start.
What are some common ways that people muddy their presentations? They use too many speech fillers (uttering superfluous sounds and words, such as "um" and "you know"), make extraneous movements (fidgeting excessively, whether bobbing their head, shifting their weight, fiddling with their jewelry, etc.), engage in too much self-commenting (overreacting -- out loud -- to their every mistake), and speak in "up talk" (using upward inflections that sound like question marks at the end of sentences). Almost everyone I coach, and this includes senior-level executives, needs to work on at least one of these behaviors.
Still, the single most pervasive problem is people's acceptance of being merely adequate. For instance, while speaking, they might assume that just because they're technically audible that they're communicating successfully. Now more than ever, though, it's critical to distinguish between what's adequate and what's optimal. To really stand out today, you've got to ratchet up each of your skills -- improve your posture, voice and eye contact, increase your energy and expression, and more.
Can a person look competent without being competent? Absolutely. Over time, however, the truth will definitely "out" someone. This is also the case when the situation is reversed: A competent person who appears incompetent will ultimately be recognized for his talent and abilities. The bad news is that in today's high-speed, hypercompetitive workplace, many smart, capable people don't get second chances. They are genuinely competent, yet in not knowing how to look competent, they miss out on key opportunities.