Every day that my schedule allows, I take my dog, Dusty, for a walk down historic Main Street in Suffield, Connecticut. Eventually, we pass the signature orange flags for the Suffield Academy, which bear the seal and Latin motto of the Academy: Esse Quam Videri. Unschooled in Latin, but always curious, I looked up the translation: “To be, rather than to seem.” Hmm…what does this mean? It turns out that people have been asking this for a long time!
Two thousand years ago when the Roman philosopher Cicero used the phrase he was opining about being virtuous rather than seeming to be virtuous. The playwright Aeschylus raised the question about being brave rather than seeming to be brave. The more you read, the stronger the implication is that it’s better to be than to seem. Well, sometimes we don’t get that luxury.
In my 20+ years in corporate America, there were numerous times where I had to seem more confident or powerful or brave or extroverted than I felt at the moment. Our coaches and seminar participants tell us that they struggle with this, too. For instance, in our Building Professional Presence program we share one of the dictionary definitions of presence, which is “the ability to project a sense of ease or poise.” and we almost always discuss that chicken-and-egg question which is “Do I have to feel poised to act like I am, or can acting poised actually help me feel like I am?” This isn’t an either/or question. In fact, we believe that being and seeming are mutually reinforcing (and so does the research).
When I’m coaching an anxious presenter, for example, we work on both seeming confident and being confident. Specifically:
One can seem more confident by managing the “mechanics” of confidence, which include good posture with an absence of tension, solid eye contact, expressive face, and a voice that is strong, clear and well-paced. All of these behaviors can be practiced and displayed regardless of the underlying feeling. This is a “fake it ’til you make it” approach.
The “reality” of confidence is actually being confident. Presenters tell me they feel most confident when they have knowledge of the subject and the audience, well-constructed content that is thoroughly rehearsed, and a well-rested, well-nourished delivery system (plenty of sleep and a good breakfast!). This shows up as “confident” and again, all of this is within the speaker’s control.
Mutual reinforcement occurs with successful presentations, which turn “seem” into “be” because the speaker has now experienced the feeling of confidence and can carry that forward.
At work, when we put on our game face and act braver or more courageous than we really feel, we are in fact stepping into a challenge that truly requires bravery or courage. When we triumph, we need to acknowledge that we might just be braver or smarter or more confident than we thought.
Have you had this experience? Let me know what you think.