3 secrets to projecting confidence, according to science

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Your parents were right when they said to sit up straight, speak clearly and comb your hair: Research suggests demonstrating confidence is key to career success, lending credence to the idea that it pays to "fake it 'til you make it." That might be one reason why people who are taller or more conventionally attractive tend to fetch higher salaries — it's not height or hotness helping, per se, but rather the byproduct of extra confidence that helps them get ahead.

While you can't magically grow a few inches, there are certainly lots of other ways to improve your self-confidence — or at least project that cool aplomb until you actually feel it. From your posture to the words you choose, you're constantly sending signals to others about your fortitude: Even your gestures and facial expressions are a form of human communication that may influence how you're perceived. 

Worried about that big presentation? Trying to impress a prospective new boss? Stay cool — you'll probably be fine — though a few pointers never hurt. Here are three ways you can boost the confidence you feel and project.

1. Pump yourself up with rituals and charms

Professional athletes have an earned reputation for being superstitious and following certain rituals for good luck. Michael Jordan wore his college shorts underneath his professional jersey once he got to the NBA. Tennis legend Serena Williams bounces the ball five times before every first serve, but only two bounces before the second; five-time MLB all-star Jason Giambi wears a golden thong to break himself out of hitting slumps; and Texas Christian University head football coach Gary Patterson famously changed shirts to help turn around a 2016 game and help his team win.

These superstitions might actually have some use. In an experiment conducted by researchers at the University of Cologne, participants set more ambitious goals and outperformed others when they had a "lucky charm" with them. It didn't matter what the charm was — study subjects brought all kinds, from stuffed animals to wedding rings — but having a lucky token in the room might give you a boost, even if it's just because of the placebo effect.

Not the superstitious type? The same study found that having someone "cross their fingers for you" helped people perform better on tasks requiring manual dexterity. If you've got a particularly big day at work, you might consider asking a friend or family member to give you a good-luck phone call.

If that's no good or your friends aren't morning people, consider taking 10 minutes to write about your greatest value. Researchers designed this activity as a way to boost people's confidence after it had been shaken; they found it was about as effective as making a virtuous-seeming purchase, which is something else people often do when they're feeling down on themselves. 

2. Go easy on the "power pose" 

Some studies have suggested a correlation between strong posture and confidence, conviction and career success. Indeed, a TED Talk by social psychologist Amy Cuddy about the benefits of the so-called "power pose" is one of the most-watched talks in the organization's history. 

All that said, power posers might be getting a little ahead of themselves. One of the authors behind the original study affirming the helpfulness of power poses has since disavowed her findings. "I do not believe that 'power pose' effects are real," UC Berkeley psychologist Dana Carney later wrote.

When it comes to posture, a Goldilocks approach might be best: not slouched over but also not too ostentatious. A new paper in the British Journal of Psychology found that as important as posture may be, less may be more. In that study, researchers looked at how people were perceived in different types of dress and three kinds of poses: strong, weak and neutral. Results found that neutral poses were actually the most likely to be associated with competence. 

The reason? The authors argued their findings suggest it's unclear what's more important: embracing a strong posture or avoiding a weak one. For that reason, they wrote that "individuals should instead be encouraged to simply sit or stand in a way that is most comfortable or natural to them."

3. Know what words to banish

A big part of sounding confident is knowing what not to say. Experts on public speaking agree: Filler words such as "like" and "um" and "soooo" can make you sound unprepared and unprofessional. The solution? Take a breath. There's nothing wrong with the occasional dramatic pause — a well-timed silent moment can even help you emphasize your point. 

On a similar note, you should also try to avoid jargon in an attempt to sound smart. "People often hide behind a shield of technical language," Matt McGarrity, a lecturer for the communications department at the University of Washington, previously told Mic. "I certainly understand the desire to use jargon and plow through the talk, but it sounds more confusing than intelligent." You also risk putting your audience to sleep.

A good gut-check: Jargon is unlikely to end up in the dictionary, especially if it was a word or phrase invented by an overzealous marketer. Instead, keep your language simple. Plus, research suggests people who use clear language also think more clearly, too.

If you're a nervous speaker, your body may be to blame. Public speaking coach Gary Genard emphasizes the importance of proper breathing, to maintain focus and keep your heart rate down. Next time you practice a speech, look in the mirror to see if your stomach is moving as opposed to just your shoulders or chest. That means you're breathing deeply from the diaphragm, which will help you project more confidence. You also might use your shoulders and hands to selectively gesture in ways that emphasize your most important points —  just avoid flailing around.

A final idea to consider: Don't underestimate the importance of a good thank-you. One study found that people were twice as likely to help someone who'd thanked them for a previous favor as they were to help someone who hadn't. If you're speaking in front of an audience you don't know, take a beat and simply thank them for being there. This will create positive vibes and give you a moment to breathe before you kick off.

To be sure, everyone has different ways of pumping themselves up. But by keeping your lucky charms close, and staying natural, focused and comfortable, you may seem more confident — and actually feel that way, too.

Sign up for The Payoff — your weekly crash course on how to live your best financial life. Additionally, for all your burning money questions, check out Mic's creditsavings, career, investing and health care hubs for more information — that pays off. 

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James Dennin

James is a staff writer covering money and millennials. Send your tips and your money problems to jdennin@mic.com.

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