Whether you're new to a job you don't feel quite ready for, or need to prove you're prepared to take on a big promotion, sometimes you're forced to fake it.
Self-delusion—tricking yourself into feeling more competent than you really are—is often productive, research shows. The reality might be that you feel ill-equipped, but a few adjustments to how you present yourself and your work turn that initial sinking feeling into, "I can't believe I really did it."
So wipe your sweaty palms, take a breath, and get ready to jump in.
The tone of your voice can captivate or lose an audience, whether it’s in a board room of 20 or in the lunch room with two coworkers. Speaking slowly, in a lower pitch, and with good grammar are signs of competence. A lower voice correlates with higher positions of leadership, studies show.
Charts and graphs lend an air of credibility—even if the data isn’t adding new information—according to a paper in the journal Public Understanding of Science by Brian Wansink of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab.
Most word processing programs come with graph templates, so you don’t have to be a designer or statistician to create an accurate, attractive graph. Presenting facts and percentages alone washes over your reader in a numeric blur, but adding a simple line graph to your next progress report looks a lot more impressive.
Sixty-five percent of us are visual learners. Using slide shows, videos, and infographics to make your work more memorable.
Looking the part is also part of visual cues. If you’re standing in front of a well-researched, visually dynamic presentation with terrible posture and a distractingly wrinkled dress shirt, you’re undermining your hard work.
Mom was right. Our postures are terrible—hunched from spending days over a keyboard or craning down at a cell phone. More than half of our communication is relayed via body language. Friendly eye contact, a firm handshake, and good posture all affect how we’re perceived before we open our mouths to speak.
When you’re feeling like a fraud, remember how far you’ve come. Think about the accomplishments you’ve had recently, big or small, boosts your confidence when it feels easier to give up. Start jotting down what you accomplish every day, and those little wins add up.
Being humble and gracious is tough sometimes, especially at work, when much of how you’re perceived is weighed by what you’ve tangibly done for the company. Including others in your day builds connections of trust. And when you’re feeling frazzled and someone says, "How can I help?" take them up on the offer. Doing everything yourself isn’t a sign of masterful work ethic—it’s a symptom of mistrust, unhealthy perfectionism, and a precursor to burnout.
All of this aside, being true to yourself is a big factor in how competent you appear.
Pushing yourself outside of your professional comfort zone is one thing: Waiting until you’re ready to take on a new project or welcome extra responsibility, and the opportunity passes by. But pretending you’re fine when you’re constantly stretched to the limit is another.
"Acting with a sense of authenticity means being yourself wherever you are," says Stewart Friedman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. Being convincingly competent—even when you feel like you’re in over your head—"starts with knowing what you care about, and then being able to express that in ways other people can relate to," he says.