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Many people think that this type of visualization can help you not only speak better but also help reduce your fear of public speaking.

It may make you feel good at the time, but the scientific evidence doesn’t support the belief that it will help you achieve your best performance or reduce your fear of public speaking.

But there are other types of visualization that can help you in both these areas.

Visualization for best performance

The most effective visualization to improve your performance is a Process Visualization. During a process visualization you visualize all the steps necessary to get you to the outcome you want. So for example you visualize yourself:

  • preparing your presentation
  • rehearsing
  • presenting to a normal audience (some nod and smile, some look blank, some are playing with their iphones)
  • coping effectively with any problems that arise.

Process visualizations have been proven to be more effective that outcome visualizations:

1. Students who visualised good study habits did better than students who visualised getting an A grade in the exam. (Taylor S E, Pham L B From Thought to Action: Effects of Process-Versus Outcome-Based Mental Simulations on Performance Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Vol. 25, No. 2, 250-260 (1999)

2. Students who visualised the steps necessary to improve their tennis skills did better than those who simply visualised being better at tennis. (Singer R, Symons Downs D , Bouchard L , de la Pena D “The Influence of a Process Versus an Outcome Orientation on Tennis Performance and Knowledge.” Journal of Sport Behavior, Vol. 24, 2001).

Visualization to reduce your fear

The conventional visualization may make you feel good at the time that you’re doing it. But there are three drawbacks with this type of visualization for reducing your fear of public speaking.

1. It’s not believable.

That means it will only have a short term impact, if any, on your feelings.

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2. It doesn’t accord with reality

Neither does this type of visualization help you when you’re faced with a “normal” audience. A normal audience tends to have some people who are nodding and smiling, some people who are looking vaguely interested and some people who don’t make eye contact. When the reality doesn’t accord with what you visualized, any good feelings you may have had from the visualization will evaporate.

3. It doesn’t prepare you for when things go wrong

And in particular, this visualization doesn’t prepare you for when things go wrong. It’s like a sports team visualizing an easy game, where the opposition just melts away and they score effortlessly. Sports teams don’t do that. They study the opposition in detail and work out the strategies they need to deal with the opposition.

Rational visualization

However, there is a type of visualization that can help reduce your fear of public speaking. This comes from proven psychological strategies to reduce anxiety. It’s called a rational visualization or coping rehearsal (Froggatt W “Fearless: your guide to overcoming anxiety” 2003).

In this visualization, you visualize yourself doing your presentation – including all the things that may go wrong. For example, the datashow not working, getting a mind blank, people looking bored. You work out what strategy you’ll use in that situation – and then you visualize yourself putting those strategies into action and effectively coping with the situation. This works to reduce your fear in two ways:

1. You’ll develop some practical strategies to use when things go wrong. For example, you’ll make sure that you’ve got hard copy materials that you can use in case the datashow doesn’t work. Knowing that you’ve got a “Plan B” in place will mean that you’re less concerned about the possibility of the datashow not working.

2. In your mind you’ll have rehearsed coping effectively with things going wrong. For example, if you’ve rehearsed how you’ll recover from a mind blank, you’ll no longer have a voice in your head saying  ‘If my mind goes blank that would be awful’. Instead you’ll be able to say to yourself “I hope I don’t get a mind blank, but if I do I can recover from it.”

So don’t just visualize success – visualize the steps needed to achieve that success.

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