The truth about visualization for public speaking success

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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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8 Comments

  1. This is a really helpful post to give clarity on the ways that positive thinking can be helpful. Winston Churchill was quoted as saying “plans are not worth the paper they are written on, but the planning is worth everything”. This is the same in preparing for a speech – visualising the reality and knowing you are prepared for it is better than visualising ideal and then hitting reality ;-)

    • Hi Conor
      Great quote from Churchill and I like how you’ve applied it to preparing for a speech. The distinction that I would make is that this is not positive thinking, it’s rational thinking. Olivia

        • Thanks for the link to your blog – I’ve subscribed. There’s a lot of research on non verbal communication in other areas of communication eg: credibility of court witnesses. As with many other areas of speaking where there’s no direct research, we have to extrapolate (with caution) from other contexts.

  2. Interesting article Olivia.

    I believe that visualisation can be a powerful tool to shift the mindset away from fear and errors towards success and a positive outcome.

    The often missed area with using visualisation is that is must be combine with action! Tiger Woods doesn’t just imagine the perfect golf swing, he backs it up with hours and hours of rehearsal.

    I emphasize the important of rehearsal as a way to breakthrough fear and resistance with my clients.

    Warwick John Fahy
    Author, The One Minute Presenter

    • Hi Warwick
      Good points. And I would be more specific and divide visualization into three types defined as follows:

      Outcome visualization – where you visualize the outcome of your success eg: Your speech going perfectly, receiving a standing ovation.

      Process visualization – where you visualize the steps necessary to achieve that success.

      Rational visualization or coping rehearsal – where you visualize things going wrong and recovering from them.

      I think the self-help achievement field has often focused on the first one – outcome visualization and called it “positive visualization”. I agree with you that it must be combined with action – it will only work if you do take some action.

      But you’re more likely to take action if you use process visualization – because you’re actually seeing yourself taking specific actions.

      And yes – actual physical rehearsal is really useful too. Thanks for your contribution.

      Olivia

      • Very interesting article. There are a lot of assertions in the ” self – help ” field, where people tend to repeat ideas that don’t actually have any research to back them up ( I’ve done the same myself, I have to admit ).

        When helping people to prepare for presentations or training events, I always tell them to think of all the things that can go wrong ( they will probably do this anyway ) but then to plan for how to deal with them.

        Also, I encourage them to be flexible – e.g. don’t prepare a script, thinking that you’ll be able to stick to it and not forget what you want to say. What happens is that you rely completely on the script and, when something happens that interrupts you and makes you lose your place ( as it will ) you panic and can’t adapt.

        In all fields, I believe confidence comes, not from trying to avoid setbacks, but in knowing you can handle them when they arise. So your rational visualising is an excellent idea.

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