Here’s a mind-trick for public speaking fear that many of my clients have found very useful. Imagine that you’ve just given a talk and it’s gone well. You’re now successfully on the other side of it, and have just been congratulated by your boss…or you phone your friend and tell them that it went well.
This mind-trick – imagining that you’ve already successfully presented your talk – can work really well to counteract the negative, pessimistic thoughts or images which will inevitably surface at some point before you get up to speak (unless you’re a supremely confident speaker, in which case I doubt that you’re reading this post!).
I’ve used it for years, both for presenting and also in my life as a pianist with high-pressure concerts. In fact, it’s now my default “go-to” choice whenever I get edgy about an upcoming event….which can still happen if I’m tired or stressed.
An example of how I personally do it:
when I start to be aware of negative thinking or images about some aspect of the event going badly, I immediately stop them dead by going straight to this idea instead: I imagine phoning my partner Andrew after the event, which I always do (he never comes along to them, not because he’s unsupportive – quite the opposite – but because he gets stressed for me, no matter how comfortable I am; weird, but he is sensitive!). And when I phone him, Andrew always asks me “how did it go?” And I reply “it went really well”.
That’s it. It’s usually all I need stop the doom-loop: imagine the ‘positive outcome’ phone call. I do sometimes repeat and expand on the imaginary conversation, depending on whether I need extra help right then. Then I picture something after the event which I’m looking forward to e.g. dinner with Andrew, or just going home and watching T.V.!
What can you picture that’s positive after the event?
So what can you imagine happening successfully after the event? Can you hear the words of a phone call or conversation? Or see something positive in your mind’s eye?
A word of caution: don’t picture getting a standing ovation or rapturous reception, unless that’s what you’re anticipating will happen of course 😉 Your mind simply won’t accept it as feasible, and it will probably make you feel even worse. (if it does help though, embrace and build on it!)
There is a part 2, which I use if picturing and hearing the phone call isn’t enough to stop my negative thoughts. If possible, I immediately take practical action on the presentation I’m worried about. I may go and review my notes, or practise the opening words out loud. (I’ve known clients do this even in the middle of the night, if they’re stressing out, and it helps. It’s far better to get up and do something towards a better outcome than to lie in bed panicking.)
Why picturing after the event works
This works because it tricks your mind into thinking that you’ve already successfully given the talk, it’s over, you’re past it and you had a win – rather than how you probably usually see it: looming in the future like a never-ending massive blob of dark matter. It may also spur you into action to make sure that you’re as ready and prepared for the presentation as you can be. For example, you could:
- put in some extra thinking time about your message
- stand up and practise the opening of your speech
- explore other resources you may need to give yourself the best possible chance of success, given the circumstances.
When this trick won’t work for you
This will only work successfully for you if you’ve already had positive speaking experiences in the past. If you haven’t yet – or they’ve all been highly negative – and imagining a positive outcome is too big a stretch for your brain to believe, then it’s more important than ever to take action in the outside world towards preparing your talk. What usually happens with fearful public speakers is that they procrastinate out of the sheer awfulness of the whole idea, which then creates a self-fulfilling prophecy and the event then does go badly. If you recognize yourself here and you have a talk looming, get up right now or click away from this post and do something useful to prepare.
And remind yourself that you can’t succeed in anything unless you first expose yourself to the risk of not doing it well to begin with. Good public speaking can be learned: I see transformations and wins all the time in my work, often from people who initially felt terrible about their presentation skills.
You can do it too.