Want to give yourself an edge as a speaker or presenter? Use the power of positive thinking to boost your focus and stage presence!
Do you golf? Ski? Enjoy chess? When you're about to have a serious discussion with your spouse or your boss, do you imagine how the conversation will go? Or when you're driving home at night, do you anticipate in your mind's eye that curve in the road up ahead so you can slow down in time?
In these situations and others, chances are you visualize the best way to proceed to give yourself an edge. That's one way of using positive thinking to achieve a successful outcome.
When it comes to public speaking, achieving success means moving your audience to the action you're looking for. Discover how to establish your credibility, connect with listeners, get your compelling message across, and use emotion to activate and inspire. Download my free cheat sheet, "4 Characteristics of an Influential Speaker."
Using Positive Visualization for Public Speaking
To speak successfully, you need to use the exact same technique, since visualizing delivering an effective presentation makes it easier to achieve that result. As I say to clients: If you’re going to spend the time and energy to think ahead about an upcoming speech, why not make your effort productive instead of destructive?
One of the best ways to do so is through a technique called positive visualization. This article explains the technique and gives you some opportunities to practice.
Readers of this column will recognize techniques for confident public speaking I've discussed in the past: cognitive restructuring, diaphragmatic breathing, body language, achieving stage presence, and using vocal dynamics. If you've incorporated these approaches into your speaking, you're now ready to “assemble” them, by visualizing how you’ll use all of these tools successfully. It’s a logical step, and a hugely important one.
Let’s look at how positive visualization works.
The Power of a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
Do you know about the white lines on the highway? When you're driving, one of the worst things you can do is to focus on the painted lines in the center of the road. If you stare at those lines long enough, you'll begin drifting toward them, i.e., close to or into the path of oncoming traffic. By directing your energy and attention toward the lines, you create an attraction between you and them. After that, it's just a case of you following your attraction.
Another way to say this is, when you create the right conditions for an outcome to occur, it's much more likely that that eventuality will take place. In effect, you're preparing for the event subconsciously and getting yourself ready to respond to it.
Now consider all of this in terms of public speaking: When you have an important presentation coming up, naturally you think about it a lot. Even if you're not particularly anxious concerning the outcome, you'll still give it plenty of "mind time." And if you're prone to speaking anxiety, the chances are excellent that you'll create negative scenarios about what's going to take place. (If you are an anxious speaker, here's how to calm your nerves quickly before speaking.)
You're now in danger of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. That is, you've established the right conditions for the very outcome you don't want to occur!
Two Theatrical Techniques Using Positive Visualization
You should also know that this is not a passive process. It takes a lot of work to undermine yourself as a speaker! But if you recognize the nature of self-fulfilling prophecies and accept your own power over them, you can regain the right path to speaking success.
Here are two visualization techniques from the theater that can help reduce your speaking anxiety while putting you in a more positive frame of mind. Although they're very different in approach, they're both examples of acting techniques for stage presence in public speaking. Try both, for each is easy and takes little time.
The Neutral MaskThis actor tool is a human mask that displays no expression whatever. It's typically a light mask made out of leather or neoprene, with an elastic band that fits over your head. Its purpose? The neutral mask doesn't have any dramatic expression, and allows the actor to explore a state of pure presence, in the here and now of space. With this mask the actor explores the state of neutrality that exists before the action. ... It lives in the present.
The neutral mask literally has no expression written on it. It is therefore a mask of calmness that exists only in the present. This means that the performer wearing the mask embodies tremendous potential: nothing is happening yet or is preordained; everything is possible from this point on.
Consider: by entering such a state if you have public speaking anxiety, your performance can be fresh and without strain. There is no self-fulfilling prophecy of failure waiting in the wings!
You don't need to buy a neutral mask from a theatrical supplier. Just assume as neutral an expression as you can manage, and hold it for a few seconds before allowing your personality to flow back into your face. For just as emotions elicit physical responses (when you're surprised your eyes open wide), the opposite works as well: assume a sad expression and you'll feel sad.
When you wear your "invisible neutral mask," you'll start completely in the present. That's exactly where you need to be to occupy the moment of greatest potential for your speech. It's no accident that "the present" and "presence" are linked linguistically and in terms of performance.
The Actor's BoxThis acting exercise calls for a completely different approach. Instead of inhabiting a neutral place without thought or intention, you’ll be consciously thinking about matters that are likely to intrude upon your focus and awareness.
The Actor's Box is an imaginary item: a cabinet, trunk, or box. Make it small enough in your imagination that you could carry it with you if it actually existed as a solid object. Actors use this box as a temporary home for all the little demon-thoughts that are apt to nip at them and spoil their upcoming performance. Here's how you can use it too:
Ten or fifteen minutes before you speak, find a private quiet place for you and your box.
Turn the key and open the door.
Now spend a few minutes with the things that are on your mind or bothering you today. The nature of the thought or worry doesn't matter. It simply needs to be something that you don't want to bring "on stage" when you're presenting.
Validate that worry or concern by thinking about it for 15-20 seconds. Give it some attention. If you need to make a decision on the matter, tell yourself that you will make a decision . . . later. Once you've spent time with each concern or worry, place it in the box.
Repeat the procedure for up to six things that you'd rather not have on your mind as you're about to speak.
Close the door to your imaginary box, and lock it. Put the "key" in a safe place.
Your worries are now safely inside your Actor's Box. Since you've given each of them a little of the time and attention they were clamoring for, they'll behave themselves while you're speaking. If you had ignored or repressed them, on the other hand, they'd certainly intrude on your thoughts when you could least afford to have them do so!
And if you forget to go back to the box and let them out after your presentation, don't worry. They're determined little critters, and they'll find their way back to you without any trouble.
1] Giovanni Fusetti, “The Neutral Mask – The Silence Before the Drama,” on http://www.giovannifusetti.com/public/file/lecture_neutral.pdf, accessed January 31, 2011.
 “Neutral Mask,” on http://www.theater-masks.com/neutral-masks, accessed January 31, 2011.
This blog was originally published in 2013. It is updated from time to time.
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