Presenting for Gold

Recently top athletes from around the world journeyed to Athens to compete in the Olympics. They had trained for years, even decades, for this competition. A handful surpassed themselves by achieving the best performances of their lifetimes. Most - including some who won gold medals - fell short of their best performances ever. Even Olympic athletes fall victim to performance anxiety.

Managers, too, are regularly required to demonstrate their skills in public. It's called a business presentation. Although the audience is usually local rather than global, managers face the same dilemma as Olympic athletes: how to be at their best in front of an audience.

Skillful presenters, like skillful athletes, know how to cope with the stress of performing in public. They not only master speaking anxiety; they learn how to make it work for them in order to ensure that peak performance takes place in public, not in private.

Four strategies are helpful in mastering speaking stress: Preparation, practice, positive thinking and physical relaxation. A previous article provided hints for getting the most from preparation and practice time. This article will address positive thinking.

Positive Thinking Is Not Wishful Thinking
"Positive thinking" is a term which is much used and much abused in our time. Purported applications range from stopping smoking to getting rich while you sleep. Some of these claims range from the dubious to the false.

As used here, positive thinking simply refers to the skill of managing your own thought patterns rather than letting them be driven by external forces. After all, it's your mind. Surely you are entitled to decide what it thinks! Yet this is a skill which few people develop.

Positive thinking does not replace the hard work of preparation and practice; it complements it. If you have neglected to prepare and practice your presentation, no amount of positive thinking will compensate. Skipping your homework and believing you will somehow get an A on the exam is not positive thinking. It is just plain wishful thinking.

Assuming you have prepared and practiced, however, there are some mental strategies which you can use to channel the normal nervousness which you feel in helpful rather than harmful directions. To do this, it is necessary to understand some things about the mind and how it works.

The Harder You Try Not to, The More Certainly You Will
Try this simple exercise. First, close your eyes for fifteen seconds and imagine a red rose. In your mind's eye, see its petals and leaves, smell it, touch it. Do it now.

Was the task difficult? Not at all. Now try another exercise. Again, close your eyes. This time, think about anything except a white horse. In your mind's eye, do not see its mane blowing in the wind, do not see its movements, do not hear it neigh. Try it now.

How did it go? If you are like most people, the harder you tried not to think about a white horse, the more insistently a white horse intruded on your thoughts. Ironically, until you were asked not to think about a white horse, you had probably gone for days, weeks or even months without thoughts of a white horse entering your head. It was only when you deliberately tried not to think about it that you could think of little else.

What's the connection with business presentations? If you tell yourself I will not get nervous, what do you think will happen? If you worry about forgetting a key point, what will you probably forget? The mind has an operating logic which is quite different from formal logic. In the logic of the mind, trying not to do something is likely to trigger the same thought pattern as trying to do it. As with the white horse, the harder you try not do something, the more inevitably it happens.

What is the solution? It's the red rose. Rather than letting your mind stray into thinking about behaviours you want to avoid, focus on those behaviours which are desireable. Think about being relaxed and in control of the process. Think about delivering a stunning presentation.

Sounds too simple? It's true as far as it goes, but we must explore the operating logic of the mind a bit more in order to understand how to apply it.

Thought Patterns and Connections
I'll illustrate with two personal anecdotes. About a year after I changed to a new job, I moved to a different house in the same neighbourhood. During the year when the old house and the the new job overlapped, I drove to and from work each day.

For years after moving away from that house, a curious thing happened. Several times a year I would get into my car after work, lose myself in thought on the drive home - and find myself in front of the old house where I had not lived for years. Most people have had similar experiences.

Patterns and connections are key operating principles of the mind. Driving between the old house and the new job every day for a year established and reinforced a particular pattern very deeply. And that pattern didn't just disappear because I suddenly ceased to use it. Over time, it did weaken. But even years later, if something triggered the pattern, it remained strong enough to influence my behaviour.

Helpful and Harmful Patterns
Patterns can work for us or against us, as I discovered when I was learning to drive as a teenager. For most young adults, driving represents freedom, power, autonomy and being "in" with the group. I had no doubt that I would learn to drive exceptionally well in record time. While I don't recall that I set any records, I did indeed learn to drive - just as I anticipated.

My grandmother was learning to drive at the same time as I. She had started the process many years before. Her driving - and her Model T - came to an abrupt standstill when she collided with a tree. As a result of this experience, she quit learning to drive. It was only decades later, after my grandfather's death, that it became essential for her to learn to drive in order to continue living in the countryside. For two years, she struggled with driving. Sadly, she finally gave up and had to move from the house where she had lived for most of her adult life.

For me, driving represented freedom, autonomy, control and mastery. For my grandmother, driving was an endless series of trees alongside the road, every one of which was a potential crash site. Other cars on the road, traffic lights and pedestrians complicated the picture further. For her, driving consisted of an infinite succession of accidents to be avoided. At the time, I couldn't understand how she could make something so easy into something so difficult. Now I can. She was always trying not to think about the white horse.

External and Internal Forces
The pattern which driving triggered for my grandmother was the result of a traumatic experience many years before. My pattern was mainly the result of high spirits and youthful hormones. Both patterns were largely created by external forces.

When we are stressed or anxious, the patterns which are triggered are sometimes irrational and usually unhelpful. The solution is to create, strengthen and trigger alternative patterns which are more productive. Several relaxed practice sessions in the venue where the presentation will be given is one way to help this process along.

Visualization is another alternative. Beginning at least several weeks before an important presentation, choose a quiet time and rehearse in your mind's eye what you want to happen. Visualize every aspect of the presentation in great detail. Watch yourself move to the front of the room (and note your confidence and relaxed air). Listen to your strong opening, and see your listeners hang on your words. Watch yourself (and your audience) enjoy the process of presenting. Take satisfaction in your strong closing. Observe in your mind's eye members of the audience as they nod in approval as you return to your seat.

Repeat the visualization exercise in great detail one or more times daily, always choosing a relaxed time and a place where you won't be disturbed. Be consistent in the details of your visualization.

Repetition increases the strength of thought patterns. By repeated visualization of yourself as a comfortable, polished presenter, you create a pattern of desired behaviour. The stronger this pattern becomes, the more easily it is triggered when you find yourself in the real-life presentation situation which you have visualized.

Psychological research has confirmed that "virtual" training using visualization has real effects on subsequent performance. It can help you - along with the Olympic athletes converging on Athens - to perform at your best in front of any audience.

Craig Collins is Principal Consultant of Orion International. He and his associates have helped hundreds of managers and professionals to sharpen their skills as presenters through workshops and coaching. He can be reached at