Meet Ian Cunliffe.  His public speaking journey is an extraordinary one, from fearful to joyful, from never-going-to-speak-in-public to competing in world championships, from amateur to coaching others.  You can read about Ian in more detail here.  But for this post I’m going to focus on one particular aspect of Ian’s journey:  visualization.  Because it’s the use of visualization that has, in part, allowed Ian to come as far as he has as fast as he has as a public speaker.  It’s a technique that’s as underutilized by speakers as it is relied upon by world-class athletes.  It’s time for speakers to understand visualization better and begin to use it more extensively.


Nick:  How did you first discover the idea of visualization?

Ian:  I came to the idea of visualization indirectly, as a result of a conversation I had about 2 years ago with 2000 World Champion of Public Speaking Ed Tate. I had been speaking for about 6 months, and by luck or fate I found myself competing at the District 21 finals with Toastmasters in British Columbia.

I had made it to the final 10 speakers in British Columbia without really understanding how I had managed to get myself there in the first place, and ultimately I failed to make it through to the final 3. I was sitting in the lobby outside the convention hall afterwards, sorting through the experience, when I noticed that Ed Tate was standing just a few feet away. I went over to him and introduced myself, explaining that I was an admirer of his work.

It turns out that Ed had seen my performance. He took a moment to offer me some very kind words that bolstered my confidence, and then he proceeded to take the next 2 minutes to share with me more penetrating insight into the nature of effective speaking then I’ve ever experienced before or since that conversation.

During that brief exchange, Ed helped me to completely rethink my purpose and goals as a public speaker.  To say I was impressed would be an understatement. I realized at that moment that if I was going to perform at a world champion level, then I was going to have to study how world champions prepare to perform. Over the following year I became a sponge, soaking up every bit of insight and wisdom I could get my hands on about how top level performers prepare to take the stage. And one of the things that kept coming up again and again was the idea of preparation through visualization.

Nick: How did you structure your own visualization program?

Ian: My goal as a speaker is to tell powerful emotional stories with a message and purpose that will positively impact the lives of those I share them with. But in order to really do that, it is necessary for me as a speaker to draw forth from myself some things that are deeply personal. Experiences, stories, and emotions that you don’t always share with people close to you, let alone with a group of 300 strangers.

So the first think I do is to try to visualize the crowd and their reaction to me and my speech. I then work to see the crowd deeply engaged with me and me with them. Once I have this clearly in my mind I try to gradually shift my mental picture from me engaging with the crowd (which is still a sort of ‘me’ and ‘them’) to just ‘us’ – sharing a powerful personal moment together where I can be completely honest, humble and candid, sharing the things that matter to me at my core without fear of judgement or rejection. Once I’ve got this clearly in my mind, once I can really feel it, then I know I’m ready to take the stage.

Nick: How long did it take to begin to make a difference?

Ian: Pretty much immediately. Once I was truly able to visualize a connection between myself and the audience, to really feel it, I found I was able to truly be myself and to share the pieces of myself that made me a unique speaker and gave my audience a unique experience that was profoundly real.

Nick: What changed as a result of your visualization program?

Ian: Well, for starters my audiences became much more responsive. People started laughing more at my humour, and responding more with their own displays of emotion in response to the vulnerability and openness that I was better able to share. On a personal level I found that I had gained the courage to be the speaker that I wanted to be, and not simply someone up on a stage speaking.

Nick: Are you still doing it?

Ian: Every chance I get. These days, the guiding principle that I use to gauge my own effectiveness as a public speaker is: ‘Did I connect?’  And visualization remains one of the best tools at my disposal to help me make a connection.

Nick: Tell us about yourself and your speaking.

Ian: I originally got into public speaking as an advocate for stronger public education in British Columbia. This in turn led me to explore competitive public speaking, and I’ve presently got my sights set on the 2014 World Championships of Public Speaking in Kuala Lumpur this summer. I also write extensively on public speaking over at

Nick: What makes you a great speaker?

Ian: Well I can pretty much guarantee that when you listen to me speak, I’m going to tell you something about myself that is going to have you laughing till your sides hurt, like the time I decided to see how many pebbles I could stick up my nose and the school nurse had to call the fire department to help get them all out. Or I might tell you about my adventurous idea of using bed sheets as a parachute. But I’ll also challenge you to give some thought to how you think about life, and I’m definitely going to engage with you emotionally. I believe my power as a speaker comes from my ability to help you to laugh, feel and think about your life.

Nick:  Thanks, Ian.  Good luck in Kuala Lumpur!

I’ve devoted a chapter of my new book, Power Cues: The Subtle Science of Leading Groups, Persuading Others, and Maximizing Your Personal Impact, to visualization — why it works, how it works, and how you can put it to work.  Power Cues will be published by Harvard May 13, 2014.  You can pre–order the book here.  

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