PowerCues_72dpiA recent study by cognitive neuroscientists at the University of Oslo found that imagining a series of images produced the same physiological responses as actually looking at the images.

That’s why visualization matters for speakers.  You need to imagine yourself succeeding.  In terms of your brain, it’s virtually the same thing as actually doing it.  Think about it:  in your imagination, you’ll set up the sequence of activities that leads to success in public speaking.  When you get up to speak, then, you’ll simply carry out a set of familiar actions.

You Want to Look Good, Don’t You?

You’ll look more comfortable, so you’ll inspire the audience and yourself more easily with your confidence, ease, and authority.  You’ll look like you’ve done it before, so you won’t have the tyro’s clumsiness.  And because you’re undertaking a familiar activity, you’ll be able to focus on other things that matter more, like telling a great story and connecting with the audience.

To understand why this works – and why its opposite is so dangerous – you have to embrace a fuller understanding of the way our minds behave than commonsense would tell us.

Here’s the surprise.  We have several brains, the familiar ones in our heads, and smaller ones in our guts, as well as an unconscious brain we’re completely unaware of – and they work together, but not consciously and not completely.

Who Put the Human Body Together?

In fact, the human body is an assemblage of systems that have a surprising degree of autonomy from one another, and that are all busy managing various aspects of our mental and physical lives. Nonetheless, they do communicate with one another, and that’s why the human assemblage works pretty well most of the time.

Except when we’re trying to do something difficult, like standing in front of an audience getting ready to give a speech to a group of concerned stakeholders in our organization.

In instances like this one, the polyglot nature of our bodies betrays us as often as it propels us to victory. The little brain in our guts may disable us by sending messages of abject terror shooting up to our big brains, the ones in our heads, causing embarrassing physical symptoms that become impossible for us—and the others in the room—to ignore. Or the big brain may make a mess of things by going blank at a key moment, causing us to fail to close the deal or wow the crowd when the chance comes.  Or our unconscious mind may sabotage our success by sending us a quick, unbidden reminder of that embarrassing moment in the sixth grade when we tried to give a speech and failed miserably.

Speakers Beware! 

The bottom line is that if you’re only working with your conscious brain to speak and push the slide forward button, you’re doing less than half the job necessary for success. And that perhaps is why most efforts to control nerves consciously are so ineffectual.

Instead, you want to start a new, more sophisticated dialogue, not just between brain and body, but between big brain, unconscious and conscious brains, little brain, and body. You want to ensure that your gut is supporting your big brain and body, and the other way around. You want to get all the systems working together to ensure that you’re operating at peak efficiency at those moments when you need to be at the top of your game.

To accomplish that important task, you must begin by visualizing yourself succeeding.

What’s happening now? The dialogue you currently have is mostly unmanaged and is a collection of old thoughts, both conscious and unconscious (mostly unconscious) fears, compulsive behavior, things that worked well once upon a time, and so on. It’s a mishmash.

The Jumble in Your Mental Attic 

To make matters worse, it’s an unconscious mishmash. Things your parents told you in moments of fatigue and pique, things that you’ve forgotten, shape your thinking along with lessons your body has learned about all the stimuli it has received since the womb.

And the unconscious brain apparently never forgets. Everything it has experienced is set somewhere in the 100 billion or so cells that make up our vast internal universe. But the way the mind works is that things that are repeated are strengthened, making stronger and more numerous synapses, so that the memory becomes more and more important to our overall patterns of thinking. We attach emotions to events to create memories. The more intense and more frequent an event is—as it strikes us—the more it looms large in our mental attic.

So, for example, if your brain links together the experience of choosing up sides in sports encounters in grade school with your popularity in later years, the social dynamics of your relationships with your colleagues at work, and your divorce, you may have a significant and largely unconscious set of beliefs about your ability to manage a team that kick into place when you stand up to talk to that team for the first time. You may find yourself self-sabotaging without knowing why.

The reality is that your conscious mind is beset by essentially random directives from your unconscious mind, some of which help you succeed in your larger purposes in life and most of which don’t.

How to Succeed?

So, to succeed at something stressful like public speaking, you’ve got to give your brain something else to think about, something to drive out all those random mental traps.  First, you’ve got to visualize yourself doing it right.  Then, you have to train your brain to replace those negative memories with positive thoughts.  I’ll talk more about that next time.

Part of this blog post was adapted from my new book, Power Cues: The Subtle Science  of Leading Groups, Persuading Others, and Maximizing Your Personal Impact, due out from Harvard on May 13, but you can order it now from Amazon, here.  


  1. Nick — I want to buy POWER CUES but I can’t find the way to do from your site. I’d rather buy directly from PublicWords if that’s an option than to go immediately to Amazon.

    Please advise. Thanks.

    Go Bruins!

    1. Thanks, Renata — I love your post and am delighted to find a fellow practioner in the world of the unconscious and the minds of our clients. We are like travelers at the beginning of a journey — there is so much yet to learn and explore about the human mind.

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