It’s time to start trusting your unconscious mind. Most of us get the occasional hunches, intuition, or gut feel – and we either act on them or don’t. When we don’t, we usually regret it afterward. If only I had put my entire paycheck on red like my gut was telling me!

OK, so don’t gamble huge sums on a hunch unless you can afford to lose them.

But you should listen to your unconscious mind. In fact, new research reported on in Psychological Science shows that your unconscious mind is more able that you realize – and in ways that are specifically useful for public speakers.

It turns out that your brain – the part you’re not aware of, the unconscious mind – can scan a crowd for about one-fifth of a second and figure out which way they’re looking. What they’re paying attention to, what they care about, in fact. In half a second, we can get the gist of their emotions. We can estimate the male-female ratio pretty effectively. We can even estimate how big the people are, on average.

Now, a fifth of a second is not long enough to look at each of the individual faces, so the mind must be able to take in the group in some way. The scientists call this “ensemble coding,” which in plain language means, “figuring out what the group is up to.”

So let’s say you’re giving a speech, and you want to know if the audience is paying attention. You can determine that in a fifth of a second, because where someone is looking is a reasonable measure of what they’re paying attention to, on average.

If you want to know how the audience is feeling about what you’re telling them, it will take a little longer – a half-second.

Another study showed that you can pause for up to six seconds before the audience thinks something is wrong, so you’ve got plenty of time to check in with them, take a swig of water, or ask, “Does anyone have any questions?” before anyone will fear for your safety.

Many speakers keep talking, keep filling the silences, because they’re afraid of letting those silences last, fearing that the audience will stop listening to them. In fact, the opposite is true. Silences allow audiences to refresh their attention.

I’ve blogged many times before about the importance of pausing in speaking. Now, here’s another reason. Pause to allow yourself to check in with the data your unconscious mind is feeding you. Get a read on that audience.

That vital intelligence might allow you to re-focus your talk if you see that the audience is not understanding you, or open the floor to questions, if you sense that the audience is chewing on something particularly meaty that you’ve said. Or that quick read of the audience might simply give you a boost of confidence, because you can see that the audience is happy, basking you in the warm glow of their attention.

And there’s a darker reason to pay attention to the messages your unconscious mind is sending you.

When you don’t bring your unconscious mind under conscious control, you let the little cat-sized brain in your gut run the show. You let patterns and experiences from your past dictate your action in the present. It’s as if an athlete training for a big race found herself occasionally running sideways or flailing her arms in random ways, just because she did that once as a kid to avoid something scary.

If you’re just running in a friendly competition, your occasionally bizarre performance won’t matter much. But if you suddenly find yourself in the Olympics, the subtleties matter enormously. In that rare circle where hundredths of a second make the difference between the winning platform and a footnote, everything matters – especially your unconscious mind.

The same is true in public speaking. You can get away with a good deal when the stakes are low. But as you rise through the ranks, your hostility toward certain kinds of people, or your tendency to procrastinate, or your idea that people should be able to read your mind, or any one of a thousand other counterproductive beliefs I’ve seen people act on will start to damage your ability to get the job done.

Trust your unconscious mind. Get to know it. It can help you. And if you ignore it, it can trip you up. When the stakes are high, you need your entire mind working for you, not just the conscious part.

A portion of this blog was adapted from my new book, Power Cues. If you’re interested in reading more about how the unconscious mind can enhance or detract from our communications efforts, you can order it here.




  1. I agree! Your unconscious mind is such an amazing tool that most people don’t have proper access to because they haven’t spent the time to unlock it yet. There is a reason why your brain gives you instinctual urges sometimes. Because it’s right. I have done a lot of meditation, which so far has been awesome, but I want to learn more. Have you done any hypnotherapy before?

    1. Thanks, Chase — I did hypnotherapy once to get over an irrational fear, but my results were inconclusive — it kinda worked, but kinda didn’t. Time seemed to heal more effectively. So a mixed thing. Let me know if you try it if it works for you!

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