By Scott Weighart, Director of Learning and Development

The other day, our company brought in productivity consultant Erin Elizabeth Wells to work with all of us on “energy management”—coming up with action plans that would enable us to bring our “best selves” to work.

Over the course of the day, we were frequently asked to close our eyes and visualize a future in which we had already accomplished our goals for improving our physical energy.  The visualization process was a recurring theme all day, and it took some time.  We were told how to sit, how to breathe, and what to think about, step by step.

If this sounds a little “woo-woo” for your liking, it’s important to know that there is real science behind the power of visualization.  Erin told us about a study conducted by Australian psychologist Alan Richardson.  He had one group practice basketball free throws for 20 minutes per day for 20 days.  A second group shot on day one and day 20 but did nothing in between.  A third group also shot on day one and day 20… but they spent the 18 days in between visualizing the process of completing free throws for 20 minutes per day.

The results?  Group one improved by 24%.  The second group—which did nothing for 18 days—didn’t improve at all.  But the third group—the individuals who just visualized taking foul shots for 20 minutes—a day improved about as much as the first group!

This is old news for sports psychologists and sports coaches.  Olympic gymnasts, ice hockey goalies, golfers—just about any athletes—will use visualization as a preparation tool.  Many musicians do so, too.  Practicing a tough piece on the piano is valuable, but so is “seeing” yourself perform it successfully in your thoughts—even if you’re lying in bed.

How does this translate into a business setting?  To be honest, it usually doesn’t.  In fact, I’ve found that the majority of leaders don’t practice out loud, on their feet, prior to delivering a presentation.  As for visualizing the delivery of a great presentation?  If anyone’s doing that, they haven’t mentioned it to me.

I’m both a sports fan and a student of learning theory, so I’ve tried out this idea of visualizing a presentation before delivering it.  Believe it or not, I’ve found visualization to be a really helpful and underrated way to increase both my effectiveness and comfort level as a public speaker.  Here are four executive presentation tips on how to make visualization work for you as a leader

1. Remember that visualization doesn’t replace preparation and practice.

“Visualizing success” is no more than wishful thinking if you don’t have a smart game plan when it comes to what your audience wants and needs to hear.  You also need to practice out loud—in front of someone else if you can—to make sure that your thoughts and transitions are clear and powerful.  Otherwise, you might be doing the wrong thing the right way—mentally mastering a poor presentation.

2. Be as concrete as you can when it comes to visualization.

You want your visualization to feel as realistic as possible.  When I’ve had to deliver a speech in an unfamiliar setting—such as a conference in an unfamiliar city—I always like to see the room in advance.  I take note of the little things, like the wall color, the carpeting, and the light fixtures.  Then I can visualize myself standing in that room, speaking to the group, hitting all my points, and feeling relaxed and confident in the process.  I can go through that visualization while I’m at the gym, going for a walk, or even lying in bed.  When the real presentation starts, I just go back to that mindset.

 3. Develop visualization rituals that are easy to master and repeat.

Successful visualization doesn’t just happen—especially when you’re new to it.  It’s good to practice visualizing, following the same steps each time.  Our session on Monday was familiar to me, as it included many steps I’ve used: Putting my feet on the floor, closing my eyes, focusing on my breathing, consciously relaxing my body, and only then starting to think about whatever goal or routine I want to visualize.  Once you get used to the process, you’ll find that it can be a handy practice when you’re stuck on an airplane, struggling to fall asleep, or in any number of other situations where you would benefit from being able to “quiet your mind” and focus.

4. Build on your past successes.

A lot of the research about neurology indicates that visualization also can help you bring your thoughts and emotions back to a time in the past.  If I close my eyes and concentrate hard on the specific details, I can re-create the feeling that I had at some past point in time—how good it felt when something went very well.  You can literally feel a surge of happiness and confidence if you practice this technique… and you’re increasing your chances of succeeding in the present.

Neurologists believe that when you repeatedly visualize positive outcomes for yourself, it’s not just a nice idea: You’re literally strengthening your neural pathways and making the right behaviors more probable in the future.  This, in turn, increases confidence.  So it turns out that seeing really is believing!


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