The Power of Visualization (Part 1)

Oprah does it. Jim Carrey does it. Even Olympic medal winners do it. The Public Speaker explains the power of visualization and how you can use it to achieve success. 

Lisa B. Marshall
4-minute read
Episode #204

by Lisa. B. Marshall

Oprah does it. Olympic athletes do it. Marine sharpshooters do it. There’s even a good chance you’ve at least tried it once or twice. What “it”? Today I’m talking about visualization. Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines visualization simply as the formation of mental visual images. Visualization is also referred to as mental rehearsal, mental practice, and guided imagery.


During the 2000 Summer Olympics, sixteen-year-old American swimmer Megan Quann earned gold, silver, and bronze medals. To improve her performance, she visualized every stroke of her upcoming race. By race time, she said, “You feel like you've already raced the race a hundred times. It makes it so much easier.”

The Power of Visualization (Part 1)

Sports Psychologists Know the Power of Visualization

Sports psychologists have understood for a long time that mentally rehearsing a strong performance is nearly as powerful as physical practice.

Since the 1960s, psychologists have been studying the effect of visualization on sports and skills performance. While the studies have used different controls and made different comparisons, most have concluded that mental rehearsal improves performance. Sports psychologists typically recommend a combination of physical and mental training. Studies have also shown that visualizing physical exercise can improve confidence, motivation, and mental strength.

Consider Dr. Richard Suinn, a professor of natural sciences at Colorado State University. He’s an expert on stress management and behavior therapy, and in 1972, he joined the Olympic sports medicine team, making him the first psychologist to be part of this elite group of doctors. In 1999, Psychology Today published an interview with Dr. Suinn, and he described  athletes who have turned their performance around through mental practice. He uses the golf swing to explain how visualization is used.

“For instance, if your golf swing is a little off and your coach shows you the proper swing, then during visualization you practice making that correct swing in your mind. It may be that your muscles start to learn through this visualizing practice the proper way of moving.”

You Can Use the Sports Psychology of Visualization to Improve Your Speaking

By now you may be thinking “This is interesting, Lisa, but I’m not an athlete. Why should I care?”

It turns out we can all benefit from visualization. When asked how mental imagery could be applied to everyday life, Dr. Suinn used the example of stress management. In his practice, he would help his clients identify the main triggers that cause stress in his or her life, discuss the physical reaction to stress, and then give them practical solutions such as relaxation techniques and imagery practice to control it. Visualization can be helpful in preparing for an exam, a job interview, and even in social situations. 

What many people don’t know is that you can use visualization to overcome speaker anxiety. I once wrote a researcher who studied this and he mailed me (this was before the days of email) a series of cartoon images –stick figures really—that he used to help his research participants imagine themselves presenting a successful speech. I’ve been using visualization for years to help manage my nervousness. 

I go through a process night before a speech and again on the morning before a speech. The key to a successful visualization is to be as specific as possible. I imagine myself in the specific room of  my presentation, imagine each part of the presentation, and also even imagine people giving me positive feedback. I promise to talk about the process in more detail in part two of this series.

Caution: Negative Visualization Can Hurt Your Performance

For today, I want to end with a word of caution. Studies have also shown that visualizing negative results can hurt your performance. I’m going to say that again because it’s so important: visualizing negative results can hurt your performance. If swimmer Megan Quann had mentally rehearsed her race using poor technique or seeing herself falling behind other swimmers, she might not have won all those medals.

Are you wondering “Why would anyone mentally practice failing or doing something incorrectly?” In fact, many people mentally rehearse negative performance as a reaction to public speaking anxiety. Anxiety makes us think about all the things that could go wrong: “I’m going to forget what I was going to say,” “I’m not going to do well,” “If someone disagrees with me, I’ll get flustered and not be able to effectively argue my point.”

Even for me, I certainly don’t consciously guide myself through negative visualization, but the anxiety can creep in and sneak in negative thoughts. The important takeaway from today’s episode is that positive imagery and negative imagery both have a powerful effect on the outcome of your performance. As promised, part two of this mini-series on visualization I will talk about how to use visualize to achieve successful results.

This is Lisa B. Marshall, The Public Speaker.  Helping you lead, influence, and inspire through better communication. Do you wish you got an email from me letting you know the new podcast is available? Join my newsletter to get weekly updates and get a free bonus.

Do you struggle with difficult conversations? Do you procrastinate when it comes to delivering feedback?  Do you know how to effectively persuade and influence others?  Learn this and more in my book Smart Talk. Radio personality, Maureen Anderson called it “The owner’s manual for your mouth!”  Visit www.smarttalksuccess.com to get your personally signed copy. 

Golf Swing image from Shutterstock

About the Author

Lisa B. Marshall

Lisa B. Marshall Lisa holds masters with duel degrees in interpersonal/intercultural communication and organizational communication. She’s the author of Smart Talk: The Public Speaker's Guide to Success in Every Situation, as well as Ace Your Interview, Powerful Presenter, and Expert Presenter. Her work has been featured in CBS Money Watch, Ragan.com, Woman's Day, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and many others. Her institutional clients include Johns Hopkins Medicine, Harvard University, NY Academy of Science, University of Pennsylvania, Genentech, and Roche.