The Power of Visualization (Part 2)

Public speakers, performers, and athletes use visualization to improve performance and relieve anxiety. The Public Speaker offers practical tips for successful visualization exercises in Part 2 of this series.

Lisa B. Marshall
4-minute read
Episode #205

It’s not hocus pocus. For many years, psychologists have shown that detailed mental rehearsal can improve physical as well as mental performance. It’s that extra edge that can help you to accomplish difficult tasks in your job or help you to deal with co-workers and even family members. Today, I’ll cover exactly how to visualize to improve your performance.  Check out Part 1 of this series for more info on the Power of Visualization..

How Does Visualization Work?

Although visualization has been shown to be more effective than no practice at all, often a combination of mental and physical practice is most effective.  To be clear, when I use the term visualization, I’m not talking about getting “psyched up” or “daydreaming.” What I am talking about is creating specific images of reality in your mind. 

It turns out that our brain has a difficult time distinguishing between real or imagined exercise. Research led by Alvaro Pascual-Leone at Harvard Media School in 2007 had participants practice a five finger piano exercise two hours a day for five days, except half of the group was told to only think about practicing (they had to keep their hands still). The researchers used a transcranial-magnetic-stimulation (TMS) testing—the research concluded that both forms of practice (actual and imagined) physically changed the structure of the brain!

Our brain has a difficult time distinguishing between real and imagined exercise.

In 2004 a group of researchers from the Cleveland Clinic Foundation had a group of people practice flexing their pinky finger, again, some only did mental practice, while others did physical practice, and some did nothing. After 12 weeks of training, here’s what they found: The group that did a physical workout increased finger strength by 53%, the group that did nothing did not improve at all, and here’s where it get’s interesting – the group that only did mental practice showed an increase of 35%. 

How to Visualize Effectively?

So how can you learn how to do this?

The key to effective mental practice is specificity. Golf legend Jack Nicklaus understood the importance of visualization before most athletes had even heard of it. During his long career, he won 18 major championships. When asked about the level of detail he used during his mental rehearsals, he had this to say about visualization:

“I never hit a shot, not even in practice, without having a very sharp, in-focus picture of it in my head. First I see the ball where I want it to finish, nice and white and sitting up high on the bright green grass. Then the scene quickly changes, and I see the ball going there; its path, trajectory, and shape, even its behavior on landing. Then there is a sort of fade-out, and the next scene shows me making the kind of swing that will turn the previous images into reality.”  

Whether you plan to use visualization to improve your sports performance, to deal with speaker anxiety, or to help you with every day experiences, here are guidelines for making it work:

  1. Find a quiet, private place to do your mental rehearsal if you can. I’ve done visualization exercises in my closet and in a bathroom stall. Some people visualize in the bathtub or shower. Your mind won’t cooperate if you can’t relax, so try to find some place where you won’t be interrupted.

    I realize this isn’t always possible. But don’t skip your visualization exercises just because you can’t find a quiet place. I find deep breathing helps.  I often instruct my clients to go through their visualization exercise while waiting for their turn to speak. Physical location is important, but the ability to quiet your mind wherever you are is invaluable.

  2. Visit the location of your performance. Olympic athletes often go to the race venue beforehand to practice. They do this so they know what to expect and to help them visualize their performance.  If I can, I visit speaking locations before presentation day or I get there early. If that’s impossible, I have the host send me photos. For me, knowing the venue really helps.

    Visualize your performance from beginning to end. Don’t miss a step. I start by seeing myself waiting to be introduced. I imagine the face of my host, I imagine the audience, how many seats will be empty or full. I rehearse the way I walk, how tall I stand, the relaxed smile on my face. Then I walk through what I’m going to say. I visualize my confident body language and my open and engaging stance. I visualize a positive reaction from the audience. I don’t stop until I’ve mentally rehearsed walking off the stage.

  3. Visualize only positive results. We talked about this in Part 1 of this series. Sports psychologists believe that visualizing incorrect techniques hurts an athlete’s performance.  Visualizing failure has the same effect. If you’re too focused on potential problems and failures, stop your visualization exercise. Take a break, and then start over. Sometimes, I get distracted and have trouble sticking with the process. Sometimes I need to break up the performance into sections and I only practice one section at a time. 

Have you tried visualization? To what effect? I’d love to hear from you about your experiences. If you’ve got tips or successes I’d like to hear about them. Visualization techniques are not just for athletes and movie stars. I hope you’ll use them to help you improve your performance, calm your nerves, or build self-confidence in any situation.

This is Lisa B. Marshall, The Public Speaker.  Helping you lead, influence, and inspire through better communication. Your success is my business. 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. 

Visualization 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.