Positive thinking is a powerful tool and, as such, must be deployed wisely if we’re going to achieve the desired result.
As someone who suffers intermittently from depression, I know how easy it can be to get sucked into a vortex of negativity – and I see signs of this spiral in clients who seek my help to overcome deep-seated fear of public speaking. Breaking the vicious circle of pernicious, enervating, negative thinking and replacing it with a virtuous circle of uplifting, energising, positive thinking is crucial to success. If we expect the audience to react badly to us and our speech or presentation to be a disaster, this is almost certain to be self-fulfilling.
The question here is whether the converse automatically follows: if we expect the audience to react well to us and our speech or presentation to be a triumph, is this as certain to be self-fulfilling? Well, it depends – but if you force me to answer yes or no, I’ll have to say no, because by itself positive thinking is not enough. In fact, by itself positive thinking can actually do more harm than good. It has to be backed up by action.
What prompted this blog post was Anna sharing on the Public Speaking Skills Facebook page an article about positive thinking in public speaking, written by a Canadian life coach (which you can read here). In it, she quotes Olympic swimming champion Michael Phelps as using visualisation to help him succeed. I’m a believer in this technique and I recommend it to my clients. If you see yourself in front of the audience calm, confident and in control – or calm, confident and engaging, as the life coach suggests – this is a good basis for success. It’s important to know what success looks like and visualising it helps to destroy any images of failure that may be lurking at the back (or the front) of our mind.
However, as I say, by itself this is not enough – and where I take issue with the writer of this article is in her assertion that “[i]t’s less about rehearsing what you are going to say and more what you want to feel and look like when you are presenting.” As I learnt the hard way on the Trans-Pennine Trail (see Set yourself up for success, not failure), a positive attitude is no substitute for preparation and training.
Blind faith that “it’ll be all right” is as dangerous as unfounded pessimism, if not more so. Michael Phelps did not get where he is today only by watching mental videotapes of himself winning: he spends hours every day training, planning and practising. In exactly the same way, success in public speaking comes not from simply visualising a cheering crowd but from careful crafting of our speech or presentation, being prepared for any eventuality and a lot of disciplined rehearsal.